Sometimes writing touches on the more suffocating aspects of life. Marge Piercy’s “A Work of Artifice” captures that tension between care and captivity perfectly.
American poet and writer Marge Piercy (1936-) grew up and came of age in the Midwest. She first began publishing her poems in the 1960’s, and much of her writing reflects the social and political themes of that time, especially as they related to women’s lives. In 1976, Piercy published Woman on the Edge of Time, which has since been credited as the birthplace of the cyberpunk genre.
Piercy’s poem “A Work of Artifice” similarly engages with the role of women in society. It begins by discussing a bonsai tree that must be cultivated and guided in order to form its shape. Without the care of man, the tree would grow much larger and appear much wilder than it does from in its pot. It quickly becomes evident that the narrator is hardly talking about a tree at all. For the narrator, the way that men control the bonsai tree is a metaphor for the way in which women have been controlled through “bound feet” and other standards of beauty and respectability. In this case, being loved and “pruned” means that neither a bonsai nor a woman will be allowed to reach her full potential.
In addition to the reading of the poem linked above, the full text of the poem, via Poem Hunter, is below.
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A Work of Artifice by Marge Piercy The bonsai tree in the attractive pot could have grown eighty feet tall on the side of a mountain till split by lightning. But a gardener carefully pruned it. It is nine inches high. Every day as he whittles back the branches the gardener croons, It is your nature to be small and cozy, domestic and weak; how lucky, little tree, to have a pot to grow in. With living creatures one must begin very early to dwarf their growth: the bound feet, the crippled brain, the hair in curlers, the hands you love to touch.