Poetry Sunday: Marge Piercy’s ‘A Work of Artifice’

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.

—     —     —

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.

7 thoughts on “Poetry Sunday: Marge Piercy’s ‘A Work of Artifice’

  1. What a fabulous poem! I haven’t encountered this one before – but as I have VIEWS about bonsai trees (I personally think it’s terribly cruel) I think it is a clever, powerful image. And sadly, far too accurate a comment on the plight of far too many women around the world:(.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is quite an image, isn’t it? And I always like a person with VIEWS. 😉 When I was young, I imagined that bonsai trees simply grew into their shapes naturally, and people loved them because they were rare. I was very confused when I learned the truth.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Even as a child, I recall feeling terribly upset at the thought that someone had stunted them in such a precise, studied manner. And when I tried to explain to my bemused family how I felt, I ended up dissolving into tears at their amused reaction.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh, that’s okay. Parents and adults didn’t spend all that much time trying to communicate with children in those days – not because they didn’t care, but because they genuinely didn’t think what children had to say mattered all that much… Unfortunately, I was rather a short-fused child so talked myself into a LOT of trouble:).

        Liked by 1 person

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