Mar. 25, 2004

In the Department Store

by Marge Piercy

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Poem: "In the department store," by Marge Piercy, from Colors Passing Through Us (Alfred A. Knopf).

In the department store

The women who work at cosmetics
counters terrify me. They seem molded
of superior plastic or light metal.
They could be shot up into orbit
never mussing a hair, make-up intact.

When I walk through, they never pester
me, never attack me with loud perfume,
never wheedle me into a make-over.
Perhaps I scare them too, leaking
some subversive pheromone.

I trot through like a raccoon
in an airport. They see me,
they look and turn away. Perhaps
I am a project they fear to tackle
too wild, too wooly, trailing

electrical impulses from my loose
black hair. They fasten on the throat
of the neat fortyish blond behind me
like stoats, dragging her to their
padded stools. A lost cause,

I sidle past into men's sporting
gear, safe but bemused, wondering
if they judge me too far gone
to salvage or smell my stubborn
unwillingness like rank musk.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the Feast of the Annunciation, the day on which the angel Gabriel is said to have visited Mary to tell her that she would become the mother of Jesus.

It's the birthday of novelist and poet Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, born in Brooklyn, New York (1941). She's the author of Buffalo Afternoon (1988) and The Autobiography of Foudini M. Cat (1997). When she was eight years old, she wrote a story about how she wanted to be an orphan and sent it to the Ladies Home Journal. Schaeffer said the magazine sent her an "extremely beautiful rejection slip," which "inoculated me against rejection slips forever."

It's the birthday of writer Toni Cade Bambara, born in New York City (1939). She's the author of Gorilla, My Love (1972) and The Salt Eaters (1980).

It's the birthday of feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem, born in Toledo, Ohio (1934). Her father was an antiques dealer who traveled all over the country in a trailer, and Steinem never went to school. Her mother's mental health disintegrated when her father left the family, and when she was still a young girl Steinem took over the cooking and cleaning. She loved to watch Shirley Temple movies, hoping to be rescued miraculously from poverty, just like the little girl on the screen. Her first book, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1983), wasn't published until she was almost fifty.

Steinem said, "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle."

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer (Mary) Flannery O'Connor, born in Savannah, Georgia (1925). She's the author of Wise Blood (1952); A Good Man is Hard to Find, and Other Stories (1955); The Violent Bear It Away (1960); and Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965). Her novel Wise Blood, about a man returning home to Tennessee from World War II, begins: "Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car. . . . Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock, who was facing Motes in the section, said that she thought the early evening like this was the prettiest time of day and she asked him if he didn't think so too. She was a fat woman with pink collars and cuffs and pear-shaped legs that slanted off the train seat and didn't reach the floor. . . . He looked at her a second and, without answering, leaned forward and stared down the length of the car again."

When O'Connor was diagnosed with lupus—the same disease that killed her father—at the age of twenty-six, she went home to live on her mother's Georgia farm, where she wrote much of her work.

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