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Molly Peacock, The Paradigm of Piece by Piece
by Kate Light

n anthology, despite its best intentions, may leave a poet stranded with the poem or poems chosen to represent them, for one or two pieces can hardly be expected to capture a poet's full range. Some may identify Molly Peacock most strongly with her groundbreaking poems of overt sexuality (i.e., "She Lies," from Raw Heaven, 1984, is about masturbation); but much of her greatest work is found in her portraits of chaos and intimacy in family and relationships. Sometimes couched in intricate rhyme and formal schemes, sometimes more subtly formal, or in nonce forms or variants of traditional forms, they are groundbreaking in technique or expression. She reawakens forms, exploring them within a contemporary context--putting the New in New Formalism; her voice is utterly hers.

In the earlier volumes, when her challenge lay in forming something from the chaos of her family world (the alcoholic father who could "get mean"; her substance-abusing sister), Peacock's triumph was in creating vivid poems at once so personal and so widely appealing. Formally speaking, the poems are both rigorous and flexible; a sonnet may have extra lines or be missing a few, rhymes may migrate, or a poem may return to a single sound or sound family. (They are also formal in a more literal sense: formed of--containing and representing--emotional unrest, distress.) These relationship and family poems include "Say You Love Me", "How I Come to You", and "Buffalo" from Take Heart (1989), and Those Little Paperweights with Snow Inside (Raw Heaven, 1984). In these volumes, these poems may be found next to sonnets that thread a single image through, in all its ramifications, metaphoric, musical, personal ("That Leaf," from Take Heart). This is what one begins to mean by range.

The most memorable and moving family poem is the tour-de-force "Say You Love Me."

Say You Love Me What happened earlier I'm not sure of.
Of course he was drunk, but often he was.
His face looked like a ham on a hook above

me--I was pinned to the chair because
he'd hunkered over me with arms like jaws
pried open by the chair arms. "Do you love

me?" he began to sob. "Say you love me!"
I held out. I was probably fifteen.
What had happened? Had my mother--had she

said or done something? Or had he just been
drinking too long after work? "He'll get mean,"
my sister hissed., "just tell him." I brought my knee

up to kick him but was too scared. Nothing
could have got the words out of me then. Rage
shut me up, yet "DO YOU?" was beginning

to peel, as of live layers of skin, age
from age from age from him until he gazed
through hysteria as a wet baby thing

repeating, "Do you love me? Say you do,"
in baby chokes, only loud, for they came
from a man. There wouldn't be a rescue

from my mother, still at work. The same
choking sobs said, "Love me, love me" and my game
was breaking down because I couldn't do

anything, not escape into my own
refusal, I won't, I won't, not fantasize
a kind, rich father, not fill the narrowed zone,

empty except for confusion until the size
of my fear ballooned as I saw his eyes,
blurred, taurean--my sister screamed--unknown,

unknown to me, a voice rose and leveled
off, "I love you," I said. "Say, 'I love you,
" "I love you, Dad," I whispered, leveled

by defeat into a cardboard image, untrue,
unbending. I was surprised I could move
as I did to get up, but he stayed, burled

onto the chair--my monstrous fear--she screamed,
my sister, "Dad, the phone! Go answer it!"
The phone wasn't ringing, yet he seemed

to move toward it, and I ran. He had a fit--
"It's not ringing!"--but I was at the edge of it
as he collapsed onto a chair and blamed

both of us at a distance. No, the phone
was not ringing. There was no world out there,
so there we remained, completely alone.

One does well to explore this poem by layers, or stages. There is the story itself, a whirlwind. It is dramatic, almost cinematic, with many components combining to create the impact. To look closely at its construction is to see Peacock at the height of her powers.

A full range of expressive resources is being tapped. People explode in real time: they hiss, scream, choke in baby chokes, have a fit. (Peacock speaks as herself at that age, but uses her grown-up poet's powers.) To transcribe the goings-on requires, first, emotional words of course (rage, sobs, etc.), but then Peacock must pull out all of notation's expressive stops: italics for emphasis and for hissing, italics for whispers, capital letters for screams, and every available punctuation. It is a rare contemporary poem that cares, or dares, to use these tools to capacity as purveyors of dynamic range. In addition to italics both loud ("He'll get mean..." "It's not ringing!") and internal ("I won't, I won't"), screaming capital letters ("DO YOU?"), there is repetition ("Love me, love me"), stubborn concision ("I held out. I was probably fifteen."), and a panicked run-on ("The same/choking sobs said, 'Love me, love me' and my game/was breaking down because I couldn't do//anything, not escape into my own/refusal, I won't, I won't, not fantasize/a kind, rich father, not fill the narrowed zone,/empty except for confusion until the size/of my fear ballooned as I saw his eyes,").

As to the poem's rhyming, it is more intricately scored than it might seem at first look. The rhyme is surprisingly strict and yet not obtrusive; it is not stopping the forward rush. Paired stanzas form something like a distant cousin to terza rima, in the pattern ABA BBA. This works as an inner spring, tensile. The pattern admits slants (rage/age/gazed) and a unison (leveled/leveled/burled), but remains consistent throughout (again, the flexible rigor). The volume levels--the dynamics--run the gamut, then the poem lands on one unpaired tercet, underscoring "There was no world out there,/so there we remained, completely alone."

"Say You Love Me" comes from Peacock's middle period. After And Live Apart, 1980, Peacock had discovered form; when Raw Heaven appears there has been a radical change, and then a continuum to Take Heart, 1989, and Original Love, 1995 (which includes the wonderfully reflective "Why I am Not A Buddhist," and more sexually themed work, such as "Have You Ever Faked an Orgasm").

Paralleling the course of her life (she married Joyce scholar and long-ago love, Michael Broder; Peacock says "I am the 'I' in all of my poems"), Peacock next champions a neglected sub-genre of love poetry that she calls "married love poems." Within the new poems section of Cornucopia (2002), she also expands her former focus on short-form dexterity to include longer, spun out narratives. With the 2008 volume The Second Blush, she returns to the sonnet and the imploded moment, with a series of domestic still lives.

Though Molly remains the "I" in her poems, the "you" has undergone a shift (arguably, because of an internal shift in the "I"; not of identity per se, but of temperament). In the earlier books the "you" was really the reader; now it is has become someone else--perhaps her husband--and the reader is now an observer, not the confidante. While once the poet needed the reader to complete the poems, the later poems arrive complete.

The Paradigm of "Piece by Piece"

Peacock's work in genres other than poetry is infused with her poet's sensibility and vivid, inventive language. The very title of her memoir Paradise, Piece by Piece is an example. By memoir's end she has achieved the small miracle of piecing together a good life--and in fact, each poem is a microcosm of the miracle of step-by-step creation.

The memoir illuminates the poetry--and perhaps in more ways than she intended. The narrative pinpoints the moments of creation of specific poems; and yes, this literally shows her formation as a poet. But another aspect of the biography also offers insight into the style she developed: abiding until her college years her unpredictably violent father and hard-working, often-absent mother, young Molly was assigned to be after-school "parent" and cook to both younger sister and father. Early-assumed roles of teacher, safe-keeper, guide, and interpreter for difficult, patience-trying charges (alcoholic father, careless sister), formed her. When not trying to talk reason within an un-reasonable family, she tutored and explained elsewhere: as an academic advisor at a college, at Friends School in New York City (1981-1992), in numerous poetry residencies and appointments, in a full load of private mentoring. She became hyperalert to those who explain and to those who must be explained to.

This "explaining" sensibility permeates the first four books. The emotional, the metaphoric, and the imagistic are parceled into manageable doses that then add up enormously. Ane what better format for parceling than a poetic line? Complex ideas are doled out, words are repeated, ideas expanded and doubled-back upon; the effects build up piece by piece.

Meanwhile form, in turn, mentored Peacock, both as poet and as person wishing to keep chaos at bay.

She sought precision, chiseling out her truths just so (it is not quite this, it is almost that), to make things not only clear but safe--or at least to be temporarily enwrapped in the safety of trying. The sincerity of the trying is human and very moving.

In her memoir she talks of how one "trues the world;" her delivery of each precise, minute "truing" adds up to a world indeed.

I conclude with passages illustrating the piling-up, or parceling-out, style:

From "Breakfast With Cats" (Cornucopia, new poems section)

...I poured the extra milk in two blue bowls which had
reproached us with their tiny emptinesses
since we had purchased them in Chinatown,
never thinking of a single thing that could go in them
because we had only solid thoughts.
The milk was a liquid thought."

From "A Kind of Parlance" (Raw Heaven), watching a keeper at the zoo with the ailing penguin Rocko:

She called rockorocko imitating the gentoo,
a gently, glottal sound, but somewhat loud,
again, a few times, calling from her teeth.

She smoothed his head and asked
the questions, "What's the matter?"

"Are you sick?" "What's the matter?"
Just those questions, many times.

Here once again, the moment in "Say You Love Me" when the drunken father leans over the chair, pinning her to it:

          "DO YOU?" was beginning
to peel, as of live layers of skin, age
from age from age from him until he gazed
through hysteria as a wet baby thing

repeating, "Do you love me? Say you do,"
in baby chokes, only loud, for they came
from a man.

And one of my favorite step-wise examples, this delivery of a metaphor, from "The Distance Up Close" (Raw Heaven):

All my life I've had goals to go after, goals
at a molten distance. And just the way snows
in the distance, dense and white among groves
of bare trees, lessen as I approach and show,
not white, but a mix of mud and leaves among rows
of breathing trees, the fantasies that rose
from my young mind, guarded against my foes
mocking by my own mocking, lessen.

Regarding the truing of the world, from "Those Paperweights With Snow Inside" (Raw Heaven), a poem which includes her father pushing her mother down the stairs and also breaking the kitchen table:

          Not to carry
all this in the body's frame is not to see
how the heart and arms were formed on its behalf.
The use of the negative construction twice ("not to carry"...is "not to see") expresses how hard-won was the privilege to speak, or to see. A last example, from "The Valley of the Monsters,"
You might think I'm going to tell you where I've been,
but I'm writing about where I haven't been,

as yet. The Valley of the Monsters is a real place
where rocks are formed in monsters' shapes...

          ....Hah! I can
be audacious because I've been here before! I see
it's the Valley of the Monsters of my drunken family!

To experience more of the hint of the pedagogue, see many of the poems of Take Heart, which first name an emotional state to be explored and then unfold it as if it is being written in the moment. These poems are not only technically accomplished but are incisive, keen portraits of emotional states; their accessibility should not belie their depth. "The tragedy of a face in pain...", "The aftermath of death...", "Putting a burden down...", "The job in certain lives...", "When someone cries..." "What we don't forget..." "To become conscious of all around us..." Other titles point to an explanation: "How I Had to Act", "Feeling Sorry for Yourself"; or a directive: "Hold up the universe, good girl," "Heart, unlock yourself."

A Poet Who Gives Permission

Poets are often spoken of as "giving permission" to other poets, through the freeing examples of their work. Peacock has given permission not only in through her published examples, but in many cases in person, through her unprecedentedly widespread mentorship.

Biography and Summary of Works

Born in 1947 in Buffalo, New York, Molly Peacock's poetry collections are The Second Blush, Cornucopia: New and Selected Poems 1975-2002; Original Love (1995), Take Heart (1989), Raw Heaven (1984), and And Live Apart (1980). She is also author of How to Read a Poem...and Start a Poetry Circle (1999), "a book of ways to explore the romance we have with words we can't quite hold", and the literary memoir Paradise, Piece by Piece, in which immediate family is handled as non-fiction, while other relationships are partly fictionalized.

Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, The New Republic, Southern Review, Ohio Review, The Paris Review, and many other journals, in many textbooks, and in anthologies including The Best of the Best American Poetry (Scribners) and The Penguin Book of the Sonnet. She wrote and performs a one-woman staged monologue in poems, "The Shimmering Verge," with music by Andy Creeggan, which premiered in 2006. Work-in-progress includes an exploration of the life of the alphabet.

She is editor of the anthology The Private I: Privacy in a Public World (2001), co-editor of Poetry in Motion: 100 Poems from the Subways and Buses (1996), and General Editor of the series The Best Canadian Poetry in English. The first of her working-class family to receive degrees in higher education, Molly Peacock graduated with honors from SUNY Binghamton and from Johns Hopkins University, and has received fellowships from The Danforth Foundation, Ingram Merrill Foundation, Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, and the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the City University of New York Graduate Center (for Passion Flowers in Winter: A Woman Begins Her Life's Work at the Age of 73, a biography of painter Mary Granville Delany). As President of the Poetry Society of America (1989-1995), she was a co-creator of the Poetry-in-Motion program and the book How to Read a Poem...and Start a Poetry Circle (Riverhead/ McClelland and Stuart, 1999); her numerous appearances on radio and TV in Canada and the US have increased poetry's accessibility.

She has been Poet-in-Residence at the American Poets' Corner at Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, University of Western Ontario, Delaware State Arts Council in Wilmington, Bucknell University, and UCal, Riverside. Currently she is on the faculty of Spalding University's low-residency MFA Program and a lecturer at the 92nd Street Y's Unterberg Poetry Center. In 2008, Binghamton University Libraries established the Molly Peacock Collection, comprising manuscripts, correspondence, artwork, recordings and photographs, and ephemera. Formerly a New York resident, she lives in Toronto with her husband Michael Groden, a James Joyce scholar, and continues her pioneering one-on-one tutorials with writers throughout North America.

Works by Molly Peacock


The Second Blush. US: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008; Canada: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 2009.

Cornucopia: New and Selected Poems 1975-2002. W.W. Norton and Company/Penguin Canada, 2002; including new poems and poems from the volumes And Live Apart, Raw Heaven, Take Heart, and Original Love.

Original Love. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995.

Take Heart. New York: Random House, 1989.

Raw Heaven. New York: Random House, 1984.

And Live Apart. Columbia, Missouri and London: University of Missouri Press, 1980.


The Best American Essays 2007: "Passion Flowers in Winter", about the 18th-century botanical collage artist Mrs. Mary Granville Delany.

How To Read A Poem...and Start a Poetry Circle, a book on appreciating poetry, Riverhead Penguin/McClelland and Stewart, 1999.

Paradise, Piece by Piece. Riverhead Penguin/McClelland and Stewart, 1995.

Additional prose pieces in House and Garden.


"The Shimmering Verge," one-woman show in poetry and narration, with music by Andy Creeggan, 2006

The Private I: Privacy in a Public World, The Graywolf Forum Series, Graywolf Press, 2001, Editor.

Poetry in Motion: One Hundred Poems from the Subways and Buses W.W. Norton, 1996, Co-editor.

The Best Canadian Poetry in English, Series General Editor.

Molly Peacock
Years: 1947-
Birthplace: United States
Forms: Sonnets, villanelles, nonce forms, ghazal, unusual rhyme patterns.
Subjects: Love, eroticism, married love, family, childhood, alcoholics, domesticity, relationships, emotional snapshot, single image sonnet.
Entry By: Kate Light
32 Poems
The Academy of American Poets
The Atlantic
The Christian Science Monitor
The Cortland Review
Favorite Poem Project
The Frost Place
The Iowa Review
Light Quarterly
Modern American Poetry
The Poem Tree
Poetry Daily
Poetry Society of America
Poets House
Raintown Review
String Poet
Valparaiso Poetry Review
Verse Daily
Women's Poetry Listserv
The Yale Review

Bread Loaf
Poetry by the Sea


Barefoot Muse Press
David Robert Books
David R. Godine Press
Graywolf Press
Headmistress Press
The Johns Hopkins University Press
Louisiana State University Press
Northwestern Univ Press
Ohio Univ Press
Persea Books
Red Hen Press
Texas Tech Univ Press
Tupelo Press
Univ of Akron Press
Univ of Arkansas Press
Univ of Illinois Press
Univ of Iowa Press
Waywiser Press
White Violet Press

City Lights
Grolier Poetry Bookshop
Joseph Fox Bookshop
Prairie Lights
Tattered Cover Bookstore

92nd Street Y
Literary Mothers
Poets & Writers