‘The friend’ by Marge Piercy explores an abusive relationship in which Piercy is subjugated under her male lover. Although she tries to make him happy, nothing is ever enough, with his language dominating the poem.
‘The friend’ by Marge Piercy focuses on an imbalanced relationship. The male in the relationship controls the poem, asking for Piercy to destroy herself for his benefit. She tries to change everything he dislikes about her, moulding himself under his hammer. Each time he asks for something, she complies, destroying herself in the process. Piercy explores abusive relationships and points to a fundamental flaw in the power structure of this relationship. It touches on themes of gender, power, and broken relationships.
Piercy splits ‘The friend’ into three stanzas, each measuring five lines. The poem repeats a similar structure within the first two stanzas: exploring a situation in the first four lines of the stanza, with the fifth being Piercy replying to her lover. The final stanza differing in that Piercy speaks first, with the lover concluding the poem with his wishes.
The difference in allotted lines of speech reveals the lack of balance within their relationship, with the male dominating the poem. He is commanding, asking Piercy for more and more as the poem progresses. The final focus on the male asking for something implies that there is more to come, with Piercy seemingly never escaping her abusive relationship.
You can read the full poem here.
Building upon the aforementioned structural ideas, Piercy uses caesura to emphasizing the entrapment she is subjected to within the relationship. The use of end stops derail the meter of the poem, the controlled metrical pace being reflective of the controlling nature of her relationship. The man dictates everything they do, with the end stops representing this sense of control and entrapment.
Another technique that Piercy uses when writing the poem is the manipulation of pronoun. She separates the two lovers into ‘I’ and ‘he’, the clear distinction between them revealing their lack of connection. Although physically in the same space, ‘We sat’, they are mentally segregated. Commonly in love poetry the opposite occurs, with a couple being connected through ‘us’. Here, Piercy avoids this altogether, ‘I’ and ‘he’ clearly representing the divide and lack of love within the couple.
Analysis of The friend
We sat across the table.(…)I said yes.
‘The friend’ begins by focusing on a sense of physical separation. Although they are occupying the same space, they are sat ‘across the table’, each of them looking at the other from a distance. This distance is only slight, but the metaphorical gap between them is large, their lack of love being the first thing Piercy emphasizes in the poem.
Instantly following this Piercy writes ‘he’, the lowercase word perhaps suggesting that she does not value his company. Indeed, he is abusive and therefore does not deserve the capitalization that grammar denotes here. The blunt nature of his sentence, ‘he said, cut off your hands.’, emphasized by the use of caesura, compounds a sense of threat within his words. He speaks directly to her, without hesitation or care, he simply asks for what ht wants. He never considers how she might feel.
He justifies his request due to the fact that her hands are ‘always poking at things’. The use of the verb ‘poking’ could suggest a certain curiosity to Piercy, with hands obviously being a key tool for interacting and exploring the world around her. By asking her to ‘cut off your hands’, he asks to cripple her, severing a source of connection to the world just because they bother him.
The use of the conditional ‘might’ furthers the sense that his request is uncalled for and completely unfair. As if this request wasn’t already extreme, Piercy suggests that she hasn’t actually done anything for this to occur. He frames his idea in the conditional tense, ‘they might touch me’, wanting to prevent something that has not yet even occurred.
Piercy replies to his request, ‘I said yes’, the monosyllabic nature of this sentence holding a great deal of sorrow as she submits to his request. The use of end stop furthering this moment of melancholy as she agrees to his terms.
Food grew cold on the table.(…)I said yes.
‘Food’ is often seen as a symbol of nurturing or caring. At their ‘table’ it ‘grew cold’, Piercy suggesting there is a lack of care and love between them. Any ideas of nurturing or care has completely evaporated from their relationship, it is now all about servitude, with his abuse permeating deeply into her life.
He asks that she ‘burn your body’. She is not ‘clean and smells like sex’, accusing her of something for which they both take the blame. While his sexuality is passable and framed as normal, she is villainized for her sexuality, a moment of female disempowerment. The lack of power she has in the scene stems from the abusive relationship, one she seemingly cannot escape. Indeed, if she cripples herself as he asks, she will never be able to escape from him, being stuck in an unhappy relationship forever. He places his happiness above her own, ‘it rubs my mind sore’ being enough of a reason for her to destroy herself.
Again the final sentence of the stanza is framed through monosyllabic compliance, ‘I said yes’ echoing sadly throughout ‘The friend’.
I love you, I said.(…)Have you cut off your hands yet?
She tells him that ‘I love you’, to which he only replies ‘that’s very nice’. Indeed, he likes ‘to be loved’, it ‘makes [him] happy’. While she destroys herself in countless ways, following his every command and serving him, he does not even love her back. A total sense of emotional and physical manipulation is present within ‘The friend’, Piercy not knowing how to escape.
The monosyllabic line she again says in this stanza reflects the previous two. Even when expressing a different idea, she remains monosyllabic. The compressed nature of her language reflects her circumstance, powerless, and subjugated under his abusive rule.
The final line of ‘The friend’ returns to the idea of mutilation, he wants her to ‘cut off your hands’. The metaphorical idea behind this stems from the removal of power, the destruction of ‘hands’ suggesting that she will lose physical control. He wants total power of the scene, linguistically, mentally, and physically. He does not care for her, enjoying the idea that she will be destroyed along the way. A friend by Marge Piercy is an unsettling depiction of an abusive relationship.