This month’s celebration of Women’s History got me thinking about some of my favorite women authors. Three of my personal favorite contemporary women authors have all accomplished something that is relatively rare in the history of literature: they have excelled equally in the areas of fiction and poetry. These authors are Margaret Atwood, Louise Erdrich, and Marge Piercy.
Atwood is, perhaps, most famous for her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which was adapted into a good, relatively faithful motion picture, much better than the screen adaptations of the dystopic worlds of 1984 and Brave New World. Her series of linked short stories, Wilderness Tips, is as fine a short story collection as has been written in the last twenty years (you’ll find yourself asking: what’s with all the bog men, eh?), as is her most recent linked stories collection, Moral Disorder. A series of novels by Erdrich chronicles a number of recurring characters of Ojibwe descent and their larger, extended families. The award-winning Love Medicine is the best known; personally, the opening chapter of Beet Queen, in which two children at a county fair watch their mother disappear from their lives in a hot air balloon as it slowly recedes over the horizon, is forever burnt into my brain. Her recent The Master Butchers Singing Club, which tells the story of how the German side of her family came to North Dakota to blend with the Ojibwe nation, is every bit as lyrical and moving as its predecessors. Rounding out the trio, Piercy is a first rate novelist, diverse in subject matter and genre, writing detailed historical novels focusing on the roles of women (Gone to Soldiers, City of Darkness, City of Light, and The Sex Wars), futuristic narratives (He, She, It, and Woman on the Edge of Time), and contemporary sagas (Braided Lives, Three Women and The Third Child), all with a strong feminist flavor, that rival the fiction of today’s best writers.
Many novelists dabble in poetry; as many poets attempt to write novels, both with somewhat limited results. Yet, somehow all three of these outstanding novelists also are excellent poets. Atwood and Piercy have both won awards for their poetry and, though Erdrich has not won any major poetry awards, her work is among the best contemporary poetry has to offer. The Poetry Foundation website, perhaps the best poetry site on the net, offers a generous archive of contemporary and classic poems. Interesting selections of poems from all three can be found in their archives: Atwood, Erdrich, and Piercy. Beyond the Poetry Foundation archive, if you’d like to get the flavor of Atwood’s work there is Selected Poems II and Morning in the Burned House. Erdrich has two collections of poems: Jacklight and Baptism of Desire, both highly recommended. Piercy has nearly as many poetry collections as novels, no small number in either case; Circles on the Water: Selected Poems is a good place to start.