Breaking Out by Marge Piercy

My first political act? I am seeing
two doors that usually stood open,
leaning together like gossips, making
a closet of their corner.

A mangle stood there, for ironing
what i never thought needed it:
sheets, towels, my father’s underwear;

an upright vaccumn with its stuffed
sausage bag thet deflated with a gusty
sigh as if weary of housework as I,
who swore i would never dust or sweep
after i left home, who hated
to see my mother removing daily
the sludge the air lay down like a snail’s track

so that when in school i read of Sisyphus
and his rock, it was her I
thought of, housewife scrubbing
on raw knees as the factory rained ash.

Nasty stork of the hobnobbing
doors was a wooden yardstick dusty
with chalk marks from hem’s rise and fall.

When I had been judged truly wicked
that stick was the tool of punishment,
I was beaten as I bellowed like a locomotive
as if noise could ward off blows.

My mother wielded it more fiercely
but my father far longer and harder.
I’d twist my head in the mirror to inspect.
I’d study those red and blue mountain
ranges as on a map that offered escape,
the veins and arteries the roads
I could travel to freedom when i grew.

When I was eleven, after a beating
I took the ruler and smashed it to kindling.
Fingering the splinters I could not believe.
How could this rod prove weaker than me?
It was not that i was never again beaten
but in destroying that stick that had measured my pain
the next day i was an adolescent, not a child.

This is not a tale of innocence lost but power
gained : I would not be Sisyphus,
there were things that I should learn to break.

Summary

Lines 1-7

The narrator recalls her first political act. She calls it “political” because it is her first act of rebellion against the oppressive forces of which she is a victim, and her consciousness of her rights to set herself free. The girl-child is a victim of physical abuse—she is often beaten badly by her parents. The narrator views her parents as two open doors that always keep tabs over movements. A machine known as “mangle” used for ironing damp clothes stood at the scene of reminiscence. The narrator feels that an unnecessary amount of clothes were expected to be ironed.

Lines 8-18

The narrator sees a parallel between her personal situation and external objects. An old-style vacuum-cleaner with a clothe bag attached to it became dilated with air as dust was sucked into it. This clothe bag is referred to as a “sausage bag” here. The narrator compares herself with the sausage bag that deflated with a deep noisy sigh. The words “gusty sigh” and “deflated” emphasize that the vacuum-cleaner was as fed up of household work as the narrator herself, who swore never to dust or sweep. The first person narrator’s mother is over burdened with daily chores. The narrator did not like to see her mother daily removing the industrial waste that form deposits in her home from neighbouring factories. In school, the girl-child reads about Sisyphus, a figure in Greek mythology whose punishment was to endlessly role up a large stone to the top of a hill, only to see it roll down again. The narrator compares her mother’s situation with that of Sisyphus, seeing a parallel between the two’s futile and endless labour. The girl’s mother was daily down on her knees as the ash emitted by the factories formed daily deposits in her home.

Lines 19-28

There was a heavy wooden yardstick with which the narrator was beaten by her parents. She compares the yardstick with the stork as this bird has a heavy long bill, and the stick was heavy like the stork’s bill. As an instrument of unwarranted punishment it was naturally a nasty object. It is possible that economic pressures prompted the parents to pour out their frustrations on the girl-child in the form of corporal punishment. Whatever be the reason behind such a measure, such beating amount to physical abuse and violation of the rights of the girl-child. By vividly exposing the painful effect of physical abuse, the poet highlights the theme of violence against the girl-child and the question of human rights. When she was severely beaten she roared in pain like a “locomotive” or a noisy powered railway vehicle.

The narrator recalls that the beatings she received from her mother were more fierce than those she received from her father. Her father wielded the stick for a longer period of time. In her agony, the young girl would twist her head and inspect the marks in the mirror.

Lines 29-36:

The narrator used to examine the red and blue marks imprinted on her back by the beatings, and think of becoming free when she grew up.

One day, at the age of eleven, she smashed the stick to pieces after a beating. She could hardly believe that the instrument of her punishment was weaker than her. While the young girl survived many beatings, the rod was broken.

Lines 37-42:

This act of smashing the rod into pieces was a significant and a symbolic one. Through this act of defiance she stood up for her rights. By destroying the rod that was the instrument of her oppression, she became mature; she was no longer a child. This was her first “political act”, whereby she asserted her right as a human being.

The narrator ends by stating that her narration was not a story of lost innocence, but rather, of power gained. By becoming aware of her rights as a human being, and more specifically as a woman, she rejects the path followed by most downtrodden women, Unlike her mother, she refused to be doomed to futile labour and bondage like Sisyphus. She was determined to break things that limited her and oppressed her.


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