Breaking Out: About the poem
Breaking Out by Marge Piercy is a modern poem of inspiration and of rebellious spirit. The American poet, novelist and social activist Marge Piercy has been known for her feminist writings. The poem, first published in the Harbor Review in 1984, is a specimen of the tone and themes of her poetry. And I have heard people hailing this poem as one of their all time favourites.
The poem ‘Breaking Out’ is an autobiographical picture of the sufferings, feelings and rebellion of an adolescent girl in a ‘depressed’ family in the mid-twentieth century America. The poet narrates how she grew up, ill-treated by her parents, from childhood to adolescence. She felt bad for herself and even for her mother as women had to do utterly useless things at home and had no freedom. She dreamed of coming out of her sufferings when she grew. And one day she broke the stick after a beating and felt “there were things that I should learn to break”.
So, the title of the poem is not only about breaking a stick, but the greater implication in it for breaking those outdated things that kept the society lagging. It is indicative of the poet’s breaking out from the stereotypes that her mother could not.
The first person narrative is fairly easy and simple in terms of the language used, except a couple of places where the speaker uses rather metaphoric expressions. There is no definite rhyme scheme in the poem. Stanzas of four and three lines alternate, with a variation at the last two stanzas.
Breaking Out: Stanza wise explanation
My first political act? I am seeing
two doors that usually stood open,
leaning together like gossips, making
a closet of their corner.
The poem starts rather abruptly with a question that apparently aims to talk about the first political act in the girl’s life. But here, ‘political’ is in the sense that it was all about a protest, a revolt against something unjust. It is only at the penultimate stanza of the poem that we come to know exactly what it was that the poet marks as a ‘political act’. Actually, it was the act of breaking a stick which her parents used to beat her.
After that motivated deed the poet can see the two different ways of life (two doors) nearing each other. The ‘two doors‘ are the metaphors for the two separate ways of life for her: one is to stick to the established norms of the society, to bear with the humiliation and the captivity; another is to break away from the stereotypes, to upset the status quo, to demand the freedom to do what she likes.
These two ways were so far separate and distant from each other. But now, that the girl has gained courage, she is heading towards the route of liberation from that of the struggle and humiliation. The poet has created a visual image to represent this, where ‘two doors’ are leaning together, as if they are whispering in each other’s ears and ‘making a closet of their corner’.
A mangle stood there, for ironing
what i never thought needed it:
sheets, towels, my father’s underwear;
In the second stanza of ‘Breaking Out’ the girl starts narrating her story so far. There was a mangle, a large machine for ironing damp clothes using heated rollers. It was used for ironing stuffs like sheets, towels and her father’s underwear. Clearly, those were not the ideal things that needed to be ironed, and that is what she felt and expressed too. Understandably, that was a part of the humiliation she received as a girl-child in the family.
an upright vacuum with its stuffed
sausage bag that deflated with a gusty
sigh as if weary of housework as I,
who swore i would never dust or sweep
A vacuum cleaner was standing there vertically with its filter bag full of dust and looking like a sausage. When the filter bag was deflated, it let out loud sound (a gusty sigh). She draws a comparison here by saying that it looked similarly tired of household chores like the girl herself. She was rebellious and swore not to clean or sweep when she grew up. It’s the hope of breaking out of the suppressed way of life.
There is a personification of the vacuum cleaner as it lets out the sigh and becomes weary of working. And, the ‘sausage bag’ is an example of metaphor. There’s a simile too in ‘weary of housework as I’.
after i left home, who hated
to see my mother removing daily
the sludge the air lay down like a snail’s track
Air deposited the sludge from the nearby factories and painted “a snail’s track” on the floor. After the girl left for school, her mother used to remove that dirt. But she hated to see her do that same job daily. There is a simile in ‘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.
In school, the girl read the story of Sisyphus, who in Greek mythology got the punishment of rolling a boulder uphill. Every time he rolled it up only to see it roll back down again.
When she read the story, she found a similarity between Sisyphus and her mother. She continued to scrub the floor ‘on raw knees’ (kneeling down) and the factories continued to ‘rain’ (deposit) ash and make it dusty again. She was as submissive as Sisyphus, without any sign of improvement.
Nasty stork king of the hobnobbing
doors was a wooden yardstick dusty
with chalk marks from hem’s rise and fall.
These lines here are highly metaphoric. There was a yardstick with chalk marks on it due to measuring the hem of clothes. But the poet has compared it to a ‘nasty stork’ that ruled over (king) the ‘hobnobbing doors’, the doors stated in the very first stanza. The stick monitored any movement from the rules set by the speaker’s parents.
To make it easy, whenever she tried to break away from her submission, she got punished with that stick, as the poet makes it clear in the next stanza. The chalk marks are also suggestive of the lines that she should not cross.
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.
In this stanza of the poem ‘Breaking Out’, the poet reveals how her parents used to inflict physical punishment on her. When her parents judged her as ‘truly wicked’, i.e., disobeying the preset regulations, she received a beating with that stick. Then she cried and screamed making noises like a steam engine, as if noise would give a solace to that pain.
Here the words ‘truly wicked’ are rather sarcastic to mock at the definition of wickedness set by the society.
My mother wielded it more fiercely
but my father far longer and harder.
I’d twist my head in the mirror to inspect.
The poet recalls that her mother used the stick more fiercely than her father. This might be due to the frustration of giving birth to a disobeying girl child. But her father’s blows were longer and harder, an indication to the rule of men in a patriarchal society.
She would then inspect in the mirror the marks of beating by turning her head.
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.
The poet compares those red and blue stripes to mountain ranges on a map (a metaphor again) that showed her an escape route. Her veins and arteries looked like the roads that would help her to escape.
This is well indicative of the impact the beating left on her mind. Those blows of stick inspired her to break free someday. She made her mind to travel to liberty when she would grow up.
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.
Now the poem Breaking Out comes to the climax. This stanza contains the all important event, the breaking of the stick. Structurally this stanza (contains seven lines) is different too, suggesting the same.
When the poet was eleven, one day she broke the ruler into pieces after a beating. The word ‘ruler’ has dual meaning here: the measuring tool and the tool that ruled over her life so far.
With the broken pieces in her hand, she could hardly believe that she could break it, that it was really weaker than her. This line has a greater implication in suggesting that the oppressive power generally tends to be weaker than the oppressed if the latter learns to revolt against the former.
Though it could not end the beating completely, the act was significant in giving a boost to her confidence. The next day she knew she was an adolescent now, not a child anymore.
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.
The poet Marge Piercy here assures us that this idea of ‘breaking out’ is not a destructive one; it’s not a loss of innocence. Rather, it’s all about gaining the power, a courageous move in the right direction.
The poet pledged not to be like Sisyphus, doing useless domestic chores all day. She realised there were more such things (or ideas) that she needed to ‘break’ to claim the freedom she deserves and make the society progress.
These last three lines of the poem ‘Breaking Out‘ are really impressive and makes the poem a piece of beauty, no doubt.