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Analysis of Poem 'Breaking Out' by Marge Piercy

Marge Piercy

Marge Piercy

Marge Piercy and a Summary of 'Breaking Out'

'Breaking Out' is a poem that deals with the individual family life of a young pubescent girl living in mid-20th century America. She is acutely aware of the wrongs done to her by her parents and wants to 'break out'.

The issues raised in the poem resonate far beyond the walls of the girl's home and highlight the plight of many an individual looking for a way out of an abusive relationship.

Marge Piercy as novelist, poet and social activist is described by some as a 'cultural touchstone', whose stories, narratives and verse shed fresh light on what it is to be a woman in modern society.

She explores the social concerns of our age with sensitivity and depth of imagination and brings to the surface taboo subjects that would otherwise remain in the dark.

Her books speak for those who are oppressed and suffer the negative effects of living in a patriarchal society.

'Breaking Out' was first published in Harbor Review in 1984 and is now in many anthologies. Marge Piercy does admit that some of her poetry is autobiographical in nature, but her intentions are for the lines to represent those without a voice.

'I have always desired that my poems work for others.'

'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 vaccum 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
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.

Stanza by Stanza Analysis

Stanza 1

'Breaking Out' opens with an unusual and controversial question, as if the speaker is echoing a prior question asked by any inquisitive reader. That phrase political act also spices up the scene and adds immediate weight.

The rest of the poem is a built-up answer to this initial question.

I am seeing gives the reader an instant impression. This is the present tense; the speaker is very much alive, beginning to paint a visual for the reader. Two doors, metaphors for opportunity, are leaning together, personification helping to animate the scene—these doors are gossiping, creating a closet in the corner of the room.

That's quite an odd opening stanza. The doors should be open but they're not, they're angled. They create a dark space. The reader might wonder what might come of the closeted space?

Is the speaker looking back in time to this very particular domestic scenario, reacting to the question posed in a kind of vague recollection? it's hard to tell at this point. The second stanza might help the reader figure things out.

Stanza 2

A mangle, an old-fashioned machine for squeezing water out of washed clothes and ironing them, stood there. The speaker didn't think some of the items needed ironing - the father's underwear for example.

This is the first clue, the first glimpse into the household proper. There is a father and he needs his underwear ironed. The speaker has to do it, perhaps is reluctant to do it.

The second stanza confirms that this is a person looking back . . . the mangle stood there.

Note the unusual use of a small i . . . does this represent an immature person, a son or daughter? There's no mention of gender, or age. This could be an adult recalling what life was like as a child or youngster.

Stanza 3

More domestic things appear. An upright vacuum with a sausage bag that is personified (because it sighs, i.e. is seen as human) and gets tired of all the work, just like the speaker.

And because the speaker didn't enjoy the manual work in the house, there is the promise never to do the same things once the time had come to leave home. The sight of the mother also working hard each day to keep the house clean reinforces this idea of loathing domestic chores.

This third stanza gives the reader a much clearer view of the identity of the speaker.

Stanza 4

The theme continues—the speaker even when at school thought of the mother when studying the Greek myth of Sisyphus, punished by the gods for hubris, who had to roll a huge rock up a hill only to watch it fall down again.

There is the mother with raw knees working continuously to keep the house clean, to scrub off the dirt of the factory brought in by the father.

Stanza 5

This stanza, though short, is highly visual and odd. A yardstick is seen as a nasty stork, doors are hobnobbing (to mix socially with those a higher status) and the stick has chalk marks on—it has been used for measuring hems, taken down or stitched up as the child grew.

But why see the stork as nasty?

For the reader, stanza 5 is a challenge to scan, it being three lines, a single sentence, with unusual enjambment.

Stanza 6

The speaker now confides in the reader and details just why it is that she thought the stork nasty. It turns out her parents were meting out punishment when she was judged to be truly wicked.

They beat her with a stick. Her loud cries—she bellowed like a locomotive—a steam locomotive?—but this didn't stop the wielding of the stick.

Stanza 7

Both parents beat her. The mother's punishment was fierce but the father's went on longer. Not a good scenario.

The most poignant scene comes in this stanza. You can picture the girl studying her bruises and beat marks in the mirror, likening them to mountains and roads she might possibly escape into and along.

But she would have to wait until she was older for freedom to be gained.

Stanza 8

Finally, at 11 years of age, the chance came to do something about the intolerable abuse. She broke the stick, puzzling over the splinters in disbelief. The symbol of the parent's power had been smashed.

Beatings continued, however, but they never had the same effect. The act of destroying the stick meant that the speaker had broken through into a new phase of her life.

With that single act of strength she changed from child to adolescent, she grew up, overnight.

Stanza 9

The speaker gained power and refused to follow in the footsteps of her mother. She had learnt that to progress and to grow, you had to learn how to break certain things—break through barriers, break out of imprisonment, break the grip of the abuser.

Literary Devices Used

'Breaking Out' is a free verse poem with 9 stanzas, which make a total of 42 lines. There are no end rhymes and no set dominant rhythms. The syntax is like that of prose, only split up into verse paragraphs of varying line lengths.

Metaphor and Simile

There are several examples in the poem.

Line 2 - the doors represent two different openings/opportunities (M)

Line 3 - like gossips (S)

Line 14 - like a snail's track (S)

Line 19 - Nasty stork (M)

Line 24 - like a locomotive (S)

Line 29 - red and blue mountain ranges (M)

Line 31 - the veins and arteries the roads (M)


Line 9/10 - with a gusty/sigh as if weary


Line 15/41 - Sisyphus, from Greek legend, a king of Corinth (Ephyra) who was condemned to repeatedly roll a great boulder up a hill only to watch it fall down again. This endless task is related to the girl's mother's domestic duties.


© 2018 Andrew Spacey