Sunday, March 07, 2010

Sleeping With Cats: A Memoir by Marge Piercy

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Paperback: 368 pages

· Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2002

· Price: $14.95

· ISBN-10: 0060936045

· ISBN-13: 978-0060936044

An honest writer will admit that everything that he or she writes, down to a grocery list, is in some form autobiography, revealing the author's sense of life, core values, interests. The art of literary expression, like any art, is a self-portrait, and the higher the level of quality, the truer we have been to ourselves. When a book reads flat or false, suspect a lie.

When Marge Piercy writes—and she writes like nobody’s business, having to date published 17 novels and 17 collections of poetry—she comes to life on the page. Piercy is the perfect illustration of a writer’s words shaping the self-portrait, because it makes no difference what genre or style she chooses, she rings true. Poetry or prose, fiction, nonfiction, science fiction, no doubt even that grocery list, show facets of the author. Reading this memoir, Sleeping with Cats, confirms that accuracy, adding layers of understanding to her creative work, for here we see her characters at their birthing place, in the lifelines of Piercy herself.

Piercy was born in the mid 1930s in Detroit, Michigan. Her ethnic background is Jewish and Lithuanian, but it is the former that roots most deeply in her. Her father was a hard-hearted man, an often abusive husband and father, never letting her forget he would have much preferred a son. Their relationship moved between cool and cold, their most successful conversations “about the Tigers and the weather.” In his entire lifetime, Piercy's father never read any of his daughter's books.

Her mother was a submissive woman who made a career of repressing dreams while trying, as emotionally battered women do, to please the husband that would not be pleased. Yet she knew her feminine powers and used them like weapons or tools of survival, while they were not enough to save her own dwindling spirit (and perhaps contributed to its brokenness). She seemed to resent the unbreakable spirit in her daughter, who observed as a girl her mother around other men:

“Half the men we dealt with were convinced she was crazy about them, but she mostly felt contempt. They were marks. She had a job to do and she did it. She was obsessed with my father, not with any of these men about whom she had a rich vocabulary of Yiddish insults which she muttered to me after each encounter.”

It was a tough childhood of gangs and early sex, with boys as well as other girls, of a pregnancy at age 17 that Piercy had to abort herself, nearly bleeding to death in the process. She never would have children, never wanted them. She learned about life through the hardest knocks, losing a young girlfriend turned prostitute to a heroin overdose (“I understood why she had let her pimp get her hooked: it numbed her.”), and having her fingers broken by her angry father, and always knowing herself different, an outsider—yet somehow never really doubting her own worth. She made being different work for her. These were the makings of a young woman who would become one of America’s strongest feminist voices.

Piercy is educated at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She wins scholarships. She earns top grades. She is self-sufficient in all things. Piercy is smart and she knows it, and she uses her mind with equal prowess to using her sexuality, enjoying both, lavishing easily in the pleasures each provide. Swearing to never marry (“Marriage… seemed to me a kind of death for a woman, in which she lost not only her will and her power but even her name. I was determined never to marry…”), she marries early, and marries three times. Piercy makes no saint of herself here, nor does she demonize her husbands or lovers. They come to one another with faults, give love best they know how, leave with a few scars left behind but also gifts and valuable lessons.

Piercy’s second marriage is open, like it or not, at her husband’s insistence. She comes to accept her husband’s affairs, focusing on her own interests and literary pursuits. Eventually, she takes a lover of her own. It is the 60s, a time of hippies and communal living and making love not war, and Piercy embraces this period of exploration. It works for her. Never becoming a mother, she becomes instead something of a communal mother, the woman at the center of the group, cooking and caring and cleaning for all, maintaining a kind of sanity and order to things. There is something about Piercy that is both rule breaker and order maker, the center of the storm and the anchor in chaos. Her husband’s affairs work only when the other women show her due respect and, preferably, friendship—often a closer one with Piercy than with her husband, the shared lover.

Writing and cats are the thread that binds a life that moves from Detroit to Chicago to New York to San Francisco to Paris to Cape Cod, with a few detours between. Piercy is determined to succeed at her art, and she maintains a disciplined pace at creating novels and other works even when nothing sells, or when it does and gets no notice. Piercy has a steely will and the persistence to carry it through. Her marriages succeed, it seems, when they give her the solid ground on which to set up her writing desk. Her second husband gives her five years to succeed, and she sets to work with determination. If it takes her longer than that, no matter, she shrugs off rejection and keeps writing.

Piercy meets her third husband while married to her second, and while one relationship unravels, the third takes on strength. Ira Wood is also a writer, and the two in some ways seem very different, including their 14 year difference (he is the younger), but are soul mates in the ways that matter. Of her relationship choices, Piercy writes: “I do not love primarily with my eyes. I have had lovers who were gorgeous and lovers who were plain, who were skinny and neurasthenic, who were bulky and overweight. I have cared far more for how each of them treated me than for my eyes’ pleasure.” Piercy speaks for most women in this, with women choosing partners who bring substance to a relationship as of primary importance, and she finds this in her third marriage, a partner with whom she can talk and talk and talk endlessly, argue and debate and discuss, and enjoy a companionship rich in all aspects of intimacy.

Memory is faulty and relative, Piercy writes in her memoir, but hers always rings sound with a story that does not show its heroine in always the kindest light. What gives her voice such strength, after all, is that she is honest in her portrayal of self, and so, of all her characters, admitting to faults and mistakes, not shying away from moments of truth. We see the outsider, we see the survivor, we see the woman who will never be ashamed or apologetic of her appetite for life.

At the conclusion of each chapter is one of Piercy’s poems, adding another layer of insight to her experience. Many times, these poetic interludes are our chance to look the deepest into Piercy’s psyche and heart. And if we ever doubt that this woman of determination and smarts and steely survival skills lacks a more conventional feminine softness, we can be assured it is there. We see it for those allowed into her closest circle—her cats. She loves fully her felines, her heart breaks at their loss, and she nurtures and nourishes and pampers like a true earth mother. Her observations of their personality quirks and antics and changing moods are often the most delightful sections of her writing. She loves and is loved unconditionally by her cats, and as living things do, here is where she comes most alive.

Concluding her memoir, for those who have already read some of Piercy’s works, and understanding her background gives a reader much greater understanding of the characters in her many, many books. We see the faces of Piercy, of her husbands and lovers, her parents, her friends, and yes, her cats. They appear in all her books, and so we see, this memoir is only one of her many memoirs, each one a stunningly honest and open look at what makes a woman a woman, how she expresses herself in freedom, how she loves and lets go and lives to love again—her men, her cats, her work, her homes, her world.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Spring 2010 Issue, featuring an interview with Marge Piercy and a page devoted to her poetry.

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