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Her Nine Lives

SLEEPING WITH CATS: By Marge Piercy, William Morrow: 346 pp., $25.95

March 10, 2002|NAOMI GLAUBERMAN | Naomi Glauberman is an essayist and short story writer.

The cats are the constant. Marge Piercy, feminist, activist and author of 15 novels, as many volumes of poetry and scores of essays, has rarely been without the solace of at least one feline companion. The cats, firmly placed in the emotional center of her memoir, "Sleeping With Cats," do double duty, opening the doors to reflections on love, creativity and mortality.

Piercy begins in the present in the Cape Cod home she's shared with her husband, writer Ira Wood, for the last 20 years. As she excavates memories, she keeps returning to this cat-filled house with its exuberant vegetable and flower gardens. These domestic interludes provide respite from the political and emotional tumult of a life packed with an ever-shifting cast of husbands, lovers and friends.

At age 65, Piercy has seized this moment to "reflect, reexamine, make amends and corrections--a sort of High Holidays of the soul in which I judge what I've done and left undone."

Piercy's poetry has mined these emotions, and her fiction has grappled with social and political currents, but here she takes a much more deliberate path, attempting to illuminate the present through recounting her past. Although she announces that she will focus her account on her "emotional life, not on literary or political adventures," the radical politics, feminism and cultural ferment of the '60s, coupled with her unswerving commitment to her writing, provide the inextricable backdrop of her tale. Her fierce ambition to become a writer propels her beyond her rough Detroit childhood, a world laced with violence, street gangs, racism and prostitution.

Born in 1936, she spent her early years in a family still reeling from the Depression. Her father installed and repaired heavy machinery for Westinghouse; her mother, a housewife, worked incessantly to keep their lives together. Although she credits her mother with introducing her to the joys of language through word games, neither of her parents understood her dreams: a college education, a literary life.

Despite the lack of familial encouragement, by the age of 15 she had established the foundations of her future self. "In that year," she writes, "I lost one of my best friends to a heroin overdose; my gentle intelligent cat was poisoned by neighbors because an Afro-American family was moving into our house; and my grandmother Hannah, to whom I was very close and who was my religious mentor, died of stomach cancer. My family moved to a larger house where I had a room of my own with a door that shut, and I began to write." Years later, as an activist for civil rights, she realized that her militant feelings against racism had their roots in the murder of that cat.

Her reportorial voice, while often fierce and honest, can feel oddly removed from its subject. Although she brings her unflinching eye to her loves and marriages, she still seems baffled by her first brief marriage to a French student, who expected his wild writer bride to turn into a good Gallic housewife.

Her second marriage in 1960 "opened" in the middle of that decade, and its twists and turns with numerous partners over the next 10 years were often difficult for Piercy to negotiate. The recounting of confusion, pain and betrayal in the context of experimentation and liberation does not make for easy reading.

In 1970, after living in New York City for several years, Piercy, whose work was beginning to be published, moved with her husband to Cape Cod, as a respite from the factional politics of the collapsing New Left and for relief from Piercy's often debilitating emphysema.

There, she set up priorities from which she's scarcely wavered. "One of the things I chose explicitly was to put my writing first. Everything else in my life waxed and waned, but writing, I discovered during my restructuring, was my real core. Not any relationship. Not any love. Not any person."

Ex-husbands and old friends might fret over their characterizations, but Piercy is no softer on herself. "In the best of times I am not an easy woman to get along with, but when someone is estranged from me, I can be annoying indeed. Everything about me seems too much, too fast, too sure, too loud."

Though she ultimately reconciled with her mother, her relationship with her father remained distant and difficult to the end. She is emphatic about not confusing familial obligations with affection: "In the retirement community facility, they imagined I adored my father because I fought them to accede to his wishes. Nonsense. I wasn't going to put up with him, so they were going to have to."

Writing about her cats, these limits dissolve; her prose expands and relaxes. As she sifts through the past, she sometimes seems irritated at failures of memory, the errors made, the destructive trajectory of relationships. In the end, it is the cats, the house, the present that resonate. The journey she depicts was not always pleasant; she has little nostalgia for days gone by. And she makes her case. Like her, the reader is content to return to the aging cats and writers sharing their lives and love in their house by the sea.

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