We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Piercy, Adcock, Patchett: memoirs, poetry, a smart woman's felicitous concoction · 27 September 05

Dear Fanny,

One problem with cataloguing our library is (what with writing on lists, teaching, my projects and sheer living), this leaves no time left for writing on this blog about what I’ve been reading beyond the barest citations—and I don’t want to do that.

This month I’ve read a great autobiography by a woman: Marge Piercy’s Sleeping with Cats: A Memoir and begun her powerful novel, Three Women. I’ve also read the brilliantly competent and felicitous money-making, mildly feminist and ever-so-quietly liberal-radical concoction, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto—as well as listened to it read effectively aloud by Anna Fields (in a rented Blackstone’s Audio cassette of the unabridged text).

Piercy’s memoir has poems interwoven with her chapters. They reinforce, comment on, and make explicit emotions even she does dare openly acknowledge (lest she be mocked for such vulerability) and emotions one can’t express but through the power of metaphor. In Sleeping with Cats she tells of her open marriage, of her early promiscuity, of her father’s real bullying of her mother, her mother’s inabilities and revengeful kinds of impositions on her which were presented as keeping her safe but would have destroyed any chance she might have had to become a writer, know the people she has known, and lived the fulfilled existence she has.

Piercy is Jewish in culture and an open atheist; probably it’s her Jewish culture ultimately that makes her hit my heart where it does. Religion is irrelevant; she assumes a Voltairean point of view like Beauvoir. I find I prefer l’ecriture-femme written by non-Anglo women most of the time because they are less repressed sexually when it comes to exploring their desires in their minds & bodies, especially sexual ones.

I’m with George Eliot who wrote long ago (in a review of an edition of letters of a 17th century salonière) that this repression lies at the heart of women’s often not really penetrating (the male word here) to the heart of cant, taboos, and all sorts of other tabooes. Woolf wrote of this when she said women’s minds are veiled inside: the late Edwardian woman is still with us.

So I confess Piercy took my breath away when in her Three Women she casually dramatizes a scene where one of her heroines, Elena, lets her boyfriend have sex with her in front of another male. Lets him is right for Elena plays the part of an obedient doll. Then Elena lets the other guy have sex with her while her boyfriend watches. Then she sits and watches her boyfriend and this male have sex together. There is no sense of deep shame broken through; no feel of trauma at all. I couldn’t write a scene like this without trembling with humiliation, self-exposure and shame for having used someone and being used in this animal way.

So why do I find Piercy’s truth-telling so inspiriting as after all in their way older writers (e.g. Doris Lessing) who are less coolly animal-like, less willing to use and be used in some deep area of their being, present reality as faithfully. Partly it’s that facing and coming to terms frankly with, or resolving her problems and acting out her life in a way that really fulfills her allows Percy to get rid of seething angers and debilitating self-berating and sadness. So that not only in her memoir does she live the way she wants or can insofar as the world and her pocketbook will allow (which is pretty far in the US, a point Nuala O’Faolain makes when she explains why she spends half each year in a house in New York state in her last memoir), but she can present other people fairly and feel for them in her memoir. In her novel she presents real women in all their complicated amorality and decencies, vulnerabilities, rages and needs

A case in point in the memoir is her mother. It’s just so common for mothers to be presented as witches, as obstacles, as what ruins life for everyone else (this is apparently the way the mother/wife is presented in the latest of what seems a slew of endlessly subtly or grossly anti-feminist films, Proof). By the end of Sleeping with Cats, Piercy is friends with her mother, pities her and also sees herself in her mother and her mother in her (aspects they share). In Three Women, the mother figure, Beverly, 72, chain-smoking, often very foolish in all sorts of ways, tenacious rough-mouthed, has a heart attack and her daughter, the book’s central figure heroine, Suzanne takes her in. I can see of course that for Piercy it was the father who was the cold mean life-destroying preying philistine, but even there in the memoir she can force herself to provide the minimum of care for him and continual pragmatic attention without straining with distaste.

In the memoir it’s also her telling the hard truth about sex and her long-term marriage with one Robert Shapiro that is also inspiriting. And she doesn’t pretend her last marriage, with Ira Wood, is fairy tale bliss. She is still living on herself—with her cats as continual physical mates providing sites for affection. I feel less alone when another reality is presented.

Memoirs wth Cats would be a good way to make students
less fearful of poetry. They’d accept her open marriage probably: after all she knows much pain as well as deep satisfactions in so many different relationships (thus being part of different worlds). Revealingly, it was not her choice to have an open marriage: it was the husband who wanted it and basically so he could have other and many women. As long as he remained the alpha male in the house, he didn’t care about the other men about. As they aged too, he kept being able to get women, while she did not even though she had the income they were living on, and she has the prestige (and "fame" too). Finally, she was able to push him out by stubbornly holding onto the house and refusing to leave what she had created there: (renovating and gardening herself, paying for it mostly herself. The bastard did all he could to push her out.

She had the strength not to become the homeless thingless person when the second marriage broke up. When her first did, she left all behind and lived hard for a long time afterwards.

Speaking of poetry and truth, we’ve had an extraordinary and exhilarating series of threads on WWTTA about women’s bodies,
women’s fashions, the Barbie doll, the way medicine is used today, particularly to control women. So I’ll end this entry with two poems. One from Percy’s Sleeping with Cats because it really captures what I too feel about my husband.

"On Guard"

I want you for my bodyguard,
to curl round each other like two socks
matched and balled in a drawer.

I want you to warm my bedside,
two S’s snaked curve to curve
in the down burrow of the bed.

I want you to tuck in my illness,
coddle me with tea and chicken
soup whose steam sweetens the house.

I want you to watch my back
as the knives wink in the thin light
and the whips crack out from shelter.

Guard my body against dust and disuse,
warm me from the inside out,
lie over me, under me, beside me

in the bed as the night’s creek
rushes over our shining bones
and e weak to the morning fresh

and wet, a birch leaf just uncurling.
Guard my body from disdain as age
widens me like a river delta.

Let us guard each other until death,
with teeth, brain and galloping heart,
each other’s rose red warrior.

by Marge Piercy, from Sleepig with Cats

The joke is she could equally be describing her cats with whom she sleeps (imagine a smiling emoticon here).

The other is by Fleur Adcock. On another list I’ve joined, Wom-Po (inhabited by women poets), they talked of how doors are so central to women’s art. This one begins with a door. I put on WWTTA a remarkable picture by painter, Dorothea Tanning, Birthday, where a woman is pictured as super-elegant and paralysed before a series of doors, a nightmare.

The thematics of Adcock’s poem embrace several other threads we’ve on WWTTA had over the past couple of weeks. (Thank you to Kathy C for starting and developing them.) Adcock’s poems is great and (to me) profoundly quietly moving and like another poem on hospital life I put on this blog, Louise Blogan’s "Evening in the Sanitarium", captures women’s lives centrally.

"The Soho Hospital for Women"


Strange room, from this angle:
white door open for me,
strange bed, mechanical hum, white lights.
There will be stranger rooms to come.

As I almost slept I saw the deep flower opening
and leaning over into it, gratefully.
It swimmingly closed in my face. I was not ready.
It was not death, it was acceptance.


Our thin patient cat died purring,
her small triangular head tilted back,
the nurse’s fingers caressing her throat,
my hand on her shrunken spine; the quick needle.

That was the second death by cancer.
The first is not for me to speak of.
It was telephone calls and brave letters
and a friend’s hand bleeding under the coffin.


Doctor, I am not afraid of a word.
But nether do I wish to embrace that visitor,
to engulf it as Hine-Nui-te-Po
engulfed Maui; that would be the way of it.

And she was the winner there: her womb crushed him.
Goddesses can do these things,
But I have admitted the gloves hands and the speculum
and must part my ordinary legs to the surgeon’s knife.


Nellie has only one breast
ample enough to make several.
Her quilted dressing-gown softens
to semi-doubtful this imbalance
and there’s no starched vanity
in our abundant ward-mother:
her silvery hair’s in braids, her slippers
loll, her weathered smile holds true.
When she dresses up in her black
with her glittering mrcastie brooch on
to go for the weekly radium treatment
she’s the bright star of the taxi-party
whatever may be growing under her ribs.


Doris hardly smokes in the ward
and hardly eats more than a dreamy spoonful
but the corridors and bathrooms
reek of her Players Number 10,
and the drug-trolley pauses
for long minutes by her bed.
Each week for the taxi-outing
she puts on her skirt again
and has to pin the slack waistband
more tightly over her scarlet sweater.
Her face, a white shadow through smoked glass,
lets Soho display itself unregarded.


Third in the car is Mrs Golding
who never smiles. And why should she?


The senior consultant on his rounds
murmurs in so subdued a voice
to the students marshalled behind
that they gather in, forming a cell,
a cluster, a rosette around him
as he stands at the foot of my bed
going through my notes with them,
half-audibly instructive, grave.

The slight ache as I strain forward
to listen still seems imagined.

Then he turns his practised smile on me:
‘How are you this morning?’ ‘Fine,
very well, thank you.’ I smile too.
And possibly all that murmurs within me
is the slow dissolving of stitches.


I am out in the supermarket choosing
this very afternoon, this day
picking up tomatoes, cheese, bread,
things I want and shall be using
to make myself a meal, while they
eat their stodgy suppers in bed:

Janet with her big freckled breasts,
her prim Scots voice, her one friend,
and never in hospital before,

who came in to have a few tests
and now can’t see where they’ll end;
and Coral in the bed by the door

who whimpered and gasped behind a screen
with nurses to and fro all night
and far too much of the day;

pallid, bewildered, nineteen.
And May, who will be all right
but gradually. And Alice, who may.

Whereas I stand almost intact,
giddy with freedom, not with pain.
I lift my light basket, observing

how little I needed in fact;
and move to the checkout, to the rain,
to the lights and the long street curving.

by Fleur Adcock, from The Thing Itself, _Poems, 1960-2000

A few scattered comments on the poetry’s content and form. I’m now into Marge Piercy’s powerful novel, Three Women and, as with her memoir, Sleeping with Cats, cats are central to her women’s lives. Cancer comes with age.

The line about admitting gloved hands and a speculum and parting one’s ordinary legs to the surgeon’s knife reminds me of how I have felt raped and turned into a thing by "internal examinations" as they’re euphemistically called. The sexual imagery here is of cruelty and indifference and so I’ve felt it to be so—someone might say how else can you go into someone you don’t know but to pretend they’re nothing special or individual at all. You must be humiliated because you must open up. Your organs are inside. Other people are clumsy. At least in England in the 1960s the custom was to allow (revealing verb that, allow), allow a woman to lie on her side. She doesn’t have to face the doctor with her feet in stirrups as here in the US.

Maybe Adcock would have us also connect this to sex outside the hospital?

On the ward-mother. Adcock has a great poem called "Weathering" about aging in a place where "no one" is around to pay attention and how freeing this feels.

Why do some women dress in these awful glittering outfits that look like armor? What is the male equivalent?

And then all the other women one sees, hiding.

The grave instructive male-in-charge. Why is this?

And then "freedom" in the supermarket and memories. I do remember it was liberating when the supermarket replaced the small grocery shop. I was 5 and living in the South East Bronx when I saw this happen.

How is it we need so little and yet are like we are?

Here is a little about Adcock’s life.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Ellen,

    Thank you for posting this link on Wompo. I read Sleeping with Cats this summer on the plane to Sydney and had a great time with it. For me part of the power of the memoir was revisiting the memory of reading Piercy books for the first time in college. Woman on the Edge of Time was a required book for one of my first Women’s Studies classes and that led me to each and every paperback that she had (as well as her poetry). I was struck when I read Sleeping with Cats at how my expectation of Piercy as an author from encountering her books was that she was throughout her life strong and empowered and articulate and clear and never had the emotional befuddlement that I have felt throughout my life. Then reading Sleeping with Cats, I had that AHA moment of realizing that she was a human struggling with these human conditions that we all do. As a result of that, I cheered when she kept her house during the second divorce.
    I did think that the poetry interludes were not as strong as I wanted them to be and that felt disappointing. I also remember thinking that I thought the central metaphor of the cats became somewhat contrived and I had almost wished that she had either worked with it more and pressed it further or dropped it once she came into the voice of telling her story. But c’est la vie. One of my favorite things about Piercy as a writer is that she is prolific and I appreciate that as a reader.
    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and this link.

    PS I read Three Women in the spring of this year and responded similarly to it, breezing through the final third. At about the same time, I read Letty Cotton Pogrebin’s most recent novel, titled, perhaps Three Sisters (?) and enjoyed that much more.
    Julie R. Enszer    Oct 8, 4:17pm    #

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