Book review: The Poets’ Wives By David Park


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The Independent Culture

They say that behind every great man, there’s a great woman … and the cliché gains weight when it comes to poets: we’re in thrall to the idea of both the muse and the helpmate, the romantic inspiration and the dutiful supporter.

The Irish novelist David Park has brought to life three wives who outlived their poet husbands, with a blending of fact and fiction. There’s Catherine, the wife of the poet and artist William Blake; Nadezhda, married to the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam who was imprisoned under Stalin; and Lydia, a wholly fictional partner of a contemporary Irish poet.

The three novellas are discrete, if thematically linked. Park repeatedly shows the good women supporting their geniuses, while feeling under-nourished or inadequate themselves. They suffer for their husbands’ art. And while we witness the symbiotic relationship between poetry and love, adulterous lust rears its bewitchingly beautiful head in each strand too.

It’s an appealing structure and premise, but I wish he could have imbued these women with more of a sense of their own power or passion. Catherine is an impossibly wet blanket, afraid of everything (a tiger, the sea, Will’s desire), and sweetly bewildered by her husband’s mystical visions. Written in curiously punctuation-free sentences, this can read leaden, despite being the only section in the supposedly “immediate” first person present tense. 

Nadezhda, while she miraculously memorised Osip’s poems to preserve them, also found her own voice: in the Seventies, she published acclaimed accounts of their struggles. Park’s imaginative recreation of the Mandelstams’ enduring love is often beautifully wrought. He also celebrates, with justifiably Romantic idealism, the morally elevated position of the poet as truth-speaker, a voice of dissent that cannot be silenced. It’s an unabashed reminder of “the beauty and power of words”.

But this could also be a gripping yarn, and it feels more like a miserable trudge – although that sense of crushing, numbing fear is no doubt historically accurate. The narrative drive is not helped by Park’s back-and-forth jumps in time either.

Lydia, our final wife, lives in the modern world, yet she too seems unable to get herself out from her husband’s shadow. This section benefits from a bit more bite; the reverence for fine words is replaced by a stinging satiric attack on the pretentions of the poetry scene: Lydia’s partner, Don, was an obnoxious, jealousy-ridden artist, a lousy, cheating husband, and an unsupportive, sneering father. Why didn’t she leave? This is never satisfactorily answered, but, as is rightly observed, the good and bad elements of life and love are always complicatedly “mixed up”.

It’s the most compelling section, but Lydia seems diminished by her elevated spouse – as did Catherine and, to a lesser extent, Nadezhda. This may ring true, but it’s a downer to see it repeated over centuries. If your final woman is imaginary – a curious choice anyway – must she be so bitter and hard done by? And if Park is trying to celebrate the stoic, quotidian, long-suffering partners, his attempts don’t quite convince.