The Poet’s Wives
Irish writer David Park’s beautifully written ninth book depicts the exacting role of the woman who is often muse, sometimes critic, lover, and upon occasion, keeper of the “great man’s” flame. Parks shows these relationships in three parts, travelling through time and across cultures. The first two lives are based on real women: Catherine Blake, wife of 19th-century poet and artist William Blake and Nadeshda Mandelstam, wife of Russian poet Olig Mandelstam. The third woman, Lydia, is the wife of a fictional contemporary Irish poet.
With this insightful novel, Park explores the nuanced motivations of such women. Their lives are not their own in many ways, and often it is their commitment to the work itself that keeps the marriage going, rather than any loyalty to the man himself. Park imagines Catherine Blake aching to see angels in trees and share other visions her husband, William, tries to capture in words and pictures. His experiences are so beyond her own, all she can do is try to understand him and support his efforts.
For Nadeshda Mandelstam, the motivation is to keep her husband’s words in her heart, to memorize every line, even those lines written to his mistresses, so that one day, she can allow them to spill onto the page, just as he had written them before his death en route to Siberia during Stalin’s reign.
The fictional, contemporary wife muses about her life with “the poet” just days after his death. As she rummages through his papers, she finds the last volume on which he was working. There are love poems, but they are not about her.