By Anna Aslanyan.
The Poets’ Wives, David Park, Bloomsbury 2014
Peter Ackroyd’s theory of chronological resonance fuses the past and the present through a place where events separated by time are constantly reenacted. The place can be London, with its Hawksmoor churches and Limehouse wharves, or Stonehenge, where ancient rituals still reverberate in the air. Although genius loci is usually grounded in geography, the theory can also be exemplified in other ways. In The Poets’ Wives David Park explores poetry as the space where voices from different epochs are heard simultaneously, their uniqueness highlighted by common themes running through time.
The poets of the title are William Blake, Osip Mandelstam and a contemporary Irish poet, known only as Don, an amalgamated character “not intended to resemble anyone either living or dead.” The first part of the novel is narrated by Catherine Blake (Park draws on Ackroyd’s Blake here); the second is a third-person account based on Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned; the third, a fictional story told from the perspective of Lydia, the poet’s widow. The three tales, each moving in its own direction, keep returning to a point where individual threads merge: what each woman offers is “her story that is also his but also hers alone”.
The wives all share the burden of being married to a poet – a genius or not – whose shadow is hard to escape. The ways in which the three stories diverge are related to the times in which the characters live, but only partly. Catherine remembers Blake’s trial in Chichester, when he was accused of “all kind of treasonous utterances”, and her joy when he comes back home acquitted. For Nadezhda, queueing to send a parcel to her imprisoned husband, his death in a transit camp – of which she learns when she reaches the window – comes as a relief from suffering. Lydia and Don have drifted apart over the years – her memories of his many infidelities take precedence over her grief. Catherine thinks of her desire to be a good wife as too earthly, a sin that somehow makes her unworthy of the great Cockney visionary, and dreams of becoming “the woman clothed with sun, no longer ‘the shadow of delight’”. Nearly two centuries later, Lydia feels bitter about having to support the family while her husband’s poetic licence allowed him “to be selfish, eternally happy taking the comforts of her labours”. Nadezhda, the most dedicated of the three, has no regrets: “They are together for ever, she believes. And then beyond.” She has to preserve Mandelstam’s poems, having transcribed many of them herself and learnt them by heart; this drive is stronger than anything she has been or is to go through.
Two of the heroines are childless, a state they take very differently: Nadezhda thinks it a blessing, while Catherine never fully recovers after losing her daughter. Lydia cannot forgive Don, who made their son’s death a subject of his poems and “wrote over her grief with the public permanence of his own”. Religion is another matter dividing the three women. Catherine’s happiest memories of her marriage go back to the days when she and Blake read Paradise Lost in a Lambeth garden, naked, thinking of themselves “as Adam and Eve, father and mother to a world that will be conceived without taint or stain because old things will have passed away and all things made new.” Nadezhda’s belief in her husband’s genius and her resolve to resurrect his works leave little room for any other faith. Lydia’s life with Don has its own centre: “There was only ever room for one God in their marriage and it wasn’t one who watched over them from some heavenly paradise”.
These differences only strengthen the sense of kinship between the three poets. At times the novel reads as a single story: the first part is about the poet’s birth and childhood, the second portrays his demise and death, while everything that is in between is captured in the final one. The book’s strongest suit is its ability to interweave things written miles and decades apart, elegantly, without resorting to direct comparisons. The second part contains very few quotes, and yet Mandelstam’s poetry is the axis (a word often used and alluded to in his works) around which everything rotates.
What poems does Nadezhda silently recite throughout the narrative? Does she think of her husband’s lines “To read only children’s tales / and look through a child’s eye” as a possible link to Songs of Innocence? “Wide-open city with a mad death-grip” would be a reference to Blake’s “London”, quoted in Catherine’s monologue alongside the story of its conception:
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
“Remember, in that Greek house, the much loved wife – / not Helen – the other wife – how long she embroidered?” echoes Don’s tribute to his mother in which “with a rather forced sleight of hand he transformed her into Penelope, a symbol of faithfulness, whose every stitch sealed and shaped her love for her family.” Architecture, an art that provided the standard of clarity and rigour Mandelstam strived to achieve in language (his first collection, Stone, is mentioned here several times), is evoked in another poem, where Don remembers his father’s drawing instruments. Even Don’s last wish is replayed as “[w]ave follows wave, breaks the back of a wave with a wave”.
Park’s prose has been justly compared to poetry; his writing also has a vividness and urgency that makes you want to feel what his characters feel. What is it like to be married to a poet? Can one share his vision when “all that is visible […] is the wet gleam of the shingle and the sea that stretches to the sky”? What happens when a woman realises that “the poem is water entrusted into her hand to carry and she must not spill even a drop”? How does it feel to read your husband’s lines about “unbroken constancy of love” knowing the poem is to someone else? As you ponder these questions, chronology matters less and less. The book leaves you with the impression of poetry as a vast space where voices echo across the years, ringing in your ears longer than any acoustics would permit, a poetic resonance riding its wave.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 26th, 2014.