Of poetic injustice

The Poets’ Wives
David Park
Bloomsbury2014,
pp 296450


David Park is an acclaimed Irish writer who has voiced against the political unfairness in Ireland through his eight previous works of fiction.

 His most well-known novel, The Truth Commissioner, drew accolades and sprouted controversies for its portrayal of Francis Gilroy, a former thug and terrorist who becomes Minister for Culture. Park believes that a land as marred by political tension as Ireland cannot produce love stories. “This is not the time or the place for romances. There are other, more pressing demands and stories that have to be told.”

However, in his latest book, The Poets’ Wives, Park has veered from his political writing. While not a political novel, it’s still a dark tale of oppression. Here he brings to foray the lives of three women who are married to poets. The novel is biographical fiction, where the author deftly mixes facts with fiction to spruce up the story.

The Poets’ Wives is in fact three novellas bound together only thematically. The only commonality between the three women here is the unwavering faith they have in their husbands’ works. They look past their mates’ adulterous ways, bear with their gruelling dark moods and endure more poverty-stricken times than prosperous ones. And, they live this impoverished life uncomplainingly with dignity — all because they believe in the genius of their spouses.

The first wife portrayed is Catherine Blake, the wife of poet William Blake, the second novella is about Nadezhda, the wife of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. While these two accounts are real, the third couple, Lydia and her poet husband Don is fictional. 

Catherine marries poet and artist William Blake when still very young. She loves him deeply and reveres him even more. She leads her life through Blakes’s many states of mind — happy, sad, desperate and despondent. He is a poet who believes he gets visions and she accepts even that unquestioningly. She determinedly supports him in his mission where he wants to prove to the world that he is not a mad artiste, but it is just that “nothing he does is the fashion of the age.” You bit by bit understand this man called Blake who is an intellectual, intensely humane, and unbelievably dedicated.
This is probably the best of the three accounts. The merit of this partly fictionalised account is with Parks’s seasoned storytelling, the story never gets tedious.  The second wife is Nadezhda who is married to the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. Osip is imprisoned for his anti-Stalin writings. Nadezha, in a bid to save her husband’s work from being destroyed, memorises them all — “Over and over, her lips reciting the poems, engraving them into her memory.” Enough and more has been written about the cruel dictatorship of Stalin and The Great Terror of the 1930s. This historically accurate account through Nadezhda brings forth the suffering of Osip for his uncompromising stance against Stalin. 

The novella is based on Nadezhda’s feisty autobiography Hope against hope. This is the most gut-wrenching story of the three. The author makes the readers wince at the ignominy and torture suffered by an upright artiste who could not be bought by Stalin’s men — “She knows that the greatest source of their power is that they have silenced the voices. And not just the voices of political dissent, but also the vices of the artists — writers, composers, playwrights.”

The only downside to this story is its multiple jumps in time — 1939, 1947, back to 1936 and then 1934 and ahead to 1954 and more — this flashback, flash-forward narrative leaves you confused and dizzy!

The third and the final account is a contemporary story of Lydia and her Irish poet-husband Don. This probably is the weakest of the three stories. You keep wondering why Lydia did not walk out on her philandering and abusive spouse. With her husband newly dead, all she does is take stock of everything that was wrong about him and their marriage. ‘She endured his cruelty for the sake of his poetry’ does not seem like a strong enough reason. And, having read the stories of two real women and their struggles that were real, Lydia seems too feeble.  One can read this book merely for Park’s writing. True that the narrative is too verbose and a third of it could have been edited out. Nevertheless, it is a treat to read Parks’s poetic prose. You learn about the highs and lows of an artiste’s life. You also admire those who provide them emotional anchor all the while emaciating their own souls. You can’t help but ask yourself — is art really worth so much self-sacrifice? The book only raises this question and you have to find the answer on your own!

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