Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

"The Poets' Wives" by David Park (Bloomsbury, 2015)

3 novellas (though he calls it a novel) about the widows of Blake, Mandelstam and an imaginary 20th century Irish poet. The wives have differing attitudes to children and their husbands' affairs.

Blake's wife writes surprisingly well - "The city is slowly beginning to waken and we pass carts already heading to market heavy laden with goods and the drivers sit slumped over their reins as if barely awake, only jerking upright when a wheel hits a stone or the horse tries to stop and drink in one of the muddy puddles that strew the road" (p.12). They see a caged tiger then go to the sea where "he lifts the shingle in his hands and holds it as if it is the world's most valuable jewels and he stares at them so I do the same but cannot see what he sees and when I ask him he tells me we hold the whole world" (p.51). The section sounds too much like researched historical writing.

I preferred the Mandelstam piece (Stalinism, Writers Union, internal exile - nothing unexpected), though I'm unsure about the value of presenting the sections non-chronologically - 1939, 1936, 1947, 1952, 1934, 1950, 1939, 1956.

Lydia in the final section is less in awe of her husband - "Poetic license. Yes, that was what he based his life on, a license to be selfish, eternally happy taking the comforts of her labours in a frequently dull nine to five job while contributing little himself to the budget" (p.200). "Not that he had many bad reviews - it was all too incestuous for that, too much of a boys' club" (p.203), "It always pleased him to appear magnanimous ... And no one got more encouragement that those young women whose talents, however meagre, combined with prettiness" (p.203). Her section is mostly a third-person monologue about clearing their holiday cottage, then spreading his ashes with her two grown (childless, unmarried) children. She wonders whether she should have tried to be more independent. Unlike the other wives she doesn't look upon her husband's words as striving towards the expression of his true self - "she couldn't bring herself to understand how such perfect truth could spring from someone who was so frequently false" (p.214). She didn't think his famous 8 sonnets of grief following the death of their son matched her private suffering. Whereas Mandelstam's wife helped to preserve her husband's poems by memorizing them. Lydia wonders about burning the final works she finds in the cottage. At the end she tries to forge a new relationship with her two daughters. The section, like the book, is too long.

Other reviews

  • Alexander Harris (Guardian) (The Blakes and the Mandelstams staked their lives on the need to put feelings into books, but it is hard to compare Songs of Innocence with the indifferent poems of an invented poet. Switching from first-person to third-person, from one temporal complication to the next, The Poets' Wives demands more patience than it ever quite rewards.)
  • Holly Williams (The Independent) (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. ... Park’s imaginative recreation of the Mandelstams’ enduring love is often beautifully wrought.... But this could also be a gripping yarn, and it feels more like a miserable trudge ... [the last is] the most compelling section but ... 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.)
  • Culture Northern Ireland (This stunning novel conveys the poetry of its subjects through the prose poetry of David Park’s writing. It asks questions about the nature of genius, about the ethics of transmission in writing, about the price of preserving poetry in dangerous times. ... It considers the difference between writer and writing and whether a dishonest person can write truthful poetry. It will be of interest to the general reader as a good read, but to anyone with an interest in poetry it’s a book especially to be savoured.)
  • Kirkus reviews (The women’s stories follow the same pattern of early passion evolving into long years of travail and sacrifice. ... The language is gorgeous, the tone exquisitely highbrow, but the result is disappointingly dull.)

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