The Poets' Wives

Behind every great man there is a great woman in David Park's 'stunning' new novel

David Park’s ninth novel is his most beautiful yet. The Poets’ Wives tells the stories of three different women in the years after the death of their husbands. The first narrative is in the voice of Catherine Blake, wife of 18th century London artist, poet and mystic, William Blake.

The second tells the story of Nadezhda Mandelstam, widow of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who disappeared in Stalin’s camps and left his wife to a widowhood that would last over twice as long as their married life. And the final narrative is a contemporary one in which Lydia, the wife of a fictional Northern Irish poet, prepares to honour his final wishes to have his ashes scattered in the waters off the North Coast.

Catherine’s story opens with a visit from ‘Mr Blake’, but a Blake transformed into vision: ‘Even his black coat… seems burnished and sheened.' When she notices ‘for the first time in all the long years of our life together that his fingers have no stain or smudge of ink’, we realise that this is a visitation from the grave.

Catherine’s story is told in the first person because in life she had no voice. She married Blake in 1782, an uneducated and illiterate Londoner and yet, as Park’s narrative shows, became his artistic collaborator in the engravings and prints by which he made his living.

In the opening chapter, as William gives his wife instructions of what to sell so as to survive – ‘Ask good money for the Dürer, the one above the engraving table' – she asks to keep ‘some brushes and a little of the paint… I must somehow colour all these pages my memory continues to press.’

And so the chapters we read are her re-creation of the memories of her life with Blake, no longer determined by the ‘holiness of his imagination’ but by the colours of loss and of love. And in her stories we see the original sights that would become the great illustrated poems of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience.

The army of stick-thin child chimney sweeps on their annual holiday on Mayday flowing through the streets, like ‘little smuts flown from some chimney’; the blues and reds of a comet streaming across the London sky trailing orange flames and terrifying the inhabitants that this is a punishment from God; that comet’s tail evoked to describe the colours of the caged creature in the Royal Menagerie; Catherine and William abroad on the streets of London at dawn, with the river and its slimy banks dewy, and a child prostitute plying her trade.

In the second narrative, ‘Nadezhda’, we are in the itinerant world of Nadezhda Mandelstam during and following Osip Mandelstam’s imprisonment, exile and death. Joseph Brodsky joked that Russia produced enough widows of the wives of great writers in the 1940s and 50s to organise a trade union of them.

Where Catherine Blake is upheld in widowhood in the sureness of her belief that William will come for her and they will cross over into an eternity of love, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s sustaining belief is in the need to preserve her husband’s work: ‘Right from the start of the process of making him a non-person they wanted the poems to disappear and she will not let that happen.’

Nadezhda’s narrative is third person, since her own first-person narrative exists  – her two-volume monumental memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, written astonishingly at 65 when things began to ease and slowly she was able to bring the poems she had preserved to light.

In the 1970s, writers travelling to Russia would make a pilgrimage to see her. Bruce Chatwin told to bring champagne, cheap thrillers and marmalade. But Park takes us back to a time when no-one outside of Russia knew of her or her husband’s work. To the bleak loneliness of exile and imprisonment. To constant fear and suspicion. To a place in which no-one could be trusted and in which it was unfair even to accept the kindness of friends, for fear they too would be marked by the contagion they carried.

In this section of the book we move through different time periods from 1934 to 1952. We see in Mandelstam something of the ‘holy fool’ idea that attached to Blake, the ability to be happy in simple things of living but also the fact that poetry would sometimes blind him to ordinary needs.

Like Catherine Blake – who said she once served William an empty plate for dinner to remind him that ‘while his head was in Paradise, our bodies needed food and the wherewithal to buy it’ – so too Nadezhda is witness to Mandelstam’s ability ‘to live life-glad in the moment’ no matter how straightened their circumstances or how hungry they were.

We learn how prison tears Mandelstam ‘asunder from who he is’, and the awful reality of her life that decrees that finally one day he will walk through a door to a waiting lorry and she will never see him again.

In the final section of the book we find Lydia, recently-widowed wife of a Northern Irish poet, set on fulfilling the final duty of her life with him in despatching his last poems for printing, his papers to an American university and his ashes to the sea.

If there was any niggle of doubt about Park’s book, it might have been that each narrative concerns a poet’s wife – in which all three women live lives in service to male genius – but I think the final narrative is the one that in a sense explains that choice, in that Park shows through the three wives the massive change that has occurred in the situation of women.

In this narrative it is Lydia’s money and professional life that has supported her husband’s writing. When wondering when her husband had assumed divinity as a poet, ‘she took some pleasure from knowing it wasn’t imagination… that had put food on the family table and paid the bills down all the years'.

Park has fun in this section of the book with the realities of contemporary literary life in Belfast, in which magazine editors dispense judgements ‘like oligarchs’ and in which even the divine of the poetry world are beset with jealousy and insecurity.

The figure of the ‘Don’ is on the surface magnanimous and encouraging of the newly-fledged, especially if they are pretty and female, but Lydia knows the seething resentments and the ‘acute divination he possessed for any possible slights’ that rage underneath the smiling exterior.

Part of the fun also is to try to identify the poet. It is a fictional one – the detail fitting no actual person – but there is literary amusement to be had in recognising references to actual poets in the fictional poems Park creates for his poet.

Themes, tropes and images run like threads through The Poets' Wives, creating a unifying sense of cumulative meaning across the three narratives – a sense leant weight by the beautiful woodcuts of Belfast by artist Colin Watson that seem modelled on the archetypal suffering human figures in Blake’s own plates and which here herald each new chapter of the women’s stories.

The first two wives are childless but what is tragedy for Catherine Blake is bleak comfort for Nadezhda. While for Lydia, her childrenare the best product of her life with the poet.

The bluebells of Catherine’s wedding posy – a single one of which is preserved in her Bible at the end of her life – become refracted in the heartbreakingly beautiful bluebells in the jam jar of the Gulag survivor who can give Nadezhda some strands of the end of Osip’s life, and which he parcels up for her on leaving ‘for the grave you don’t have'.

But it is infidelity, a feature of almost all of Park’s work, that is perhaps the strongest uniting strand here – from the young harlot of Blake’s ‘London’ poem whose curse ‘blights with plague the marriage hearse’ and casts a shadow over Catherine’s life for a time, through Osip Mandelstam’s love for a young poet Olga and the multiple infidelities of the contemporary poet in the last section.

In each case, after the death of the poet, the women become editors who will decide what remains and each has the opportunity to edit out the other women, but in each case there is a sense of poetry as a higher cause whose own fidelities must be honoured.

Catherine makes the dark story of the young harlot’s near-devastation of her marriage one of her memory plates; Nadezhda Mandelstam tells Osip that the love poems to Olga must also be preserved; and Lydia will allow her husband’s final sonnet sequence to another woman to be published because 'she was their trusted custodian and it was her final obligation to see them pass into the hands of others'.

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.

The Poets' Wives is now, published by Bloomsbury. It will be the focus of the One City, One Book Belfast reading initiative in May 2014.