One City One Book 2014

Author David Park on the 'feminist impulse' behind The Poets' Wives, the focus of a month-long reading initiative

The first presumption is to read the title of David Park’s ninth novel as another paean to male genius. History, of course, is already littered with these.

The Poets’ Wives perhaps suggests a focus on male creativity and female servitude, and there is a sense in which this theme of women making continual sacrifices in service to the needs of the male artist is indeed central to this work of fictional biography – a triptych of women's lives as inter-linked novellas.

The first concerns Catherine, wife of the great Romantic poet and mystic William Blake; the second part is about Nadezha or ‘Nadia’, wife of the revolutionary poet Osip Mandelstam, who railed against the evils of Stalinist Russia; and the third part concerns Lydia, wife of a fictional, second-rate Northern Irish poet named Don.

Park – who retired from full-time teaching to devote himself to his writing several years ago – here continues his insistence that he will no longer probe the themes of the Troubles as he did in some of his more famous works, such as The Truth Commissioner (2008).

The Poets’ Wives sounds as though it requires a burden of literary knowledge to be enjoyed, but Park is quick to point out that this isn’t so. The reader does not need a deep understanding of the poetry of Blake or Mandelstam to appreciate this novel, which at its deepest level explores universal themes: love, sacrifice, art.

This book follows The Light of Amsterdam (2012), which looked at several characters from Northern Ireland during one brief holiday in the European city. It glimpsed into lives of quiet desperation, flitting between characters during moments of personal epiphany.

It was, just as The Poets' Wives is, a truly post-conflict novel, one in which its author decided it is no longer productive to explore the themes of bigotry and death that have obviously been central to Troubles art.

'I do feel now that I have written all I am going to about the Troubles,' explains Park. 'It’s an artistic decision – I want to try not to be bound my geographic or historic locations. I don’t want to be limited to writing about Northern Ireland during and after the conflict. I want perhaps to try to be more imaginative about my subject matter.'

The Poets’ Wives is a feat of meticulous research and kindled imagination. It has been chosen for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's One City One Book reading initiative, which takes place in May with the aim to get everyone in Belfast reading the same book, discussing it and attending a variety of talks and events to promote appreciation of this work, and indeed the joys of reading more generally.

The concept originated in Seattle and has been run in Belfast twice already, with novels by Glenn Patterson (The Mill for Grinding Old People Young) and Lucy Caldwell (All The Beggars Riding) having already been featured.

'It’s a great honour,' says Park. 'It’s an opportunity to go out and meet people who enjoy books as well as an opportunity to find new readers. But it leaves me slightly apprehensive too. I just hope people will find something to like and enjoy in my work.'

Born in 1953, Park grew up in east Belfast. He speaks quietly and carefully, mulling over each word to assess its accuracy and relevance. If Park projects an atmosphere, it seems one of quiet reserve, quickening observational powers and humility.

He sees no place for the over-bearing ego of the author in fiction, believing, as he has said elsewhere, that a 'book is essentially moral. And the ego [of the writer] disfigures the writing'.

The Poets’ Wives is a hugely ambitious novel in which Park moves across oceans of time and deftly between distinct female psychologies. Some might regard a male author voicing female characters as an act of questionable patriarchal appropriation of feminine experience.

But it would be ludicrous to debar men from writing female characters, and Park writes women with incredible sensitivity and empathy. Like Brian Friel and James Joyce, Park has a real knack for lending voice to the feminine so that it keeps the ring of truth and authenticity.

'At the heart of the novel is a human story about three women,' says Park. 'They are all separated by time and place but linked by the fact that their husbands are poets and this has been a source of sacrifice.

'The book is about these women’s relationships with their husbands – and love and marriage – are universal stories, stories that can touch everyone, regardless of whether they are literary or not.'

And Park defends the novel as having a feminist agenda: 'Although the title of the book makes the wives seem secondary, for me the book has a very strong feminist impulse because the novel is not about the men, the novel gives primacy to the lives of these women, their struggles and concerns.'

The idea for the work came to Park while he was reading a biography of the mystic William Blake, the man who painted otherworldly plate engravings to accompany his often prophetic poetry, who liked to sit naked with his wife Catherine in their back garden, seeking a return to some Prelapsarian state. As his wife astutely put it: 'The trouble with William is that his head is always in Paradise.'

'The idea for the novel came from a passage I read in a biography of Blake by Peter Ackroyd. There was one section that described the day of their marriage. It said that Catherine, when she married William, had signed the register with an ‘x’, which meant that when they were married she couldn’t read or write.

"I just thought – how incredible. Marriage is a symbol of intimacy and that ‘x’, initially at least, was a symbol of distance. William and Catherine were married for 45 years and had a very deep relationship. She played a fundamental role in both his life and in his art.

'He was a dreamer, she was the person who kept him together, who ensured there was a meal on the table. But also, I think, spiritually and intellectually, she played an important role in his work. The most poignant aspect of their love story is that when he was on his deathbed, he wanted to draw her, saying "You have always been an angel to me". Those were some of his last words.'

The next part of the novel concerns Nadezhda Mandelstam and her struggle to keep in memory the anti-Stalinist poetry her husband had been sentenced into exile for. So intense was her dedication that, given the option to join Osip in exile, she chose to go with him.

Park explains: 'Osip Mandelstam was a Russian poet who wrote and recited a poem about Stalin to who he considered a group of friends. But someone reported him to the authorities, with the result that he was arrested and sentenced to life in a Siberian prison camp. His wife, Nadia, was not arrested, but she chose to go with him into exile. He died in transit.

'After his arrest and death, she believed that what she had to do was to preserve all his poetry in her memory for posterity so that she could be the witness to his words. Memory was the only safe place. She was in constant danger from Stalin and spent her whole life living in backwater towns. All the time she kept this poetry alive inside herself. It was a private act of defiance. Mandelstam has since, in the modern era, been restored as one of Russia’s greatest poets.'

Unlike Catherine Blake, Nadia decided to be her own voice as well as Osip’s and was a writer herself. her two memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, convey her struggles in Stalinist Russia, holding forth powerfully on Stalin’s evils, and then releasing her husband’s poems to the page.

The final section of The Poets' Wives is set in contemporary Northern Ireland and follows Lydia, wife of the entirely fictional and adulterous poet Don. In contrast to the other two love stories, this part is about a troubled union and of the falling out of love, or, as Park puts it, 'a slow release like clasped hands gradually slipping'.

'I’ve never met anybody like Don and I never want to meet anybody like Don,' says Park, pointedly. 'Here I wanted to show a relationship that focused on the man’s selfishness. His wife has spent her time working to support him as he writes and conducts his romantic liaisons. After he dies, she finds a sequence of love sonnets. There are no names, but she realises instinctively that they are not about her.'

This part is devastating, especially when set next to the beauty of love found between the other two couples. What will Lydia do to reclaim her autonomy, and to bounce back from the heartache of devotion to a man who could not give her his whole heart, pure and entire?

If true love entails sacrifice, isn't it Don who has most missed out on grasping the essential meaning of love, the love that lies beyond the wine and roses of the first flush, butterflies, swoons, sleepless nights?

'Well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out,' says Park wryly. I'm hooked, and rush off in search of a copy, as most of Belfast should also be doing very soon.

The Poets’ Wives is out now, published by Bloomsbury. One City One Book 2014 runs in venues across Belfast from May 1 – 31.