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Posted on 4 Feb 2014 in Non-Fiction | 1 comment

MANDY SAYER The Poet’s Wife. Reviewed by Kylie Mason

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poet'swifeThe award-winning author of Velocity and Dreamtime Alice returns with the searing, soul-baring memoir of her marriage to Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa.

Mandy Sayer is 22 and still tap-dancing on street corners when she meets Yusef Komunyakaa during Mardi Gras in New Orleans in 1985. He is African-American, a poet and an unemployed teacher, and almost 20 years older. A friendship develops between them and soon they fall in love. But even before they marry, Sayer realises their relationship is haunted by Komunyakaa’s secretive and controlling nature.

The couple spend the first year of their marriage in Australia, where Sayer supports them by tap-dancing in Kings Cross. Initially depressed by the move to a foreign country, Komunyakaa finds kindred spirits among the poets who perform at the Harold Park Hotel and finally succeeds in encouraging Sayer to write about her time busking with her father. When Komunyakaa is offered a job teaching English at Indiana University, they return to the US. Here Sayer finds herself a housewife of sorts, whisked into the unfamiliar world of academia. No longer a street performer, she teaches a few tap classes and edits her husband’s poetry while continuing to work on her own writing.

Picking up the thread of Sayer’s life from the end of Dreamtime Alice, The Poet’s Wife is the insightful tale of a suffocating, damaging marriage, and the subtle abuse that builds over years to turn Sayer into a dependent, fragile person. Yet there is no self-pity to be found in the book’s vibrant, clear-eyed narrative. Sayer’s joy in performing and writing, and the love she has for Komunyakaa, shines from the page and it is the destruction and rediscovery of this joy that makes reading the memoir a bittersweet, heartbreaking experience. Every manipulation, every angry outburst, every suspected betrayal, forms a story that draws the reader in, noticing the clues that Sayer at first seems willing to explain away or overlook. Komunyakaa’s manner, though, eventually wears her down:

As I wiped sweat off my face I felt as if I were becoming smaller and smaller: Yusef and Paris were corresponding with one another … Was I beginning to vanish? Could nobody hear or see me anymore? … after the surgery, after the letter from Paris, I sensed a subtle shift in him, an edging away. When I’d pass him in the living room and pause to hug him, he’d sigh and flinch, as if spontaneous affection were now a luxury too messy and time-consuming for someone like him.

As Sayer’s writing career flourishes – she won the 1989 Australian/Vogel Award for her first novel, Mood Indigo – so do Komunyakaa’s attempts to control her. He forbids her to return to Australia for the award dinner and coaches her in how to deal with the media, berating her for sounding illiterate. He criticises her weight and refuses to pay for therapy for her insomnia and depression. Sayer comes to agree with him, and the resulting despair spurs her on to hone her writing to gain his approval, to lose weight, to overcome her depression through sheer hard work. It isn’t until Sayer uses her own money to consult a therapist, and then a psychiatrist, that she begins to see clearly the situation her love for and devotion to her husband has put her in:

Over the years I’d allowed him to dictate to me what kind of clothes I should wear, how I should behave in public and the domestic arrangements that he preferred, but his attempt to control what I wrote and published left me suspicious of his deeper motives … I was beginning to realise that I was a fully capable human being whose biggest problem was my desire to avoid conflict at any cost, including, probably, my mental health.

The Poet’s Wife is a tale of passion, of love and betrayal, of jealousy and control. It is a tale of commonplace cruelty; of an emotional cage the captive can only see with the benefit of hindsight. It is a compelling account of the kind of abusive relationship that leaves little physical evidence, but it is also a beacon of hope that shows escape and recovery are possible

Mandy Sayer The Poet’s Wife Allen & Unwin 2014 PB 432pp $32.99

Kylie Mason is a freelance book editor based in Sydney. www.kyliemmason.com

You can buy this book from Abbey’s here.

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1 Comment

  1. Very familiar territory for me. I will definitely be reading this book soon. I have read several books of hers but didn’t realise she was married.