‘Our marriage wasn’t always unhappy’: so begins this ‘memoir of a marriage’ between Australian writer Mandy Sayer and her first husband, the Afro-American poet Yusef Komunyakaa. What follows is the chronicle of a deeply troubled relationship from the point of view of the poet’s wife. Yet in the course of those ten difficult years, between 1985 and 1995, Mandy Sayer emerged as a successful writer in her own right. The unhappy marriage in which, despite her feminist principles, she ‘dwindled into a wife’ (in Millamant’s famous phrase) was also the scene of her re-making herself from a tap-dancing street urchin of 22 into an educated, ambitious and successful novelist and playwright. The cost to her, however, was almost fatal – she became clinically depressed. She would not, could not, leave the marriage – except by suicide, to which she was strongly drawn. In many ways, despite the uniqueness of the people involved, The Poet’s Wife is a horribly familiar story of an abusive relationship which continually deepens the mutual dependence of the couple.
What makes this story of an unhappy marriage dramatically different, however, is the framing device which Sayer uses as both prologue and epilogue: the report of a murder-suicide in 2003 involving Komunyakaa’s then partner and their two-year-old son. Learning of this, Sayer writes, brought back memories of the ‘dark nights’ of her marriage to the poet:
Nights when I wondered where he was – and with whom … Nights spent writing suicide notes in Spanish in my diary so that Yusef, if he pried, wouldn’t be able to understand them. Nights when I went to sleep with a plastic bag in my bedside drawer, just in case I felt compelled to suffocate myself.
Remembering her own suicidal depression, Sayer presents the story of her youthful first marriage as a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ story. So dramatic is her reaction to the terrible news of the murder-suicide – committed by a woman of whose existence she was previously unaware – that we are compelled to read on, sharing her horror. It is not immediately apparent that ten years have passed between that moment of discovery and the writing of The Poet’s Wife.
This framing device sets the scene for a reading in which the narrator’s identification with the unknown woman and her dead child heightens one’s reactions to the miseries of Mandy Sayer’s unhappy marriage – a reading which, given the unresolved grief that is the fate of those left behind by suicide, effectively ‘frames’ the poet himself. Add to this Komunyakaa’s fame as a poet, and there are uncanny echoes of Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill, and the unrelenting public attribution to Hughes of some responsibility for both women’s death by suicide. In that case, the fact that Plath had written about her earlier suicide attempts (‘I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell’) fed into the myth of the brilliant but doomed woman poet, who could now be seen, by those inclined to attribute personal blame, as having been driven to take her own life by a man and a marriage.
Yet this sensational perspective on the story does not, I think, do The Poet’s Wife any favours. While it may incline some readers to identify ever more closely with the horror story of an abused wife, others will resist being drawn into complicity with this narrative stance. The fact that Sayer’s publisher blurbs the book as ‘the follow-up to her bestselling memoir, Dreamtime Alice’, with no mention of the fatal event which apparently inspired Sayer to write it, makes me wonder if they had some reservations about the framing device. And she does not need it. Sayer has a well-deserved reputation as a compelling memoirist – Dreamtime Alice (1998) is the story of her life as a street performer with her father in New York City and New Orleans, while Velocity (2005) recounts a fraught childhood spent with the mother and siblings he had abandoned. Her novels, beginning with Mood Indigo (1990), which won the Vogel Award for an unpublished first novel in 1989, deal with similar autobiographically-based material. That extraordinary life experience, and Sayer’s creative use of it, is the great strength of her writing. She has spoken of writing memoir as a way of taking control of her life:
I’m in control of the material … The good thing about being a writer is, usually the writer gets the final word.
The familiar theme of writing as revenge lurks below this talk of control, but when it is at the service of psychic survival, one can only applaud.
In her Adelaide Writers Week interview in March 2014, Sayer said that The Poet’s Wife could be read as ‘a detective story by a wife about a husband’. Indeed, the man himself – ‘a fascinating poet but a puzzling husband’ – is the book’s central conundrum. It is about her, but it is focused on her attempts to understand him. When they first meet in New Orleans, Yusef Komunyakaa is broke, a poet who is teaching elementary school part-time. She is awed by him, and excited by his poetry – by its evocation of his experiences growing up in the deep South and serving in Vietnam, and by its links with jazz, which she understands and loves as her father’s music, the music that she dances to. During the course of their marriage he attains recognition for his work, first in the form of university teaching appointments, later in the form of prestigious prizes and fellowships, including the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. From the beginning, he recognises her as an astute reader whose editorial suggestions he is happy to have. There is no doubt, either, that his influence and encouragement lead her to undertake university studies and to begin writing herself. The narrative tells how she wrote and published her first novels during the period of their marriage. She describes how her formal education at Indiana University at Bloomington and at the University of California at Berkeley, where Komunyakaa was a member of the faculty, included taking classes with the doyenne of autobiographical writing, Maxine Hong Kingston. Sayer passionately wanted to be part of the literary world, and succeeded in making her own way there.
The fascinating poet, then, was a crucial creative influence. And the puzzling husband? Evidently he was a mystery to her because of their differences – in age (she was only 22 when they met, he was almost twice her age), in race (he is Afro-American and grew up in the South during segregation), and in experience (after Vietnam he got a university education, thanks to the GI Bill, and began to publish poetry that brought him wide recognition). So although, as Sayer writes, ‘we’d both known poverty, domestic violence and the expectation that neither one of us would ever amount to anything’, it is their differences which forcibly strike the reader.
However, Komunyakaa – this man whose behaviour is unfathomable, by turns affectionate, protective, controlling, insulting, and punitive – is more than just a ‘puzzle’ to Sayer. The idea of the memoir as ‘a detective story by a wife about a husband’ takes on a more forensic dimension when the poet’s wife begins to seek out clues by reading his mail and registering phone calls from old girlfriends. For a long time, she has no definitive proof of his suspected infidelity, but the narrative builds up a picture of a man who loved and encouraged the adulation of his students and other female admirers. Alongside the wife’s mounting suspicions, a pattern of more threatening behaviour emerges, as he undermines her confidence in a variety of ways. For example, from their early days onwards she edits all his poems, but later in their relationship she sees that he is systematically destroying all evidence of this assistance. He never strikes her, but is often psychologically abusive. She begins to experience panic attacks, but he refuses to allow her any psychiatric help. At one point, he appears to have stolen her engagement and wedding rings and then accused her of having lost them. The story takes on the aspect of a thriller: ‘he was gaslighting me,’ she writes.
What appears to be the cause of Sayer’s greatest disorientation and distress is that his behaviour towards her fluctuates from kind and loving to controlling and insulting, with no discernible pattern. It is the classic unpredictable behavior of an abusive relationship based on a radical imbalance of power. While she has moments of resistance, for the most part the narrative consists of her recording minute observations of his puzzling or hurtful behaviour. These accelerate in intensity and frequency as the book proceeds. There is rarely any attempt to draw conclusions about what is going on: analytical reflection is not the mode of this memoir. When a generalisation does emerge, as when Yusef’s mother tells her that ‘all our men do it’ – meaning they all run around with other women – she denies that he would ever do this.
The narrative stance is very close to that of the young girl she was in 1985: there is no older and wiser persona looking back. The immediacy of Sayer’s reactions is vivid and engaging, but this also means that her moments of doubt and puzzlement are swept along in the rush of events. There are many times when one wants to shout to her ‘look out!’ or ‘don’t go there!’ as if one is indeed watching a thriller like Gaslight (1944).
The young Mandy comes to understand a good deal about racism, but for all her professions of feminism (at fifteen she had vowed never to marry, let alone have children) she hardly notices male privilege and entitlement when they are staring her in the face. Yusef is, after all, a man, an older man, a successful man, and a husband on whom she is for a long time financially dependent. Other differences that the narrator tends to overlook in their ongoing relationship are her own poverty, and her isolation from friends and family. Despite her street smarts, she is naive, even credulous, about the man she loves. She seems not to notice that he uses money to control her, and to manipulate her relationship with her father, Gerry. She records actions which hurt and belittle her, but rarely records occasions when she calls him to account for them.
There is a parallel between her intense attachment to her father and to Yusef – both of them charismatic, charming, creative men, and social outsiders. Yet while Mandy recognises that her father does not ‘care about my wellbeing’, she can forgive him anything. Gerry is consistently bohemian in his attitude to life, an attitude Mandy has always admired and emulated; Yusef is portrayed as the opposite, anxious for success and respect. He expects her to conform to the model of the faculty wife, to help him renovate the house he has bought for them; he tends to criticise her for laughing too loudly or dressing eccentrically. Although this rankles, and she refuses to conform socially, she is clearly unused to challenging a man she admires.
Not all her suffering can be traced to Yusef’s behaviour. Early in their marriage, she almost dies from the effects of an undiagnosed ectopic pregnancy, and when she falls pregnant years later she decides for herself to have an abortion. It is after this that she seeks psychiatric help, which she can now pay for herself. In the end, it seems that a combination of successful psychiatric treatment for depression and her growing financial and professional independence allows ‘the poet’s wife’ to leave him and sue for divorce. Her eventual discovery of hard evidence of his deceptions, both about aspects of his identity and about his infidelities, seem almost beside the point, for by this time she has gained the necessary confidence to stand on her own two feet and send him packing.
The memoirist is creator of her personal myth. In Dreamtime Alice, the myth is a compelling one of a daughter’s dedication to forging a relationship with the father who has always eluded her, in their life of freedom together as street performers in the two legendary cities of New York and New Orleans. Mandy’s identification with Alice in Wonderland comes into play when she embarks on the sexual encounters that always end up in disappointment – the Alice persona allows her some narrative distance on these adventures. That persona is notably absent in the lyrical sexual encounter with Yusef, a celebration of ‘desire’s quick alchemy’, which brings that earlier memoir to a conclusion. The narrator, it would seem, has reconciled her everyday and her sexual selves.
Sayer uses part of this passage as a prelude to The Poet’s Wife, a second framing device after the murder-suicide story. But beyond that point, the joys of the relationship disappear from view, as the memoir moves rapidly into the territory of a trauma survival narrative. There is no distancing device comparable to the Alice persona: the narrative voice is the same throughout. Because of this, and the inevitable naivety of that voice, The Poet’s Wife risks falling into a victim stance, even though it is ultimately a story of survival.
Sunanda Creagh, ‘Having the last word,’ Sydney Morning Herald (11 June 2005).