THE POET’S WIFE BY MANDY SAYER Published by Allen & Unwin, $32.99
Five months after her marriage to the writer Louis Nowra, Mandy Sayer read a press clipping from the United States recounting the death of the Indian-born writer, Reetika Vazirani, who had killed herself and her two-year old son while housesitting for friends. Her suicide note mentioned the child’s father, the award-winning African-American poet and academic Yusef Komunyakaa. There had been problems in the relationship.
Sayer was shaken. For she herself had been married to Komunyakaa for a turbulent ten years. During that time, she skidded from euphoria to depression. The Poet’s Wife is her recollection of their relationship, from their meeting when she was 22, to their parting, eleven years later.
Although Sayer is a fiction writer (she won the Vogel Prize for Australian writers under 35 for her first novel, Mood Indigo), she’s perhaps best-known for her award-winning memoirs, Velocity and Dreamtime Alice. This is not surprising: few novels are as colourful and extraordinary as her own life. The daughter of an alcoholic mother and Gerry, a free-thinking, jazz-loving father, she spent her late teens and early twenties touring America with Gerry, busking as a tap dancer while he played drums. They earned little, slept in claustrophobic rooms and roach-ridden outhouses, ate one meal per day, dressed themselves from charity bins and mixed with junkies and artists. All of this is recounted in Dreamtime Alice and the current memoir picks up from where Alice left off.
Sayer met Komunyakaa in New Orleans on Mardi Gras, 1985 and the memoir’s Prelude is a sensual, passionate account of their love-making for the first time. “I pressed my face into his hairless chest and inhaled, drawing the scent of his sweat down deep into my belly, where my song always began…. I drank him in, all his sadness and temerity, his silence and saliva, his breath which tasted like damp country earth.”
Yet ten years on, this tender and lyrical start to their life together had turned into a nightmare in which Sayer endured Komunyakaa’s cruel jibes and ongoing infidelities. When she finally left him to return to Sydney, she’d discovered that not only had her husband carried on an affair with a previous lover for the duration of their marriage, but had recently fathered her child. And there were many other women. He was a compulsive liar – he told Sayer he was 38 when their met, but in fact he was 44, twice Sayer’s age – he’d managed to falsify his army discharge papers and passport. The more Sayer delved, the more deceit she uncovered. At the end, she felt she no longer knew her husband at all.
Still, they fell in love. When they met, he was an out-of-work university teacher, poet and Vietnam vet. She recognised his brilliance and the power of his writing won her over. “Even though we’d grown up in vastly different cultures and countries, we’d both known poverty, domestic violence and the expectation that neither one of us would ever amount to anything.,” she writes. “That was probably what united us more than anything: our shared defiance of that prediction.”
Kominyakaa had his good points: he provided Sayer with a proper home, the first she’d had in years. He encouraged Sayer to go to college and earn her BA, and championed her early writing. When he was unemployed, she supported him by dancing in the streets. When he found work as a university lecturer and began publishing his verse more regularly, she wrote, taught and completed her MA. They moved from the USA back to Sydney, from Sydney to the USA, as job opportunities arose. At the beginning, the sex was mesmerising. She recounts an almost idyllic period of their lives together when they wrote at adjacent desks, editing each other’s work. Yet by the time he was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1994, the marriage was already in trouble.
Kominyakaa was a master of verbal abuse. Insults ranged from taunting Sayer about her weight, her lack of sophistication and basic education; he laughed at her poor housekeeping skills, her inability to cook. He’d go on tour with poetry readings and “forget” to call her, stay out late or hang out with students rather than come home. Sayer recounts his unspoken surprise – and maybe even jealousy – at her literary successes. He became more and more controlling, even of her own writing, which was the last straw.
Early in their marriage. Sayer miscarried; later, realising Kominyakaa no longer loved her, she terminated a pregnancy. Their disintegrating relationship is symbolised by the caged doves Kominyakaa gave Sayer as a present: after a while, the male began pecking viciously at the female, so Sayer freed them both before one bird destroyed the other.
As Sayer’s depression grew, she described her suicidal feelings in her diary, writing in Spanish, a language Kominyakaa didn’t understand, because she was convinced he was spying on her. At her most desperate, she kept a plastic bag hidden beneath her pillow, so that if things got too bad, she could always suffocate herself. There are fleeting passages where Sayer comes across as a victim, but not for long. This tough, street-smart woman was more than capable of protecting her precious busking patch in King’s Cross by swearing fiercely and taking on anyone who’d dare to muscle in. In her dealings with Kominyakaa, she gave as good as she got, but after a while, he wore her down. She was simply exhausted. More importantly, he’d betrayed her trust.
Kominyakaa and Gerry didn’t get on. There is a sense of Sayer emancipating herself in this memoir, disentangling herself from the influence of the two most important men in her life, to become the writer she is today. The memoir also traces the developing state of race relations from the late Eighties to mid-Nineties, especially in Australia. At one point, after a job interview at Sydney University, where he affects an upper-class accent, Kominyakaa explains to Sayer how important it is for black people to learn to “switch codes” – adopting one pattern of speech with white authority figures that conform to white expectations, another with family and friends. This schizophrenic mind-set dictated by race, Sayer believes, underpinned his own volatile behaviour towards her. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but it’s a fascinating thesis.
Sayer is a natural-born writer. Sentences, similes, reminiscences flow out of her like water. There’s superb poetry in the pain. She recounts this significant chapter in her life with much humour and not a trace of self-pity and you’re left with huge admiration for her courage and survival instincts. What also emerges from this memoir is her unswerving dedication to writing. Innately disciplined, a typical day could include writing in the morning, teaching and studying in the afternoon, teaching a tap dance class at night as well as reading for pleasure.
Mandy Sayer won The National Book Award in 2000 for Dreamtime Alice and The Age Non -Fiction Prize for Velocity. I’d be very surprised if this third memoir doesn’t garner equal awards and praise.
I’ll be talking to Mandy Sayer in a forthcoming Pageturners podcast on 3MBS.