I felt a number of things after finishing Mandy Sayer’s new memoir ‘The Poet’s Wife’. I felt relief that she had finally decided to leave her first husband, Yusef Komunyakaa: description after description of his brooding, sulking tantrums nearly tipped me over the edge. I also felt envious of Sayer’s fascinating life: living overseas, writing, busking, meeting interesting people, living in a fabulous sounding apartment in Kings Cross. The memoir made me want to start house-hunting for a little studio of my own on Macleay Street. And finally, I felt that even though I was reading about a fair chunk of Sayer’s life, I was still interested enough in going back to read her first memoir ‘Dreamtime Alice’, the debut which put her on the literary map and which I have been told by friends is a cracking read.
Sayer is an engaging writer but I think what has made her a literary success is just how interesting she is as a person. Even an amateur writer could make something of Sayer’s early life: she was busking as a tap dancer, resplendent in top hat and tails, and living hand to mouth in New Orleans in the eighties. That’s always going to be interesting. Her entrance into Komunyakaa’s studio, on roller skates, is like a scene from a David O. Russell film:
‘I glided across and came to a stop only inches short of him. He looked down at the skates, then back up at me. At first, I thought he might disapprove of my entrance, think it childish or even dangerous, but then he smiled and rested his hand on my shoulder, murmuring, Good to see you again. I inhaled the scent of his sweat – earthy, like mud – and had a sudden urge to kiss him.’
The fact that Komunyakaa was much older than Sayer, as well as African American, and a Pulitzer prize winning poet, gave Sayer plenty of material to explore within the memoir. But it was the jealous nature of Komunyakaa that became the constant motif of the text, and the ultimate problem in their relationship:
‘Sitting in his kitchen, hearing these anecdotes, I found myself even more in awe of him. He seemed so gentle and graceful – his poetry so lyrical – and I found it hard to reconcile this soft-spoken writer with a war-scarred ex-soldier ready to shoot his cheating girlfriend and all her lovers.’
I don’t know if I’d be alone as a reader of this text in feeling frustrated by the many years of Sayer’s tip toeing around Komunyakaa’s childish behaviour, but her eventual breakdown towards the end of the marriage is affecting, and I ultimately felt sympathetic for her plight:
‘I began writing suicide notes in Spanish, and kept them in my journal. Just describing my thoughts made me feel better, like slowly sucking venom from a snakebite. I knew Yusef read my journal when I wasn’t around – I always double checked the position of the book before leaving the house and then again on my return.’
The moments of writing I enjoyed most were the passages on her time in Kings Cross: Sayer is known for her love of the area, and she portrays the suburb vividly and fondly, without glamorising it:
‘As a kid I’d lived in the Cross for two years, and had returned with my father when we’d first begun busking. Now, in the mid-eighties, it was still an unruly village of corruption and vice: drugs, porn and sex could be procured as easily as a kebab or a beer.’
And I loved all the descriptions of her wonderful busking performances:
‘I set up my gear, tied on my shoes, and pressed play on the cassette player. As Yusef sheltered beneath an adjacent awning, I began dancing to a solo piano version of ‘Sunny Side of the Street’, tapping over the wet bricks, doing my best impersonation of Gene Kelly performing ‘Singin’ In The Rain’, swinging myself around a lamppost, jumping on the park bench, pirouetting from one side of the corner to the other’.
Like many memoirs of a full life, ‘The Poet’s Wife’ could have been slightly shorter – much time was spent describing writing courses in various universities, which became a bit repetitive. However, this is a memoir worth reading, less for the marriage that it explores, but more for the fascinating woman it dissects.
*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014