Review of Micheline Maylor’s "The Bad Wife"
“star-dust and vanishing.”
“These poems will wreck your home, wake you up with their noisy sex, devastate like a Wall Street banker on a Saturday night bender. These poems will sober you up in the morning with the strength of flowers, of prayer flags.” -Susan Musgrave
Micheline Maylor’s The Bad Wife (University of Alberta Press, 2021) is a collection of poems that both “devastates” and “wrecks” with such lightning precision and poetic honesty that, as a reader, you may want to charge right through seventy-seven pages of beautiful tortuous debris that artfully addresses a union gone ‘wrong’ and find your way to a fulfilling end that both unsettles, re-assures, and in a sense, re-unites.
Early on a moment by a lake with children* heralds the beginning of this somewhat apocalyptic tour de force that rigorously and metonymically notes the changes in a frightening world and a troubling relationship. These atmospheric changes (silly sand, raining ash, smoke) act as portents in this particular woman’s life – images as signals, sometimes found in the air, in the geography surrounding her, that she may decide to run from – and the running initiates the simple question stated at the end of the poem –
“Why did I feel it necessary to take my bag and run as if the vow said, every woman for herself?”
Questions of identity, achievement, fulfillment and loving someone “spectacularly" - yet still needing desperately to leave them - permeate a collection that acts as both an array of separate stand-alone poems as well as a seamless journey through the maze of a marriage. A marriage that ultimately impeded complex, personal notions of fulfilment and success in a single life.
When the speaking body, a self-proclaimed “dark-eyed girl, a dark-eyed beauty / Huron-French-Celt / of the misty lake” says boldly and unabashedly - “for me it’s the difference between a good life and an exceptional one” we know we are in the presence of hard and difficult decision-making life moments, crafted into layered, and poetically brilliant images and analogies.
The Christina Lake poem takes us through metaphoric yet deeply material/personal, global apocalyptic threats as we move unsuspectingly through thirty-six poems comprising half the book, followed by a forty-six page section entitled ‘Omen: Calla Lilies’. This portion of the collection acts as a flowing punctuation that continues into a beautifully rendered fascination with nature and sensual play –
But the wild rabbits knew / what Omen meant / they ran crazy with change surging in their blood. / Bleaching out their own fur/ with the stress of their own thrumming pulse, jacking their feet / under the chilled-day-sky / I have shown myself what I am capable of’ (p45)
Followed a page and a half later by – “Will your new woman take you out, full moon, full frontal to dance naked / around a fire, / like I did? / What does it matter? / These are just details”
But these are the essential and powerful details of a marriage celebrated and then endured spectacularly as it may have begun to unceremoniously crumble due to the earlier admission of complacency by a perhaps ordinary man – “A man. A solid man.”
And yet a kind of ordinary solidity breaks in the midst of conjugal intensity – like Yeats’ Falconer at a centre that cannot hold - and a final brutally honest admission unfolds, one of self-preservation, when ‘the bad wife’ declares’ “for me it’s the difference between a good life and an exceptional one”, and the departing husband vaguely admits to nothing other than a possible complacent role. Complacency as the final straw in a union that cannot withstand its own highs and lows – its own passions and its own complacencies.
Wreck and devastation abound among tenderness and heartfelt remorse, apology even. But the speaking wife never allows one univocal emotion to overwhelm as she proclaims in a playful, brief, and satisfying prologue, a self-assuring toast uniting both lost love and unregretful leaving–
Here's to you, here’s to me,
If ever we should disagree.
Fuck you, and here’s to me. (prologue – p77)
The perfect ending, the complex, beautifully bitter, self-preserving ‘fuck you’ - from a speaker, an ex-wife, a poet, a mother, an artist who strives for the exceptional life over the so-called ‘good’ one in a trembling, unexceptional world filled with spectacular moments. Moments akin to Susan Musgrave’s back-cover words promoting the strong, scented moments of flowers and the mournful extinguishing presence of prayer flags.
*"And Let's Not Forget Christina Lake," pg. 17, The Bad Wife.