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The Wife’s Account

by Esta Spalding

The Wife’s Account is Esta Spalding’s fourth book of poetry in just over seven years. In the vividly imagistic style that has established her reputation, the collection (we are told on the dust jacket) encapsulates one year in the life of a marriage. As in Spalding’s previous work, Anchoress, the poems here are carefully sequenced and offer hints toward a coherent narrative while embracing the freedom to occasionally roam outside the story, offering glimpses of life beyond the two central characters.

Unlike Anchoress, whose elegiac narrative was told from the perspective of a male character, The Wife’s Account tempts an autobiographical reading (the book is dedicated to “Douglas” and contains frequent references to “D”). No doubt aspects of the story – whose central crisis is a miscarriage – are fictionalized, yet the book’s overriding ardent tone seems to coast on emotions so intensely private that they generally fail to seduce the reader.

Many passages only distanced me from the feelings being described: “Nothing love/could make me leave/you nothing,” and “oh the parting/oh the sea battering its slow/swollen heart.” In other poems, a layering of non sequiturs – a tactic that, when used effectively, can expose intensity through casually tossed-off remarks – reads as, well, remarks casually tossed off: “Our daughter’s hair was cornsilk./I want you back./Flies in the kitchen./Dog asleep since before/you left./Nothing’s as easy/as despair./Most of the sugar’s stuck/to the bottom of the glass.” I turned the page expecting perhaps more, only to find that these were the poem’s concluding lines – a sure sign of stylistic backfire.

Given that marital love is the book’s central theme, it’s ironic that the most successful poems avoid apostrophized adoration. Spalding has a knack for whittling poetic meanings from unlikely vignettes. In “Interior,” a refreshingly acerbic resolution comes of pairing the memory of a childhood hike with one in adulthood. Here a keen, detached eye is at work: “Pine trees, like enlarged air fresheners.” If only that eye had stayed open when looking at love.