Rachel Zucker’s The Bad Wife Handbook
Craig Morgan Teicher
Is there a correlation between being a bad wife and being a good poet?
Rachel Zucker may be Generation X’s likeliest heir to the confessional legacy of Sylvia Plath, Louise Glück, and Sharon Olds. At her best, she matches desperate, pained self-revelation with breakneck lines that spill in and out of long-lined verse and writhing prose. Her previous book, The Last Clear Narrative, is an indispensable study of the passionate ambivalence that is a part of love. This third collection attempts to follow up with a tellingly unclear narrative: the story of a devoted wife and mother struggling with the pain and self-doubt that fidelity to a husband and children can engender. While the difficulties in rendering this conflicted state of mind muddy some of these poems—and occasional obscurity may be the price of the kind of naked confession this poet is after—Zucker has once again created a book that draws the reader through the shadows of family life.
The book opens with twenty-three short lyrics, then moves into four extended sequences. In the long poems, Zucker makes plain the process of awareness taking hold, the ways the mind fights what it knows to be true and finally gives in to the power of its own epiphanies, as when one poems admits, “this just in: // we are happier than the poems describe.”
The chaotic long poems take their time and cast a wide net, ensnaring whole states of mind. “Squirrel in a Palm Tree” recounts a journey away from a husband and two sons in New York, offering the speaker the necessary distance for painfully clear observations such as: “a woman with young children is not a woman but a mammal” and “the child becomes a wedge between actions and self.” The poem’s extraordinary conclusion ranks among the most affecting evocations of post-9/11 New York yet rendered in poetry. “Annunciation,” a meditation on Virgin Mary iconography, parallels that immortal figure’s “haze of motherhood” with the speaker’s own in order to convey the limits of a mother’s self-expression: “what if you only had one scene to work with, say the nativity or the annunciation / and it had to say everything.” Beginning with quotations and observations from Darwin, “The Rise and Fall of Central Dogma” finds “a mother, all function, has no morphology.” The book closes with a sequence called “Autographies,” which hyperbolically admits some nasty feelings about marriage (“I want to ruin your life”) and about the collection itself: “they said I’d been hiding in science and in jargon and in metaphor… but what did my husband think.”
The twenty-three short poems that open the book—most under half a page—are unfortunately weaker; Zucker seems most at home where she can stretch out. They allude vaguely to an affair or to fantasies about infidelity. Hazy abstractions attempt to connect the dots between fact and fiction: “A human being can’t compare / size and brightness // on two occasions / … / I say that man there, so unlike // my husband.” These poems seem to jump and land somewhat randomly: “When no one watches / I teach the dog to fly.” There are, of course, wonderfully piercing moments: “My babies left a narrow passage / where longing festers.”
After more than a decade in which poetry has been giddy with irony, earnest confession—and ironic confession, too—may be back in vogue. Despite its weaknesses, her latest collection continues to offer a riveting, vulnerable view into the life of a contemporary family while dramatizing the search for meaning and coherence.