Book review: The Bad Wife Handbook

bad wife handbook

The Bad Wife Handbook
Rachel Zucker
Wesleyan U Press, 2007. 114 p.

“A woman with young children is not a woman but a mammal, salve, croon, water carrier…”

Don’t be misled by the title. ‘The Bad Wife Handbook’ is not a coffee table book. It’s not about light entertainment or titillation. Chests are cracked open, hearts are removed and packed in ice.

“Truth is: / I want to ruin your life.”

Zucker’s challenging and erudite work demands many readings. Motherhood, marriage, and writing are described in terms of astronomy, genetics, and organic chemistry. Zucker writes in aphorisms, proverbs, and oxymorons. A page of wispy short lines couplets faces a page of solid block run-on sentences. Like Marcel Duchamp, she’s not afraid to crack a pane of glass, forcing the reader to squint through fragments and disjunctions and to adapt multiple points of view. One might hear echoes of Lyn Hejinian or Leslie Scalapino.

‘The Bad Wife Handbook’ is largely autobiographical. It’s ‘about’ the conflicts and ambiguities within three roles—wife, mother, and writer—and about the pressures each places on the others.

At times she hates writing. She hates her steel-trap mind, so “I gnaw my leg off to escape mine.”

The first section collects shorter poems, the remainder contains four sequences. One sequence addresses the necessity, and impossibility, of getting away from it all for some solitude and writing time; another enters the world of Italian Renaissance paintings. ‘The Rise and Fall of the Central Dogma’ expresses itself in terms of HTML code, DNA sequences, proteins, and helixes. The 20-poem sequence ‘Autographies’ is not surprisingly confessional, and simmers with anger and defiance. She responds to requests that she not write about the death of a young child, or about money, or about group therapy, by writing poem addressing all three. All in all, though, the Handbook documents the workings of a unique mind making its way in a world that’s all too often indifferent.

Zucker is also author of The Last Clear Narrative (2004) and Eating in the Underworld (2003).

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