Yanique’s Wife won the Forward Prize, given by the Forward Arts Foundation in the United Kingdom, for best first collection. As the title suggests, it’s a collection of poems about becoming a wife, being a wife, thinking and rethinking the meaning of the idea of wife—colored and shaped by a Caribbean context.
We find the drudgery of housework and considerations of cheating on one’s husband. We find the romance of elopement and musings of divorce in a happy marriage. We find musings about one’s own family and experiences in common with all families. And by the end of the collection we understand that all of these seeming contradictions are held together, even if in tension, in every relationship and marriage.
Consider this metaphor for marriage—what happens inside a distressed airplane.
We fall out of the sky
But if we board the plane
I will always fight for us to sit side by side.
If the cabin pressure goes
and the plane plummets like a suicide,
we will learn together what the seat belts are for.
One by one the other passengers will give in
to oxygen, then its absence. But not me,
please know, not me.
I will tie your belt around our waists.
In the coma you cannot help,
I will open your mouth to give you my breath
as the windows burst in.
Perhaps we will never know if
we are dead or alive.
The poem is an unusual description for commitment in a marriage, but the basic elements are there—fighting to stay together, refusing to give up, the giving of breath (and life), the sharing of a seat belt. Those final lines, “Perhaps we will never know if / we were dead or alive, ” suggest that the knowing may not actually be important. Instead, what’s important is the being together, the shared experience, and the commitment implied. (The phrase that grabbed me by the throat was “the plane plummets like a suicide.”) These ideas set against each other are found consistently throughout the poems.
Yanique, a professor in the MFA program at New School in New York City, is the author of the novel Land of Love and Drowning (2015); the long poem I Am the Virgin Islands (2012); a collection of short stories, How to Escape from a Leper Colony (2010); and the short story chapbook The Saving Work (2007). She is also the co-editor of the poetry anthology Another English: Anglophone Poems from Around the World (2014). She has received the 2011 Bocas Award for Caribbean Fiction, Boston Review Prize in Fiction, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award, a Pushcart Prize, a Fulbright Scholarship and an Academy of American Poet’s Prize.
Wife challenges our notions of what marriage (and being a wife) means, but ends up reaffirming the idea of commitment.
The Forward Arts Foundation also gives an annual prize for best single poem. This year, Sasha Dugdale received the 1, 000-pound award (about $1, 300) for “Joy, ” published by PN Review Literary Magazine. Read the poem to see how a poem’s title can both contradict and affirm the poem itself.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish