The unbearable truth


RACHEL ZUCKER is my kind of poet. Her third collection, “The Bad Wife Handbook” (Wesleyan University Press: 114 pp., $22.95), is blunt and beautiful, an evocation of both the rigors of marriage and the solaces and treachery of love. Zucker’s gift is an almost reckless bravery: “I am too happy to see him,” she writes of a man who’s not her husband. “Someone must be blamed. Perhaps / the therapist or my marrying young.”

Lest this give the impression that “The Bad Wife Handbook” is a book about domestic dissatisfaction, Zucker has something far more elusive -- and, frankly, dangerous -- in mind. What she’s after is to strip away the layers of adulthood: “a woman with young children is not a woman but a mammal, salve, croon, water carrier / she has a prize they all desire,” she notes in “Squirrel in a Palm Tree,” an extended poem that works almost like a diary of her inner life. Another long piece, “The Rise and Fall of the Central Dogma,” begins with a list of lies we tell ourselves: “That there was an alternative. / That I would stay. / That the lighthouse was useful. / That I would leave. . . . That ideas will save us.”

This is confessional writing at its most elemental, not the calculated revelation of so much modern memoir but a record of the thoughts we do not share. “I have banished and exalted humor,” Zucker tells us. “Was / young. Old. Showed my sadness / as a corpse shows the surgeon: / see my facts of living?” Such facts exist at the center of “The Bad Wife Handbook,” which reminds us that love and marriage are not always so consoling -- that even in the midst of family, we are ultimately alone.


-- David L. Ulin