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Guest Review: Saphra On Feinstein

Jacqueline Saphra reviews

Elaine Feinstein's twelfth collection is one where history, literature and memoir collide. Although the subject matter is far from slight, her poetry carries itself lightly, with all the marks of a writer at ease with her work and her past: there is no strain for poetic effect and the language is mostly spare and precise with no attempt to impress the reader. Yet the poems succeed in charming us almost because of their deceptively relaxed tone; they display huge enthusiasm and open-heartedness, taking us with them as they cross continents and time lines, and musing on the links and dislocations inherent in close relationships.

In the opening poem, 'Migrations', Feinstein refers to 'flyways as old as Homer and Jeremiah' and relates this to her own itinerant Jewish heritage. The book is infused with an awareness of the instability or unreliability of any place we might call home. In 'Migrations' she draws connections between different groups of immigrants, the 'filigree of migration, symbiosis, assimilation' and offers her own account of how she tries to identify with them: 'It is never easy to be a stranger', she writes, echoing lines of the Haggadah, the Jewish retelling of Exodus: 'Do not be unkind to a stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt'. Feinstein claims kinship with the cockle pickers and people from 'desperate countries', while recognising that they might not see the connection, because, she reminds us, 'I remember/how easily the civil world turns brutal.'

In a collection that spans decades as well as continents, that dwells on the personal as well as the political, Feinstein takes us on a whistle stop tour of many great cities like Warsaw, Odessa, New York, Lisbon, and Krakow. The geographical and temporal journeys are undertaken almost in parallel. Poems about childhood like 'Wartime Leicester' where she asks 'Who is this child from a leafy stoneygate garden?' rub shoulders with the slightly wistful and often surprising poems of sexual awakening, of coming of age ('the first salt lick of poetry'), of lovers won and lost. I was particularly taken with 'Jerusalem', a poem that draws together the travel, political and relationship elements of book so exquisitely, finishing with the admission that the author, tried to prolong her stay so she could

drink tea with my Moroccan lover
under Jordanian guns before
I left for rainy London and the man I married.


But I'd like to return to the tone and diction of the poetry in this volume, its clean lines and lack of artifice and the sparing use of metaphor. Sometimes reading these poems I feel as if I'm sitting in Hungarian tearoom with the author and she's reminiscing while absently stirring her cup of Earl Grey. There is an inviting intimacy to some of the work. Take, for example, 'Loss', the story of two friends who have, as Feinstein says, 'drifted apart'.

…… Last time
we met we both had little to say.
Perhaps I bored you. When I came away,

I felt awkward and unhappy: there was no
quarrel, just something that I failed to understand,
your letter said. It's sad. I loved you once,


So here the tone is almost conversational, but some of the lines (as the last one quoted) are written in tight iambic pentameter. Just as Feinstein likes to slip in the line of regular metre, she likes to drop in the odd rhyme too - in this case, away/say, which is strangely unobtrusive but acts as a kind of poetry cement. In fact the whole collection is riddled with rhyme, sometimes the same rhyme threaded through a poem, but more often rhyme which arrives unexpectedly and follows no regular pattern, although we know Feinstein can write formally if she chooses to: in 'A Weekend in Berlin' for example, the only poem in the book with a regular rhyme scheme, with its abcb quatrains, she closes with

Only at the Hotel Adler when
a flunkey shakes his head
do I have a shiver of unease as if
encountering the dead.

('A Weekend in Berlin')

Elsewhere, there is frequently a clinching rhyme at the close of a poem rhymed with a word a few lines further up, giving a delightful but again apparently effortless sense of completeness. In 'Isaiah Berlin in Rome' for example, the final stanza finishes with a bit of a flourish or even a punch line, which is reinforced by the full rhyme:

He acts it out and we are mesmerised.
The moon is full. White blossom leaks
perfume into the air. Virginia Woolf once
described him with unkind surprise:
a swarthy Portuguese Jew - until he speaks.

(Isaiah Berlin in Rome)

Perhaps the most touching poems in the book though, are not the ones that reference the meetings with remarkable men -  Isaiah Berlin, Czeslaw Milosz or Miroslav Holub, but those that explore personal or family relationships. 'Sweet Corn', for Rachel is a touching poem about history and memory written an older woman to a small girl, while 'Christmas Day in Willesden Green' is a kind of love poem dedicated to 'my autistic grandchild', who

 … smiles suddenly
as if amused by some mischievous thought
growing out of a landscape I can't reach,
the unknown pathways lying under speech.

('Christmas Day in Willesden Green')

And here is another of Feinstein's beguiling and surprising rhymes arriving seemingly out of nowhere.

Cities is a collection where one senses that the poet is at ease with her own process. Nothing is forced and there seems to be a comfortable absence of self-consciousness. Even the title of the collection announces itself clearly, simply and without artifice. When the rarely employed metaphors do arrive, they pack a punch, as in 'Jerusalem': 'When I saw you first,/barbed wire threaded your heart'. To round off a collection that deals frequently with memory and loss but also displays a deep appreciation of everything life has to offer, Feinstein ends on a characteristically contented note that reflects accurately the tone and texture of this cheering book:

It is a fortune beyond any deserving
to be still here, with no more than everyday worries,
placidly arranging lines of poetry.

('Long Life')

Jacqueline Saphra is on the editorial board for Magma Poetry. Her pamphlet Rock'n'Roll Mamma from Flarestack is to be followed this year by a full collection, The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions, supported by the Arts Council of England and published by flipped eye.
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