Influence of Others
Talking to the
Feinstein (57pp, £9.95, Carcanet)
The Estate, Sasha Dugdale (70pp, £8.95, Carcanet)
Fathom, Jenny Lewis (59pp, £9.95, Carcanet)
of these books are recent publications by Carcanet and have similar
production values. But there are few other similarities between them. Elaine
Feinstein is, I suppose, the most consummate poet of the three and it is hard
to read many of her lines without being arrested by the sudden knowledge that
you have read exactly the word to use just there in the poem. Take ‘the prowl of jealousy like a witch’s
cat’ in ‘A visit’; ‘the innocent presumption of men’s lives’ from ‘Hubble’;
‘small stones of your eyes…’ from ‘Marriage’; ‘Where shall I find the
resilience of trees?’ from ‘January Trees’; and many more.
Better still, take the poems in their entirety, for this is no poet of merely
attractive lines. Many of the poems in this volume are threnodies, or
monodies - ‘the dead’ of the title is usually the poet’s former husband - and
his presence is felt in most of the others. This made me baulk at first. A
book devoted to a deceased other whom one didn’t know is often even worse
than a collection of poems celebrating a living love. Those can be too much
like playing gooseberry. Still, I needn’t have worried. The ghost of
Feinstein’s husband may be not far off omnipresent but these poems stand
alone. One of my favourites is the very first, ‘Winter’, where the dead
husband claims the poem in a very direct way. She is driving alone in her
car, and in the third stanza imagines him speaking to her:
did learn to talk and find the way
at the same
time, your voice
right, I’ve missed my turning,
and smile a
moment at the memory,
knowing you lie peaceful and curled
embryo under the squelchy ground,
birth to wait for, whirled
darkness where nothing is found.
Not all of the poems concern her husband. In ‘Letter to Ezra Pound’, a poem I
particularly like, the dead one is the American poet whose literary as well
as personal reputation was forever damaged by his political sympathies before
and during the Second World War. The last two stanzas of this poem are:
no interest in you. How pretend
broadcasts were no more than opportunist?
figured in letters to old friends,
poets: Reznikoff. Zukovsky.
A little more
than that provincial prejudice
you confessed to in Rapallo.
those Pisan Cantos... you were gifted
And young writers found you generous.
Socrates warned us
not to trust
poets centuries ago.
Dugdale’s book is also much concerned with the influence of another. In this
case, though, it’s another culture, that of Russia, most especially Imperial
Russia. The Estate of the book’s title is also the name of the opening sequence, and was
inspired by Dugdale’s visit to Mikailovskoye, Aleksandr Pushkin’s family
estate where in 1825 he turned back because a hare crossed his path. He
thought this a bad omen and so it proved, because a few days later the poet’s
friends took part in an uprising and were punished by execution, exile, or
One of the poems in this sequence, ‘The Rope’ opens:
Yes, I admit
I thought of it
The lake down
there, the river,
The pair of
guns on the wall
respectfully up to the sky.
But I wrote
and what I wrote
Was a rope.
I confess that I wasn’t taken by too many of the poems outside of this
opening sequence. More than a few of them seemed insubstantial. Or perhaps
what they had to say was too subtle for me. But I did like the simple poem
‘Pleiades’, even if I couldn’t quite see what the Planet Mars had to do with
Look hard and
the image is too clumsy
scrutiny look away and you should
from the corner of your eye. Gaze often
At Mars and
you will see your quiet childhood
childhood, idyll from here,
stars, grinning with raised thumbs
long-forgotten perceiver, and now at you
has passed beyond the range of human view.
appealing of these three books for me personally was Fathom, by Jenny Lewis. The cover calls
the poems ‘painterly’ and perhaps many of them are, but many are sensual and
somehow solid in other ways, too. ‘Swan’ talks of ‘a shoal of bloodied mackerel / dumped over the
side’; ‘One more moment’ opens ‘They’re shouting from bone, / antlers raised
to the roof, and in front / a xylophone of ribs’ and ‘Tasting Notes’ likens
human physicality to food with ‘your body of dark plum and liquorice’ and
other lively images.
The poem on the opposite page, ‘Aubade’ also uses this food-sex motif, but
ends in a way that suggests that things might become more complicated later:
there with you, the dawning light
far, painless, I waited for you to wake
refreshed by sleep, knowing
enjoyed most was my hunger.
Jenny Lewis also lost someone near to her, her father. But he was killed in
the war when she was just a few months old, and they never knew each other.
Her poem ‘Father’ puts this starkly, with the final stanza reading:
I’m glad you
were my dad, but your dying meant
we got to sand was a borrowed flat in Hastings,
we got to bluebells was on Mother’s Day in Kew.
There are many poems I like in this collection. ‘Slag’ uses that word in both
the senses of mining refuse and what used to be charmingly called ‘a loose
woman’; ‘Cassandra’, in a very succinct way, describes both Priam’s daughter
prophesying and her entanglements with men; and ‘Chair’ is an affectionate
remembrance of her grandmother by means of a chair finally put out for the
council to collect.
But my favourite is ‘Prospects’, an unsentimental assessment of possible ways
of death by ten-year-old girls in a Masonic orphanage, of which the poet was
one. The last stanza of this reads:
Worst of all,
perhaps, a Viking burial -
rock until the air went
and us, with
our unused breasts and wombs,
the old, dead king.
Ten-year-olds really do think as unflinchingly as that, and the poet’s real
triumph in many of her poems is to have retained the steady eye of youth.
© Raymond Humphreys 2007