The Influence of Others

Talking to the Dead, Elaine Feinstein (57pp, £9.95, Carcanet)
The Estate, Sasha Dugdale (70pp, £8.95, Carcanet)
Fathom, Jenny Lewis (59pp, £9.95, Carcanet)

All three 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:

     You never did learn to talk and find the way
     at the same time
, your voice teases me.
     Well, you’re right, I’ve missed my turning,
     and smile a moment at the memory,

     always knowing you lie peaceful and curled
     like an embryo under the squelchy ground,
     without a birth to wait for, whirled
     into that 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:

     Mussolini took no interest in you. How pretend
     those broadcasts were no more than opportunist?
     The sneers figured in letters to old friends,
     and fellow poets: Reznikoff. Zukovsky.
     A little more than that provincial prejudice

     Ginsberg said you confessed to in Rapallo.
     And yet, those Pisan Cantos
... you were gifted
     above any. And young writers found you generous.
     Put down thy vanity
. Socrates warned us
     not to trust poets centuries ago.

Sasha 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 hard labour.

One of the poems in this sequence, ‘The Rope’ opens:

     Yes, I admit I thought of it ­
     The lake down there, the river,
     The splintering ice.
     The pair of guns on the wall
     Pointing 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 things:

     Look hard and the image is too clumsy
     To bear scrutiny ­ look away and you should
     Glimpse it from the corner of your eye. Gaze often
     At Mars and you will see your quiet childhood
     Reluctant childhood, idyll from here,
     Six slight stars, grinning with raised thumbs
     At the long-forgotten perceiver, and now at you
     The seventh has passed beyond the range of human view.

The most 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:

     But, lying there with you, the dawning light
     seemed, so far, painless, I waited for you to wake
     with appetite refreshed by sleep, knowing
     what you 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
     the nearest we got to sand was a borrowed flat in Hastings,
     the nearest 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 -
     scratching at rock until the air went
     and us, with our unused breasts and wombs,
     buried with 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