Pack a Poet in Your Suitcase

Cities, Elaine Feinstein (60pp, £9.95, Carcanet)
The Scent of Your Shadow,
Kristiina Ehin (110pp, £9.99, Arc)
Away from the Cit
y, Lee Smith (40pp, £6.50, Salt)

Feinstein is a poet whose work has always been resonant for me, and in this fairly slim collection, she travels around Europe and even further afield bringing cities and their histories into the light of her work. The book opens with a short sequence reflecting on migration, of birds and of people. Feinstein makes it clear she is a citizen of the globe in the closing lines:

                                          I remember
     How easily the civil world turns brutal.
     If it does, we shall have the same enemies.

Her own Jewish ancestry gives this thought more poignancy but it also sets the cities she writes of into context: these are places which have suffered destruction and pain, and could easily do so again. The first place she takes us to is wartime Leicester, an intelligent transition from the opener. She examines her past self in the third person, distancing, as she moves from Leicester to Cambridge, discovering poetry and sex with a delightful sense of humour: good poems that are accessible.  A further sequence is a love poem to Jerusalem, tracing it through different times, wanting to protect it. In 'Warsaw 1973', she recalls the sack of the Warsaw ghetto, tells of her cousin who survived by being hidden by clients from her mother's hairdresser's shop. The palimpsest is effective, and simply done. In the Budapest sequence, she introduces us to people haunted by the war, such as Janos Pilinszky, a poet, who, in a marvellous phrase, 'lives in the guilt of witness'. The ghosts are never absent; Budapest is a city of 'human sprawl/ someone might hope to hide in, even from Eichmann'.

All Feinstein's cities are populated with writers she admires: Mandelstam, Kafka, Havel, Tsvataeva, Grotsz, as though they are still alive, their words resonate throughout the streets. Similarly, musicians echo through her mind. 'A Dream of Prague' is dedicated to the memory of Miroslav Holub, the wonderful Czechoslovakian poet I was once lucky enough to meet. It is a beautiful elegy and Prague 'city of dreams' is the perfect setting, as she delights in her memories of 'an Art Deco cafe, /green marble and mosaic restored '. The poem ends on a soothing image:

            Three weeks later,
            A Czech friend rang to tell us you were dead,
            your witty spirit
     sailing off into the starry darkness
     over the Belvedere.

This is not an unhappy collection, there's plenty of food and fun here too, and mesmeric scents.  But it is meditative and nostalgic, filled with a quiet sorrow, yet at the same time 'stubbornly content'. There's nothing obscure or difficult here; the reader is invited in and gently cherished. 

Feinstein's grandparents left Odessa long ago, but the next collection is from an Estonian poet, Kristiina Ehin, translated by Ilmar Lehtpere, who is a poet in his own right. We have the benefit of the Estonian on the left–hand side and the English on the right. I love this, even though I know no Estonian, because the shape of the original can be enjoyed while reading the translation. The book is introduced by Sujata Bhatt. Few of the poems have titles, but the book is divided into sections which do help the reader navigate. Some of the poems are long but hold the reader's attention easily. Ehin's imagery is organic and often very beautiful.  For example in the third section, she describes autumn like this:

            A whole pile of gold
            has settled
            under the maple at the end of the street
            The maple itself has been left bare
     left empty and open as the sky
     All the clouds have fled in fear from the wind
     sweeping over the open fields 

Ehin's poems are deeply personal, but not in a way that excludes the reader: quite the opposite, they draw the reader in, so that Ehin's life feels like our own, a fascinating glimpse into a different, simpler life lived close to nature. Reading these poems is like a holiday of the best kind: eye-opening, relaxing and different. Ehin's work is rooted in Estonian folk tradition, and music permeates both the forms and the language. I particularly relished her poems about parenthood, for their beauty and tenderness.

And it is back to the city again in a chapbook by a new voice, Lee Smith, the first in a new series from Salt, Modern Voices, elegant chapbooks all with stunning modern artwork for their covers. The first section is all about Melbourne in the autumn and winter, the second the same season in Cambridge. These are short accessible poems accompanied by black and white photographs. The poet's eyes watch people and give us terse notes on their lives, taking us right inside the city through its inhabitants. But there are layers on meanings in the carefully chosen words. For example, a boy does not want to go with his father on a custodial visit, but has no choice. The last line 'The Sunday afternoon game begins' is a subtle metaphor for the boy's manipulation of his parents, but could literally be the game they are going to watch. The real joy of this short collection is the clever links Smith makes between the two cities he is writing about, and the clever links between poems within each half of the book. For instance, in the Cambridge section, the opening sequence ends with:

     An ambulance in silence
     lights its way to the hospital.

The next poem begins with the word 'lights', and the following poem, 'Addenbrooke's Hospital' describes a scene on a bus, in terse, compassionate lines:

     A woman
     hands a tenner
     to the bus driver

     pushes the baby past
     and tells her young daughter
     to find a seat.

     The cold fingers
     of daddy's hand
     still falling
     from her grasp.

The resonance of the word 'grasp' makes this a strong ending.

The sequences are full of small subtle links, like graphic matches transformed to words.

These are three wonderful collections and they are recommended, particularly for travelling, whether on a plane, train or in your armchair. 

            © Angela Topping 2010