The Clinic, Memory review: Elaine Feinstein’s passionate poetry
The distinguished writer tackles love, death and our new, unstable world
Elaine Feinstein: the accumulative effect of her elegy poems being brought together in one book is to give a sense of completeness. Photograph: V Carew Hunt/Carcanet
The Clinic, Memory: New and Selected Poems By Elaine Feinstein
Elaine Feinstein’s mother says “I thought you were going to be clever” towards the end of her new poem Mirror Talk, which opens: “Is that my mother now behind the glass, looking / dark-eyed and weary, as if doubting / whether I can be trusted to count pills . . ?” Feinstein’s answer, “you mistook my precocity for ambition, / but I was only a wistful dreamer,” sums up the mixture of delicacy, precision and honesty before all else that makes her poetry lift its head above the crowd. Here we have a life, a person in the world opened up with intelligence and tact. In the sonnet Loving Don Quixote, about the men in her life who sought honour “without calculation”, she could be describing her own journey, with the final line, “simply to make sense of being alive”, acting as a coda for this outstanding collection spanning half a century of Feinstein’s poetry.
Although she is a distinguished short-story writer, playwright, biographer and translator, poetry is at the heart of Feinstein’s writing. Having wrested Marina Tsvetaeva’s difficult, passionate, formal poetry from the Russian into English, she found a way to achieve her own musical phrasing pulled tight against an equally passionate honesty. The difficulties of her marriage are dissected in one of her earliest poems, Marriage. It begins with a question, “Is there ever a new beginning when every / word has its ten years’ weight?” and supplies an answer: “We have taken our shape from the / damage we do one another, gently as bodies moving in the night”. The debate never finishes, the questions more urgent after his death in Talking to the Dead, a collection that mourns that difficult marriage.
The accumulative effect of these elegy poems being brought together in one book is to give a sense of completeness, a narrative that circles back like music yet never repeats, every poem as fresh as the flower her husband stoops to pick in Rosemary in Provence:
but what hurt me, as you chose slowly,
was the delicacy of your gesture:
the curious child, loving blossom
and mosses, still eager
in your disguise as an old man
It could be said that Feinstein is the curious child loving blossom and mosses, still eager in her disguise as the “girl / with wet feet and muddy skirt”, hurrying in her new poem Delusions of the Retina to “welcome another year into my garden”. Forgiveness illuminates the love poems, lighting up the husband so that even his old coat springs to life in Mackintosh: “Your spirit comes to me in a mackintosh / scented with volatile esters from the lab.”
But this is an eye that doesn’t look away: the mackintosh is “grimed at the pockets”. A dialectic pulls the poems so tight between their poles it’s impossible to resist the disarming honesty. Widow’s Necklace begins:
Friends try my stories on their teeth or
with a match; are they plastic or amber?
My children say I must have forgotten
how I used to turn to them so very often
repeating words and begging reassurance.
Why should I now recall a loving presence?
He is fascinating, difficult, but it’s Feinstein’s dissection of the wayward human heart that is extraordinary.
And there is more than love poetry. A fine meditation on her poorly plant in Death and the Lemon Tree opens up “the tread of history”. She faces down her own death, “ . . . Downhill – / so why not simply coast? It’s not my way / Work is my game. It’s how I play.”
Politics is terrifically alive. In Annus Mirabilis 1989 Feinstein attends a Bucharest cabaret where Einstein is portrayed as a Jewish tailor “raked with strobe lights and the noise of guns . . . I was chilled by the audience euphoria . . . there were embarrassed explanations, / which left out tailoring and obsequious gestures. / Their indignation was all about nuclear science, while / I pondered the resilience of an old monster.”
The “old monster” is still alive in our new, unstable world. The quiet economy of The News Channel describing present-day wire fences crossing European fields sings like a wren’s precise alarm:
My grandfather did not want to serve
in the hated Tsar’s army – these men too
are sick of a long war and carry children
but we are afraid of them
because they are numerous
What news. There is no news.
Martina Evans is a poet and novelist. Her latest book is The Windows of Graceland: New and Selected Poems (Carcanet)