This latest collection from Elaine Feinstein exudes a strangely plaintive sense of calm, perhaps because the author largely eschews melodrama, self pity and regret, therefore avoiding many of the pitfalls less skilfull or experienced poets might stumble into. There is a precision to these poems, manifesting itself in an equilibrium of emotion and intellect.
Taking the form of a sustained elegy, in dedication to her husband Arnold Feinstein, the celebrated protein chemist and immunologist, the book is both tonally and thematically explorative. Shifting between reminiscence and the regenerative, Feinstein re-assesses the world around her in the immediate aftermath of her bereavement and its longer trajectory.
The collection opens with a downbeat poem titled simply ‘Winter’. The speaker obsesses over the image of her buried husband, carrying it around: “like an embryo under the squelchy ground, / without a birth to wait for, whirled / into that darkness where nothing is found”. There is a sense, however, that from now on new discoveries await, though they will not be much easier.
Appropriately enough Feinstein draws on scientific themes. In ‘Hubble’ the fabled telescope becomes “the delicate toy / measuring heavenly secrets”, as mankind’s achievements are measured against the vastness of the universe and the potential for a greater power working within that. ‘Bonds’ is more subtle than this, playing on the multiple meanings of the word, recalling various travels with her husband, the successes and failures in his career.
Elsewhere ‘Afghan’ probes physical distance and emotional longing, the poet drawing comparisons with a taxi driver. She is numbed by grief, he by a sterile metropolitan existence, both are exiles: “His neighbours rarely provoke him to more than / flickers of shame or adrenalin”. The six poem sequence ‘Scatterings’ interweaves images of historically significant travellers, pilgrimages and a variety of cultures.
Feinstein is also unafraid to tackle to the spiritual, momentarily tempted by the easy solutions of religion in ‘Lazarus’s Sister’, utilising the same metaphor as Velazquez in his own study in devotion Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. In the end though, she is acutely aware of the fallacy in that ideal, neither respite nor divine intervention await: “But nothing brings relief. / All our days are numbered in a book. I try to imagine / a way our story can end without a magician”.
The poet has long been influenced by Russian poetry. One poem here is written under the influence of Akhmatova and there are two after the more contemporary Olga Martynova. ‘At the Heart of This Black World’ stands out, with its questioning doubt and attempts to reason with the material world: “What does the river know of its own bed, / Or the spider of its web? What does a canvas know of a painting?”. The final simple but assertive imperative instructs the reader to “Listen”.
Placing the two poems ‘Another Anniversary’ and ‘A Pebble on Your Grave’ side-by-side, Feinstein conjures the spirit of Persephone, philosophising disgruntledly, one foot in Hades, one out. Unsure as to where she belongs best, the former reasons: “The greedy and the generous have the same end. / The dead know nothing of what we say to them. / Still, in that silence let me write: dear friend“.
As the closing poem, London, comes round, we find Feinstein in more positive mood, and with the introduction of her grandaughter, looking towards future generations for purpose. The closing couplet intones: “Her eight-year-old spirit is tender as blossom. / Be gentle to her now, ferocious London”, suggesting the transitory nature of the world.