Insisting on their Place
Sue Hubbard finds poetry that connects with life
Portraits: Elaine Feinstein. Carcanet £9.99
Mimi Khalvati: The Weather Wheel. Carcanet. £9.95
Andrew Waterman: By the River Wensum. Shoestring Press. £9.00
Michael Schmidt: The Stories of My Life. Smith/doorstop. £9.95
Recently I came across a poetry blog discussing why poetry isn’t read by more non-poets. Why it seems, almost exclusively, to attract those who, themselves, write. Smart, educated people read novels, go to art exhibitions and the theatre. But few ‘civvies’ are found clutching slim volumes of new poetry. Is this the fault of contemporary poets or a logical consequence of the shifting language of modernism and postmodernism, which has meant poetry is no longer something that ‘ordinary’ people turn to, as once they did, to give voice to thoughts and feelings they cannot easily name but, rather, something that’s studied for its form (or non-form) by practitioners and those in ivory towers? I remember a workshop I ran some years ago at Hebden Bridge with David Constantine who, interestingly, claimed that a poem should not be written unless it absolutely insisted on being so. It’s a thought that’s stayed with me and seems a good yardstick. Does a poem have a beating heart? Did it, against the odds, insist on life or is it simply a literary exercise?
As a poet, translator and novelist, Elaine Feinstein has an intuitive sense of what makes a poem. Her voice is deceptively conversational, accessible and full of warmth. She brings to life East End Jewish poets, literary figures and torch song singers such as Billie Holiday, building up characters with the engagement of a story-teller. The first poem, Courting Danger, in her new collection, describes eating “red sea urchins…on a platter of ice”, “somewhere near the Bastille”, with the Russian poet Bella Akhmadulina, underlying Feinstein’s rich relationship to Russian poetry as a translator. This is followed by a poem to the memory of the young Isaac Rosenberg, who died “in the mud” at the front on April Fools’ Day, 1918. A Jew “from Stepney East”, “he was always shy with Oxbridge toffs”. An outsider “his Litvak underlip could put them off”. Jews as outsiders, as well as those who, in some way, simply feel themselves to be exiles from the mainstream, are very much Feinstein’s territory. Whether it be, Zelda Fitzgerald, “waking into self-hatred”, the “fragile/and wispily dressed, Jean Rhys”, or Disraeli with his “Glossy black ringlets, blistering waistcoats, silver-buckled shoes” “released…/into the gentile world”, in contrast to his “skull-capped and scholarly” father. (Though, as Feinstein notes, “Baptism did not make you less a Jew, /cartoonists mocked your aquiline profile/and drooping lip.”)
Assimilation and its effects are a recurring preoccupation explored in Siegfried Sassoon and the Wish to Belong. These concerns are, of course, subtly biographical for someone of Feinstein’s background and generation. Elsewhere the poet as young wife and mother, confronted by the demands of domesticity and “bland everyday disorder”, listens to Edith Piaf’s songs “of failed loves, loneliness and poverty” and finds herself longing for “Paris streets, and the glamour of a woman/who never had safety to lose”.
In the final sequence Death and the Lemon Tree, Feinstein confronts the challenge of continuing to write into old age:
so why not simply coast? It’s not my way.
Work is my game. It’s how I play.”
Observing four new tips on the “grey skin of the lemon branches”, she concludes with feisty panache, in this most sympathetic of collections: “So, you’re not finished yet, /my resilient tree. Good. Let us age further.”
The Weather Wheel is Mimi Khalvati’s eighth book with Carcanet. Born in Tehran, she grew up and was educated in England. This eclectic background contributes to her poetry’s nuanced character, its practise of extending an image, of drawing it out like a thread and following it wherever it leads, so worlds within worlds are evoked with the intricate detail of a Persian miniature.
In this her first full-length collection for seven years, she restricts herself, in each poem, to sixteen lines set out in couplets in which she investigates, in lyric form, the nature of love and loss. Written around the time of her mother’s death, the first group, Earthshine, takes the day’s weather as a starting-point with its effect on the poet’s mood and imagination. There’s a desire to reconnect with a chthonic animal self. A mouse lies in the shadow of her arm “shut eye a tiny arc like the hilum of a broad bean”. Other poems are populated with a menagerie of lemurs and snails, an electric fish. The flickering sun becomes “a sparrow in the house” seeking “dust grounds/small as a handkerchief to play in.” Like a zoologist Khalvati observes the intricate detail of these small animals, the “miniature paws like nail clippings” or Madame Berthe’s Mouse Lemur, a “little living furry torch, eyes two headlamp luminaries”. She, herself, becomes a grey squirrel “helpless, blind and deaf”. Slowly it becomes apparent that these vulnerable creatures are a substitute for her lost mother and mirror her own grieving child within. Absence is evoked, echoing the historic sense of absence that she may have felt when sent off as a young child to boarding school in the Isle of Wight.
Other poems spin off to exotic destinations such as Marrakesh, weaving a rich, interconnected tapestry. Cold and wrapped in a shawl, drinking tea laced with Manuka honey in the early hours of the morning, she meditates on the refugees pouring through the checkpoint at Ras al-Jedir on the Libyan border, without even a “striped hem blanket” for protection. Elsewhere, in a beautifully observed image, she notes the snow swirling around a streetlamp like a swarm of gnats. The 72 poems gathered, here, into six subtitled sections with each section consisting of 12 poems, are challenging, yet emotionally coherent. Like a kaleidoscope or the Weather Wheel of the title, they shift and turn to reflect a fluctuating world where the natural phenomena of stars, snow and animals provide a counterpoint to grief.
Andrew Waterman was born in London in 1940. He has been a bank clerk, a kitchen porter and a bookshop assistant (surely a rich background for any poet), before reading English at the Universities of Leicester and Oxford and then taking up a career teaching at the University of Ulster. He has published eight collections with Carcanet and one with Marvell Press. Now he has made his home in Norwich where the River Wensum winds through the city. This provides the trope for his latest collection, a meditation on the uniqueness of individual lives. The river runs lightly through a number of these poems, including the title poem and those that open and close the book. Other settings and time scales include the Ice Age, classical antiquity and Nazi wartime atrocitities. A number re-inhabit childhood memories and these are among the most satisfying. Sitting in the pub garden At the Red Lion, after “another stint at the gym, for my own good” he notices three small children, “ages four to seven/maybe, the girl in red, the littlest one/squealing to keep up, round and round the pub,/… the board chalked Roast Lamb, Steak and Kidney, Pudding.” It’s something of a Proustian moment as he watches them “just running. Running for the sheer joy of it. As I once did.” But this tender everyday observation that ends the first poem in the book is somewhat undercut by the solipsism of the last sentence, which closes down emotion rather than opening up the line to the reader’s imagination.
Waterman claims affinity with George Herbert, Wordsworth and Louis MacNeice. For him each of these poets expresses an “inner quest through everyday experience and observation rendered in language which is evocative but doesn't strut”. Though it’s Edward Thomas to whom he feels closest and his influence can be felt in the short poem Hawthorn where: “Again it makes me gasp, this sudden white/seethe of hawthorn in the hedgerows”. For so much beauty brings poignancy to a moment of solitary witness: “Again to go unused, because unshared, /without which nothing in me is completed.”
Elsewhere, as in the scholarly, descriptive poem written in the Museo Archeologico Eoliano, Lipari, the research and learning sit a little too heavily and the emotional heart feels just a little too faint, as though some of these poems might just as happily been born as essays. More seductive is the final poem, Getting There. A walk by the river and a short train ride along a little used branch-line become a meditation on the shortness of life and the inevitable approach of death.
“Nothing where I alighted
Except a stile, the rack up to the ridge:
Sunstruck, assuaging, it lay spread before me”.
Were it not for publications such Carcanet Press the landscape of British poetry would look very barren. Along with others such as Neil Astley at Bloodaxe, Michael Schmidt has kept the rich diversity of contemporary poetic voices in this country alive. He is a one man literary band. Not only a publisher but an academic, translator and literary historian. His new collection, Stories of my Life covers a broad canvas. Childhood and memory are counterpointed against old age, shanty towns and the ancient world, as well as desire – both personal and historic. In The Bus Stop the poet muses on the relational consequences of missing the last bus and train, while in Answering the Emperor Julian (Mesopogon, after Cavafy) he gives a poignant portrait of the “ugly” emperor hiding his “hare lip and his crooked jaw”, along with “his desire”, behind the “shrubbery” of his coarse beard; both god and all too human man.
There are also poems to the Mexican painter Gerardo Murillo, who signed himself Dr. Atl, which reflects something of Schmidt’s interest in his own early Mexican background, and to Henry Adams, American historian, descended from two U.S. Presidents, who was secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador in London, as well as those taken from the Anglo-Saxon. In Present Tense, with its themes of metamorphosis and the persistence of love beyond the grave, we find oblique references to John Donne’s, "two climates, hemispheres”, as well as to Andrew Marvell’s: “The grave's a fine and private place”, as an old man “chews the air”, while “Under the ground his bride/ Travels north and south/ Transmitted by worms”.
As in Ovid she will be turned into a tree, resurrected and “stand/On trunks for feet and pray.” And in so doing she will become forever present tense, much as the lovers on Keats’s urn remain in the eternal moment. Such poems illustrate Michael Schmidt’s undoubted erudition. But it is poems like Agatha, a remembrance of a childhood relationship where he asks “What is it like in heaven, Agatha?”, that touch an emotional nerve. One of two epigrams at the beginning of the collection, from Michel Foucault on ‘Las Meninas’, reads: “But perhaps the time has come to give a name to the image appearing in the mirror’s depth, which the painter in front of the picture contemplates”. It is an apt precursor to this multi-faceted, multi-reflective collection.
Sue Hubbard’s most recent novel is Girl in White (Cinnamon Press). Her recent exhibition of poems Over the Rainbow, with the artist Rachel Howard, at 11 Spitalfields and The Poetry Society, were taken from her latest collection: The Forgetting and Remembering of Air (Salt).