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Review of Collected Poems and Translations

Poetry Watch Ruth Padel
The Financial Times Saturday 16th November 2002

Elaine Feinstein's Collected Poems and Translations combines east and west abroad, north and south at home.

One of Britain's few Jewish poets, born in 1930 in Liverpool, she grew up in Leicester with Liverpool voices in her ears, but both grandfathers came from Odessa. Now based in London, she know Hebrew, Russian, eastern Europe intimately, and translated the Russian Marina Tsvetaeva. She also sought out Charles Olsen, of the avant-garde Black Mountain American school. Her Collected Poems and Translations, from four decades and 14 volumes, distils these varied poetic witnesses to the twentieth century - Jewish diaspora, Stalin's Russia, holocaust and cold war, American poetic freedoms - in a warm, spare fluidly musical voice.

Feinstein's poems foreground people (friends, family, strangers in the street) with tenderly vivid attention to wrinkled stockings, opening overcoats, love, anxiety, sickness and death. There are moving elegies, a lot of pain, and a characteristic gallant elegance filtered through wry humour. "The first surprise", begins a poem called "Getting Older": "I like it".

Many are lovely domestic lyrics haunted by larger issues: especially being Jewish in a non-Jewish culture (exemplified in an extraordinary long poem, "Gold", telling the story of Mozart's Jewish librettist Da Ponte, who converted), and faith in poetry itself.

Poetry's power to represent order and goodness in a dangerous world is summed up in an address to Marina Tsvetaeva: "Touch as canvas, Marina, your soul / was stretched out once against the gale / and now your words have become sails..."
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