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Review of 'Talking to the Dead'

John Horder, West End Extra, 18 May 2007

Small details of a life together


Elaine Feinstein's new book of poems, Talking to the Dead, is her memorial to her dead husband Arnold, a scientist and academic. They lived for many years in England's lane, Belsize Park.
Ted Hughes said of her poetry: 'She is an extremely fine poet... Reading her poems one feels cleansed and sharpened.' That's all very fine as far as it goes. But it doesn't take into account Elaine relentlessly trying to make sense of her and Arnold's transience throughout their long-lasting marriage.
Writing about her father's 'presence' and ordinariness in 'Father' in the first of her Selected Poems, she gives more than one clue why their marriage, with all its ups and downs, worked as well as it did:

Still the boss of his own shop
he labours in the chippings
without grudge
loading the heavy tables,
shabby and powerful as an
old bus.

In Talking to the Dead, it is Arnold's presence and absence which is the key to Elaine's transcending both through embracing the smallest details of their life together:

Your spirit comes to me in a mackintosh
scented with volatile esters from the lab.

Elaine writes of their ordinariness again with the greatest compassion in 'Wheelchair' and the poems leading up to his death. The most telling line for me in Elaine's new book is 'the niche we make on earth is all we share.'
The last stanza of 'A Match', with Arnold getting the last punch, demonstrates a genius that dares to embrace the small details most of us prefer to neglect:

All our worst faults we shared:
disorder, absentmindedness, neglect.
You asked me once: How
did you get away with it?

before concluding harshly:

You must have been a tank.
Next review of 'Talking to the Dead'... To the Elaine Feinstein page... To the 'Talking to the Dead' page...
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