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Elaine Feinstein, Talking to the Dead - Antonia Byatt, the Guardian

Antonia Byatt, The Guardian, 5 May 2007

Memorial to a marriage

Elaine Feinstein has written an extraordinarily moving collection of poems dedicated to the memory of her husband, Arnold Feinstein. They evoke him and his absence with painful clarity, charting both the discords and harmonies of a marriage. Feinstein offers no easy retreat into the false comfort of shared sentiment in grief; instead her poems bravely probe human transience.

'Winter', the opening poem, is bleakly set on a wet London street, lit with harsh headlights. Feinstein, driving alone, introduces her husband's voice: 'You never did learn to talk and find the way / at the same time'. These poems conjure up the intimate presence of her husband again and again: he appears in small, matter-of-fact memories but, as in 'Winter', the conversational ease and the intimacy of the moment often shifts:

Well, you're right, I've missed my turning,
And smile a moment at the memory.
Always knowing you lie peaceful and curled
like an embryo under the squelchy ground,
without a birth to wait for, whirled
into that darkness where nothing is found.

The absence she confronts is immense. The sense that the universe is far greater than men's own lives is explored further in 'Hubble'. In it, the 'Lord God' watches the Hubble telescope ('a delicate toy') attempting to measure 'heavenly secrets'. Our lives, to Him, are touching but not significant. This God offers no heavenly paradise. Instead, in these poems, paradise is often found in London gardens, paintings and music, and the Earth's round of seasons. 'If I believed in an old fashioned Paradise / then you, my love, would still be talking in it.'

Feinstein brilliantly makes personal significance ring loud. There is a simplicity in some of the poems that is wrenching. In 'Beds', 'Last night I wondered where you had found to sleep. / You weren't in bed. There was no one in your chair'. This starkness is here again in the poems that track Arnold's illness and death. Modern, hospitalised death is often intrusive and dehumanising. Arnold appears in hospital, hauled by the nurses: 'you'd been inside so many hospitals, / ticking your menus, shrugging off jabs and scans'. Thom Gunn's elegy, 'Lament', describes the physical horror of the tubes inserted into his dying friend, recording how 'your body sought out martyrdom / In the far Canada of a hospital room'. Feinstein, too, is excruciated by her husband's fear: 'At your bedside, I feel like someone / who has escaped too lightly / from the great hell of the camps.' But her description of what her husband later has become is acutely painful and tender: 'Darling, they brought you in like a broken bird. / Your shoulder blades were sharp beneath your skin, / a high cheekbone poignant against the pillow.' It is, however, the moment of their coming together in his death that resonates: 'That Monday, while I phoned, you waited loyally / for my return, before your last breath.' In 'Hands' he says in hospital, 'Hold my hand ... I feel / I won't die while you are here'. But his conjured-up voice dissolves back into the air.

Feinstein achieves this fine balance between presence and absence through a set of repeated images. Arnold's mackintosh, smelling of chemicals, frayed and dirty, appears empty, flung on the end of the bed while they make love; much later, when he is an old man, it opens awkwardly as he bends over to pick lavender. In 'Stuff' she finds him lingering in the iMac, in his sleeping pills, in his teeth in a drawer. There is much physical memory in these poems but it isn't sentimental: 'I still remember love like another country / with an almost forgotten landscape / of salty skin and dry mouth.' Feinstein is wary of 'dangerous nostalgia' remarking 'It's easy to love the dead. / Their voices are mild'. Instead she tracks the vagaries of her marriage. In 'Widow's Necklace' she asks: 'Why should I now recall a loving presence?' Other poems record the lurches and pushes of 'the damage we do to one another'. But again and again she comes back to her husband as her 'skin': 'You were always home to me / I long for home.'

Finding home, 'the niche we make on earth', and asking whether it can be permanent is taken beyond the metaphor of a marriage as the settled place of being. Feinstein contemplates what home means to homeless peoples. In 'Moving House' She notes that her Jewish 'Grandparents knew / how to pack up and go in a single night, / with house spirits in a shoe', and in 'Afghan' her own loss is likened to an Afghan taxi driver in exile who misses 'the sense that what he does matters to anyone'.

Feinstein knows only too well that 'most of what we work at disappears', but here are profound, deeply felt and complex poems that will last. Beautifully and delicately crafted, they dance between presence and absence, grief and joy, bleakness and rejuvenation. In the last poem she shifts the Hubble telescope; her granddaughter looks down on a London which is a 'field of lights'. The precision and focus in these poems make them infinitely moving for everyone.
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