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Review of Talking to the Dead - Fiona Sampson, The Liberal

1 November 2007
The cover of this collection tells us that it “is Elaine Feinstein’s most passionate book of poetry”, and there is nothing careful about these elegies, or the memories and memorials which surround them. Yet to read Talking to the Dead is to be taken through its dark matter by an absolutely sure-footed guide, a mistress of the most difficult literary and human subjects. It is as if the poetic voice has the capacity to contain not only those experiences the author explores, but the reader’s own intimate terror of bereavement and death. Dante famously understood how only a true poet – a Virgil – can guide us through this territory; and few writers have the range and dignity equal to this task.

Coincidentally, the last eighteen months have seen the publication of two moving and important ‘Widow’s Necklace’s’: Penelope Shuttle’s Redgrove’s Wife and the Russian Inna Lisnianskaya’s Far from Sodom (itself with an introduction by Feinstein). The phrase ‘Widow’s Necklace’ is Feinstein’s; and it is the title of one of the shortest and yet most fully-incorporated of the poems, and one in which we begin to see, perhaps, the secret of an enormous poetic toughness.

The first of five couplets declares: “Friends try my stories on their teeth or / with a match: are they plastic or amber?”. The pentameter which underpins much of the book is at its loosest here, and the narrator seems to suggest she’s isolated, perhaps even untrustworthy. A lesser poet would make much of this ekphrastic technical variation but, as she segues into more stable form and explication – of the ambivalence at the heart of marriage – Feinstein instead offers us something to take our eye off the technical ball. “[…] my story as a wife / is threaded on the string of my own life”; “I still remember your warm back / as we slept like spoons together”.

It is a risk to be emotionally declarative like this, especially in today’s climate of poetry cool. It’s also a risk to use the cosy imagery of pillow-talk. But Feinstein’s work effortlessly earns its emotion; and is never cosy. Instead, it brings both intensity and range of diction to bear, with certainty and discernment, on the central challenges addressed. These are, as always in bereavement, problems of love: at once its ambivalence and irreplaceability. Talking to the Dead gives us a – perhaps inadvertent – picture of love as tender observation: “What hurt me, as you chose slowly, / was the delicacy of your gesture” (‘Rosemary in Provence’); “After so many fevers and such loss, / I am holding you in my arms tonight, as if / your whole story were happening at once” (‘Bonds’); “once home from / hospital, you called me wife and mother – // that last was what you wished” (‘Flame’).

Elsewhere, there are jealousies, slights and exactly-rendered hauntings. Of these, ‘A Visit’ risks the most:

        Hallucinations. Dangerous nostalgia.
        And early this morning you whispered
        as if you were lying softly at my side

        Are you still angry with me?

But don’t be deceived by the simplicity of the diction: Feinstein has already taken the reader with her through that hallucinatory dreamscape, and she responds to this ghostly prompting with a double-edged “tenderness”:

        I never reproached you much
        that I remember, not even when I should;
        to me, you were the boy in Ravel’s garden
        who always longed to be good,
        as the forest creatures knew, and so do I.

These are complex pieces, in which the to-and-fro of emotional exchange is lucidly articulated, not because it is in itself simple but because Feinstein is bringing resources of literary, emotional and cultural intelligence – note that easy reference to L’Enfant et les sortilèges – to bear upon it. The full weight of the poet’s distinguished related careers in fiction and biography are making themselves felt. Throughout – and most explicitly in a group of poems which centre on the sequence ‘Scattering’ – immediate grief sits inside an older, diasporic lament, what Feinstein calls “my usual Hebraic bleakness”. Two poems ‘after Olga Martynova’ enlarge this native pessimism: “We are in a dark, hidden / hollow full of sings, moans, whistling / and the click of fingers”. Here as elsewhere, enjambments which could have been leaden or tricksy are carried off with the lightest of touches.

It is this technical grace, along with the profound emotional intelligence at work, which allows this collection to be so comprehensive and comprehending. But such profound authority is always more than the sum of its parts. Talking to the Dead is a book which, with unfailing beauty and dignity, reminds us what poetry can be for; and of the nature of those human rights and responsibilities which we call love.
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