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PN Review 276
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This review is taken from PN Review 117, Volume 24 Number 1, September - October 1997.


As to the question of God's existence, and if here is a divine order controlling, or at least intrigued by, life on this planet, Elaine Feinstein's opinion seems to be - on the evidence of her latest collection of poems - that the jury is still out. Two poems, facing each other from opposite pages, present opposing arguments; the last line of 'Miracles (after reading Richard Dawkins)' - which, as the title implies, is a meditation on evolution - celebrates: 'the unguided cleverness at work on this planet'. while 'White Flowers' defines a decision not to succumb to a superstitious dread of having white flowers in the house, inherited from her mother, as: 'a gesture in the name of divine reason'. The concluding poem of the book, 'Prayer', states: 'Got is the wish to live'. But 'The First Wriggle' describes the life-force (or, more specifically, in this fine poem, the upsurge of that energy in the form of poetic inspiration) as something intrinsic to life itself: 'life will form, wherever there's opportunity.'

Marriage and Russia; father, husband, uncle, sons (and increasingly, over the years and publications, more frequent and sympathetic references to her mother): from her very first book of poems - taking in a few side-trips and excursions on the way - Elaine Feinstein has been inspired by the same subjects, and spoken in the same characteristic and immediately recognisable voice. This new collection demonstrates a widening range of forms and styles as she skilfully employs the subtleties of internal rhyme and assonance, plays all the variations on pentameter, and essays a jaunty Edwardian jingle in a poem describing a journey across the south Pacific with a wheelchair-bound husband. She can equally achieve the tolerant, half-amused self-knowledge of 'Party Time', and the tragic, wrought, lyric intensity of 'Insomnia'.

Decades of shared experience and memories freight the poems written about marriage, such as 'Bonds', 'Companionship' and 'Rosemary in Provence'. These tender, unillusioned expressions of emotion form a rare group of love poems. The poet is also faithful to old friends. One can track relationships through her collections until, in some cases, the story is closed by an elegy. Friends, dead as well as alive, are very important, and that essential community of fellow-writers which includes great writers of the past like Pushkin and Ahkmatova, evoked in 'Dead Writers', or Dostoevsky, brought vividly to life through the voice of his German doctor in the sequence, 'Fyodor: Three Lyrics'.

A strong sense of history - not only personal and family history, but Russian history, European history, Jewish history - deepens and heightens individual poems, like the richly-coloured background of a painted frieze. The jury may not yet have spoken on the subject of ultimate clauses, but in this new collection, Elaine Feinstein has achieved a tone which is warm, wry, humanistic, realistic beyond resignation, and indomitably hopeful.


This review is taken from PN Review 117, Volume 24 Number 1, September - October 1997.

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