New & Collected Poems

Words working subtly and surely

By Michael Horovitz, February 14, 2011
Ruth Fainlight: magisterial

Ruth Fainlight: magisterial

By Ruth Fainlight,
Bloodaxe Books, £20

This essential, comprehensive collection takes in Ruth Fainlight's 1966 Cages through to Moon Wheels of 2006. It opens with 22 pages of hitherto uncollected poems, and closes with another 24 of translations from the Portuguese of Sophia de Mello Breyner, the Mexican of Victor Manuel Mendiola, and the Theban Plays of Sophocles.

Fainlight was born in New York but has lived mainly in England since she was 15. This magisterial new collection is dedicated to the late lamented novelist and poet Alan Sillitoe, whom she married in 1959 and who died last year.

Poem after poem, line after line, reveals people, scenes and situations evoking instant recognition, yet retaining layers of subtleties. Old Man in Love demonstrates Fainlight's grasp of the unpredictable, unspoken, contradictory universes that lurk beyond the fragile surfaces of chronicled humanity: "The goods accrete as he gets older:/Land, children, fame,/He's weighted by a lengthening list/Of things that name him,/Tethered firm to age and death.//The work left to complete/Like secret money he can draw on/Might help escape, but surer still/He hopes, is anguish, severance./He seeks destruction in the gaze of love."

Apart from such incisive psychological insights, Fainlight's poetry conveys extraordinary syntheses of visual, musical and intellectual felicities. From the humble topic of Dead Weed she weaves a tapestry of resonance to set alongside the harmonies of David, Solomon, Verlaine, Rilke or Beckett: "Dead weed beneath my feet/And pebbles flung up, dragged back/With grating lonely roar.//Dead weed beneath my feet/Black sea, grey sky, and white surf/Crashing to the shore.// Dead weed beneath my feet./Stone that will be sand,/Sand that was stone before."

Over her long writing career Fainlight (whose father Leslie and younger brother Harry were also poets) has produced short stories, drama and opera libretti as well as her wide-ranging poetic output, and this volume includes several extended verse sequences among them Sheba and Solomon, and 25 pages of variations on Sybils.

In 1984, the JC published Fainlight's beautiful memoir, My Brother Harry along with The Storm, her elegiac account of his funeral, which it is good to be able to read again here. Her gift for articulating other sides of interpersonal relationships apart from her own is among the rarest of all, as in Towards My Waiting Mother: ". . . like a forest/creature who crawls into a hollow tree/or ditch when its time has come, he curved around/the smallest possible space in the hospital bed.//He didn't talk much – none of the stories/I'd hoped at last to hear which only now/I realise that I expected (still/the child demanding his attention). Instead,/how simple everything seemed as he moved further/away from me, towards my waiting mother."

Few poets have published a fraction of work as worth reading, time after time, as Ruth Fainlight's is.

Michael Horovitz is a poet and artist. Ruth Fainlight will read from her work at Jewish Book Week on February 28

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011