Premier League


The Lost Notebook, Jennie Feldman
[71 pp, £7.95, Anvil ]


This is Jennie Feldman's first collection and it shows her to be a complex, subtle poet. Hers is a poetry that doesn't suffer fools gladly so one would be wise to have a dictionary to hand for some of the more specialised vocabulary, and to brush up on your Greek mythology. There is no irony intended here for Feldman treats the writing of poetry with respect, producing skilfully crafted poems where every word is chosen with care, and there is nothing superfluous.

If the ocean's imponderability has ever made you think: I really must write about this - but you never have, then Jennie Feldman may be the poet for you, for the sea dominates this collection. Moving across landscapes as diverse as Scotland and Israel she writes about its every nuance, using precise observation and drawing on its manifold associations. By the time she has finished, there seems little left to be said. The multi-layered quality of these poems is enhanced further by a musical motif that runs through many of the poems along with references to language - verb tenses in particular - all building up to a kind of Platonic 'listening to the spheres'. Take the 'living in the moment' experience in 'Sea Daffodils', where she speaks directly to the plant:

     Because the book that has your photo
     says you'll die tomorrow, here I am
     hooked on your single day's extravagance.
     For this is the way we ride the dune,
     bareback with tilted trumpets, lost for music
     and knowing we'll never hear it again
     that pale arpeggio of geese pulling south
     to one long note diminuendo.

What is particularly clever is the way she draws on imagery that is exact and rich in concrete detail at the same time as she manages a more abstract meditation. Take 'A Fifth String':

     And I wish the sea had kept to itself
     the evening catch hauled up through livid silk.
     All those sardine eyes seeing everything and
     nothing for the first time.

Indeed much of her poetry works by making associative leaps triggered by what she sees immediately before her, but in a way that comes across as highly controlled rather than a loose stream of consciousness. Music is frequently at the centre of this. We see it in the titles: 'Chromatic', 'A Fifth String',  'Harmonic', 'Diapason'(as we all know - the foundation stops of an organ), 'Tango' and 'Night Song'  as well as the musical references dotted throughout the poems.   

As she begins to draw on Greek mythology we first of all see the juxtaposition of present and past as she places real and mythical figures side by side. Then in the marvellous two poem sequence 'Ogygia' (the island where Calypso imprisoned Odysseus for seven years - you knew that didn't you?) there is clever manipulation of the sea's literal and metaphorical associations. Consider first of all 'Calypso' where we see Feldman milking the sea imagery for all its worth. She opens with the line, 'Not so much love as the careless act/of shipwreck' and then continues, with some clever wordplay thrown in for good measure:

                         O singular man, this distance

     of yours. The sea's vast habit singing
     in your blood, so that even asleep
     when your limbs' encircling longitude, latitude
     pin me down, I'm not the point.

The poem then concludes with a cracking last line, (referring to The Odyssey
) 'As if I dared to hope the poem ends here'. The second poem 'Odysseus' goes on to provide a moving description of Odysseus's state of limbo:

                                    But I'm dying
     of this protracted present tense, the sea's
     unbearable sameness without me.
     These nights that hang an anchor-stone
     smooth around my neck—

Though Feldman generally keeps the reader on their toes as she shifts back and forth between the concrete and the abstract, she can also write wonderful stuff that is solidly down to earth. Note, in 'Flying Fish' the precise description of a local fisherman along with the marvellous eulogy of the last four lines - with the transcendental reflected in the earthly:

                                        Yoannis squints
     against the sea glare. Talks to himself,
     the words mysterious and only their rhythms
     visible in the cigarette that jives
     against his beard. But that hardly explains
     why he leapt to mind one morning
     when streaks of silver suddenly arched
     right out of the water, converting everything.

But it is the poem 'Blue' which conveys the all-consuming impact the sea has on the poet - a place where the whole history of it sensations are relived each time, with vibrant colour that is almost overpowering:

        And the battered pair of boots
     that got here first, sand in the creases

     resumes a gentle soliloquy,
     paces out the Tristia
in rhythms
     of cerulean blue. It comes to this,

     listening for sounds that exile makes
     - beyond the surf's drumrolled punchline -
     the perfect pitch of something

     loved and lost. Which is why we're
     back for the umpteenth time. Primed
     for ultramarine, blazoned with it

     when we leave, as kingfishers keep
     the wingflash even in dry savannas
     swooping for mites, and only a cobalt streak

     to recall the deeper plunge.

The collection is not of course restricted to writing about the sea, for travel is central to much of the poetry as we see her ranging between Scotland, Paris, the Mediterranean and Israel (where she now lives). This said there is a consistency of outlook, as the blurb on the back puts it, citing from her poem 'Moth': 'the poems are on the wing "sourcing the radiance" of things' in response to the dark'.

Finally, along with the intelligence and subtlety of these poems, there is the craft. This is seen in various ways: the organisation of her metaphors; her careful diction; the varied structures with their healthy mix of enjambment and end-stopped lines. Also, although most of the poems are unrhymed she sometimes mixes in half rhymes here and there to give the poems cohesion. By way of conclusion here is the poem 'Arabia Oxeye' which shows particularly skilled use of half-rhymes - here used more overtly than anywhere else in the collection:

     April says it with yellow flowers.
     Not just the niceties of milk-vetch,
     mustard, love-in-a-mist, scabious.
     I mean the quilled, laconic speech
     of broom, how it utters each bloom
     perfectly, pointedly, fragrance
     exhaling the thought of it, like rhyme
     adding a further peculiar sense.
     I mean the way the desert springs surprise:
     gold hawkbit, fleabane, vipergrass;
     and this Arabia oxeye
     I offer you - knocked sideways
     by your latest from the wilderness
     tinctures pressed from words to voice of eye.

Anvil Press have published Jennie Feldman's The Lost Notebook
to coincide with her translations of the French poet Jacques Reda, Treading Lightly: Seected Poems 1961-1975. Takes this two books together and you have clear evidence of a premier league poet and translator.

         © Belinda Cooke 2006