Cities, By Elaine Feinstein<br />I have Crossed An Ocean: Selected Poems, By Grace Nichols

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The Independent Culture

The opening sequence of Elaine Feinstein's new volume , "Migrations", compares the transglobal movements of our feathered friends "using the stars, along/ flyways old as Homer and Jeremiah", and those of humans, including all her grandparents who "came from Odessa/ a century ago". What follows is a zigzagging parade of autobiographical reminiscences and fast-forwards from the poet's childhood and teens in wartime Leicester through student and teaching years in Cambridge, and more than 50 years of wide-ranging travels, as well as vacations with her children, her late husband, and other loved ones.

Here and there the linking thread - with each poem lodged in one city or another - seems tenuous. Occasionally the words, though unexceptionable as cultural information, read more like a versified holiday postcard than born of inner necessity or delivered with the organic specificity that distinguishes Feinstein's vastly accomplished lyrical oeuvre over the decades. "At the Chelsea" could have been a commissioned advertising blurb for the famous downtown headquarters of New York City's bohemia. "The walls are three foot thick, we are assured,/ so you won't be disturbed/by loud music. Or screams."

Equally unprecedented are en passant generalisations, perhaps also prompted by this book's travelogue-like premise. One reads in "Budapest": "Before the Soviet grip began to slacken/ – most conquerors go, eventually, even the Turks". For many generations of North American Indians, black and Asian slaves and their descendants worldwide, and – more recently – Palestinians in and around Israel, among others, that "eventually" will feel unconscionably flip.

However, pieces containing such uncharacteristic distractions are in a minority here. Feinstein's singular gift for pointed observation and perfect-pitch images illuminates most of these pages – even concerning superficially mundane things like weather variations, as in "Christmas Day in Willesden Green": "On these cold Christmas windows, heavy rain/ begins, like the crackle of crumpled cellophane,/ or an untuned radio".

Grace Nichols's collection is made up of her fastidious choice from seven previous volumes, starting with I Is a Long Memoried Woman (1983) and closing with a score of consistently delightful Poems for Younger Readers – each of which leaves this 75-year-old feeling ages younger at each re-reading. Nichols's laughter lines provide a refreshing alternative to the megahype peddled by mainstream commercial media in diverse fields, including female fashion: "Shopping in London winter/ is a real drag for the fat black woman... Look at the frozen thin mannequins/fixing her with grin/ and de pretty face salesgals/ exchanging slimming glances... Nothing soft and bright and billowing/ to flow like breezy sunlight/ when she walking/ The fat black woman could only conclude/ that when it come to fashion/ the choice is lean/ Nothing much beyond size 14".

Nichols can dance ultra-enticing calypso, at once indie-feminist and cockhappy-erotic, and leave both options open. "Even tho/ I'm all watermelon/ and star-apple and plum/ when you touch me/ Even though I'm all sea-moss/ and jellyfish/and tongue". An early poem Nichols composed soon after she came to Britain from Guyana aged 27 bemoaned the unabating ill effects of "Too much white male power" wilfully polluting the benign potential of planet earth, and shamelessly cutting short the natural life-cycles of its diverse occupants. Her "Baby-K Rap Rhyme", towards the end, displays, as do most of her near-flawless cadences throughout this singing treasure-trove, an unimpeachable commitment to a better future for humankind: "My name is Baby-K/ An dis is my rhyme/Sit back folks/ While I rap my mind/ Wish my rhyme wasn't hard/ Wish my rhyme wasn't rough/ But sometimes, people/ You got to be tough... Cause dey pumping up de chickens/ Dey stumping down de trees/ Dey messing up de ozones/ Dey messing up de seas/ Baby-K say, stop dis– / please, please, please... But it's a kinda plea/What kinda world/ Dey going to leave fuh me?"

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