New & Collected Poems, By Ruth Fainlight

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The Independent Culture

These 544 tidily bound pages might at a cursory glance look like a daunting prospect. On closer acquaintance, no one aspiring to an overview of modern poetry in English will want it to be absent from their shelves, even if these are already graced by some of Ruth Fainlight's previous 14 volumes. Her new cornucopia includes substantial selections from each of these, from Cages (1966) to Moon Wheels (2006). It starts with 22 pages of hitherto uncollected poems, and closes with another 24 of translations from the Portuguese of Sophia de Mello Breyner, the Mexican Spanish of Victor Manuel Mendiola, and the Theban Plays of Sophocles.

Fainlight was born to Jewish parents in New York City some 80 years, but has lived mainly in England since she was 15. After schools in the US and UK, she studied at Birmingham and Brighton colleges of art. This book is dedicated to the late novelist and poet Alan Sillitoe, whom she married in 1959. It bears witness to an exemplary devotion to the poet's vocation. Her painterly eye, probing intellect and tenacious ear for the music of what happens are in consistently revealing evidence throughout. Viewing "Archive Film Material" she notes that: "At first it seemed a bank of swaying flowers/ wind blown beside a railway track, but then/ I saw it was the turning heads of men/ unloaded from the cattle trucks at Auschwitz."

Over her long writing life, Fainlight has produced many short stories, pieces of drama and opera libretti as well as her multi-faceted poetic output. This volume finds space for several brilliantly extended verse sequences, including "Sheba And Solomon". Fainlight's father, Leslie, and younger brother Harry were also poets. Harry – turbulent and unworldly, confrontational and homosexual – was one of my own closest poet-comrades from the countercultural Swinging London years of the early 1960s until his tragic death from self-neglect in 1982.

"The Storm", a wry account of his waterlogged funeral, quietly displays Fainlight's unique blend of skills, weaving exquisitely fashioned narrative threads with flawless diction and flowing cadence to transmit a cathartic synthesis: "Instead of a struggle/ with grief, we were fighting the weather, reduced/ to the ludicrous; instead of prayer, a dry/ shelter was what seemed most important. Water/ running across my hands, inside my sleeves,/ I took the spade and being chief mourner,/ made the first movement to bury you."

I know, and know of, many ardent toilers in the realms of gold who have written and go on writing poems every day. But very few come to mind who have written and published a fraction as many worth reading, time after time, as Ruth Fainlight.