Portraits by Elaine Feinstein, book review: A wry observer of life makes the right connections

An eclectic set of literary inspirations - Chandler, Rosenberg, Thomas and Jane Carlyle - remind us that Feinstein is an accomplished novelist as well as poet

Elaine Feinstein's recent books of poetry form a cumulative project whose breadth and ambition is unique in contemporary British poetry. The people and places in the prose and poetry of 2008's The Russian Jerusalem lead organically, it seems, to the city portraits of Cities (2010) and so to the titular human portraits of this beautiful new collection.

Here, friends both living and remembered are captured as if in an album. An eclectic set of literary inspirations – Raymond Chandler, Isaac Rosenberg, Thomas and Jane Carlyle – remind us that Feinstein is an accomplished novelist as well as poet. Her subjects are a cosmopolitan bunch: Billie Holiday rubs shoulders with Isaac Babel, Sylvia Plath with Joseph Roth. Clear-spoken and humane, the writing is welcoming to non-poetry readers, and makes these books a fascinating guide for anyone interested in the cultural history of the 20th century.

Feinstein's importance as a poet, though, has to do with far more than simple cultural transmission. A delicately forensic emotional intelligence brings even familiar figures newly alive: "The Old Possum/spectacled, a little furtive", the novelist Caroline Blackwood "over lunch in Notting Hill: /a little drunk, with a queenly drawl, /and her eyes still /large enough to drown in." The writing is always interlined with affection, or at least connection; yet it is never cosy. "The Irony of Wislava Szymborska" takes its name from the Polish poet's style, but turns a wry gaze on British reception of her Nobel Laureateship.

"I thought Polish poems should resemble the films of Wajda, /charged with the electricity of war. /Szymborska's poetry held no such glamour." Even the narrator, so often present in these studies of relationship, is not exempt from the technique. Indeed self-deprecation, and self-knowledge, colour her appearances in this sequence of what are, inevitably, also self-portraits: "It is not easy to share a bed with /an unhappy man." Such observations let us in on secrets about both others, and ourselves.

Feinstein has that ease of writing gesture, the quick sketching-in that is instantly life-like, that is the mark of a master. But what is sometimes overlooked is what a musical writer she also is. "Sleepless Nights" opens, "Outside: a rain-splintered table /streaked with lavender, /a magpie pecking in the stone pot": an onomatopoeic small rain of alliteration that leaves us refreshed and wanting more. That is also the effect of this indispensable volume. It reminds us repeatedly that, for the real poet, the narrative and the lyric can be intimately connected: just as self and other are.