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The sunday poem: No 8 Elaine Feinstein

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work.

One of Britain's few major Jewish poets, Feinstein was the first to translate Marina Tsvetaeva into English and knows Eastern Europe, especially Russia, intimately. Starting out in the Fifties, she got interested in the American "Black Mountain" movement and wrote to its leader, Charles Olsen. Olsen wrote back his famous "Letter to Mr Feinstein" setting out his poetic principles to this enterprising (obviously male) young poet. Feinstein therefore combined cutting-edge influence from East and West at a time when British poets were at their most inward-looking. Tsvetaeva, though, was the presiding influence. Feinstein has many collections and a Selected under her belt, plus much-praised novels and biographies. Her spare, wry, compassionate lyrics spotlight the single poignant detail that gets across a whole person or life, implying a much larger narrative.

Rosemary in Provence

We stopped the Citroen at the turn of the lane,

because you wanted a sprig of blue rosemary

to take home, and your coat opened awkwardly

as you bent over. Any stranger would have seen

your frail shoulders, the illness

in your skin - our holiday on the Luberon

ending with salmonella -

but what hurt me, as you chose slowly,

was the delicacy of your gesture:

the curious child, loving blossom

and mosses, still eager

in your disguise as an old man.

"There's rosemary, that's for remembrance," says Ophelia. "Pray you, love, remember." This poem's painful delicacy reflects the "delicacy" of the gesture it describes; its "blue" recalls Cezanne, painter of Provence, who packs such power into the image of a bend in the lane. It is a poem about pausing before the end, not knowing what is round the next "turn in the lane". The rosemary gets chosen for remembrance: the man will take it "home" to whatever "ending" awaits. The poem is written in the same impulse.

The first words are "we stopped" and the stops, or pauses, in the four- beat line say it all. Poetry's concern with line and pause is about tension. Line-breaks pull against the rhythm as you speak it, and the tension brings out particular sounds, word-relationships, and thoughts. Here, a changing pause-pattern charts the movement of thought from that simple wish to pick a herb, to disease, pain and ageing, as the holiday ends in salmonella. The first line runs smooth, pausing at its end. The next runs on (reflecting the eager wish) to the strong pause after "home" in the third. Now you get pauses at different points in the line. In the second stanza, the first line is cut halfway: the bold enjambement after "would have" makes you impatient for "seen". Pauses after three beats and one beat (after "shoulders" and "skin") lead to the parenthesis, dead centre of the poem ("our holiday ... salmonella"), which cuts the first line of the poem's second half short, and begins the poem's tapering, its sense of running down from long words to smaller, sadder words.

Now comes a move from sight to feeling, outer to inner. "Seen" (done by an imagined outsider) contrasts with the private "hurt", in the only line with two breaks. The third verse ends with a strong pause, a colon,

before the rosemary-picker appears as a child "in disguise as an old man", whose love for young, soft things (blossom and mosses) parallels that of the poet for him.

Sound reflects sense. Of vowel-harmonies through the poem (lane/stranger, over/eager, child/disguise), many underline the skilfully awkward, softly dragging effect of the tri- syllables (rosemary/awkwardly/slowly/Citroen/ Luberon/blossom). Starting with "rosemary" itself, the poem is full of feminine endings - words whose accented first syllables are followed by one or more weaker, unaccentuated syllables (holiday, salmonella, delicacy) - reflecting, perhaps, both the observer's "femininity" and the man's clumsily careful gestures.

The poet is not the subject of any verb. She stays back: "you" has the action. "We" is the first subject, "you wanted" is the reason for the stop, "your coat" and "any stranger" are subjects, but when the poet appears alone she is the object of "hurt". It is dangerous with modern poets to refer back to predecessors (have they read them?), but "What hurts me" recalls a famous modernist poem with a similar note in it which I have heard Feinstein read: by Ezra Pound, who revived early poetry from Provence. His "River-Merchant's Wife" married her husband very young. Now she "grows older". While he is absent, she says, paired butterflies "hurt me".

Here, absence is to come: "we" is the poem's strong first word. And there is a smile at the denial of the last line, as if the "illness in the skin", the "awkward", "frail" and "old", are all "disguise". From "sprig" to "child" and "blossom", the reality is youth, the still-fresh rosemary - which, says Perdita in The Winter's Tale, a happier, luckier Shakespearian flower-gatherer than Ophelia, keeps "seeming and savour all the winter long".

cRuth Padel, 1999

"Rosemary in Provence" is taken from Daylight (Carcanet)