Five Leaves, 2007 - £4.50 www.fiveleaves.co.uk
This first collection from Penny Feinstein is formed from two sections of poems. The first is concerned with migrants, travellers, and evacuees (the last from the point of view of Feinstein herself as a young girl). In the second part Feinstein writes about the death of one of her parents.
The poet's strength is her use of detail to evoke specific mood. In the stronger poems, closely observed behaviours of the protagonists serve as metaphor and give meaning. In ‘Night Driving’, she addresses her dying mother:
Driving at night you kept the headlights
dipped. "It's better," you said, denying the dark
beyond, just as in the blitz you out-manoeuvred
danger, held it at bay with blackout.
In ‘Passengers’ her thoughts when weeding her garden lead her to contemplate the harm that may come to a loved one travelling by air. It is the contrast between the private and fragile scale of the "creeping buttercups" that have "hijacked the strawberry bed" with the public and soulless description of the addressee as a passenger that evokes so eloquently the distance and lack of control she feels.
This is a first collection of poems of mixed success. Feinstein's wealth of detail can weaken the effect when it fails to add resonance to the poem itself. I was sometimes left wondering if the poet had paid sufficient thought to whether vivid memories would be equally evocative for her readers. I also had some concerns over her handling of line breaks. Sometimes this is sophisticated, as in the passage from ‘Night Driving’ quoted above, but in other poems her descriptive prose is sometimes rather artificially divided up. In ‘Stripping the Bed’ I was confused by the staccato line breaks, which I felt worked against the poem:
Linen was never washed in public
or hung out: a shabby heap on the floor,
it gives off a frosty air of
pathetic in their pettiness
This first collection contains some strong poetry however, where characters walk out of the words, as in this passage about Cousin Elsa, arriving just before the Blitz:
Her skin was grey as stone.
She'd perch her bony body
on the edge of a hard chair
outside the circle, and look on
as through a leper's squint.
She cleared up, did the mending,
took meagre helpings, seldom spoke,
frightened us with the pain
in her bit of a smile.