Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 2 May 1931. Education: Attended schools in America and England; studied at Birmingham and Brighton colleges of art. Family: Married Alan Sillitoe, q.v., in 1959; one son and one adopted daughter. Career: Poet-in-residence, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, 1985, 1990. Award: Cholmondeley award, 1994. Address: 14 Ladbroke Terrace, London W11 3PG, England.
A Forecast, A Fable. London, Outposts, 1958.
Cages. London, Macmillan, 1966; Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1967.
18 Poems from 1966. London, Turret, 1967.
To See the Matter Clearly and Other Poems. London, Macmillan, 1968; Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1969.
Poems, with Alan Sillitoe and Ted Hughes. London, Rainbow Press, 1971.
The Region's Violence. London, Hutchinson, 1973.
21 Poems. London, Turret, 1973.
Another Full Moon. London, Hutchinson, 1976.
Two Fire Poems. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1977.
The Function of Tears. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1979.
Sibyls and Others. London, Hutchinson, 1980.
Two Wind Poems. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Martin Booth, 1980.
Climates. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1983.
Fifteen to Infinity. London, Hutchinson, 1983.
Selected Poems. London, Century Hutchinson, 1987.
Three Poems. Child Okeford, Dorset, Words Press, 1988.
The Knot. London, Century Hutchinson, 1990.
Sibyls, with woodcuts by Leonard Baskin. Searsmont, Maine, Gehenna Press, 1991.
This Time of Year. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994.
Selected Poems. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995.
Pomegranate, with mezzotints by Judith Rothchild. Ceret, France, Editions de l'Eau, 1997.
Sugar-Paper Blue. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1997; Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1998.
Leaves/Feuilles, with French versions of poems by M. Duclos and mezzotints by Judith Rothchild. Octon, France, Editions Verdigris, 1998.
All Citizens Are Soldiers, with Alan Sillitoe, adaptation of a play by Lope de Vega (produced London, 1967). London, Macmillan, and Chester Springs. Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1969.
The Dancer Hotoke (opera libretto), music by Erika Fox (produced London, 1991). Included in Selected Poems, London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995.
The European Story (opera libretto), music by G. Alvarez (produced London, 1993). Included in Selected Poems, London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995.
Penguin Modern Stories 9, with others. London, Penguin, 1971.
Daylife and Nightlife. London, Deutsch, 1971.
Dr. Clock's Last Case. London, Virago Press, 1994.
Editor, Selected Poems, by Harry Fainlight. London, Turret, 1987.
Editor, Journeys, by Harry Fainlight. London, Turret, 1992.
Translator, Navigacions, by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen. Lisbon, Casa da Moeda, 1983.
Translator, Marine Rose, by Sophia de Mello Breyner. Redding Ridge, Connecticut, Black Swan, 1989.*
Critical Studies: By Michèle Duclos, in La Traductiere 10 (Bordeaux, France), June 1992; by Barbara Hardy, in New European Review (London), 8/9, 1992; by Janet Barron, in New Statesman Society, 7(308), 24 June 1994.
Ruth Fainlight comments:
I try to keep the words of a poem close to the feelings and sensations that inspired it in the hope that it will inspire the same feelings, recognitions, and memories in its reader. In this way he or she becomes involved in its reality, even a participant in its creation, because reading is an active relationship between reader and writer. But writing is a relationship between writer and language. A poem develops organically from the first inspiring phrase. That phrase, or cluster of words, includes every essential element, and my work is to allow all its potential of sound and meaning to realize themselves. And like every other living organism, its development is a unique combination of unassailable laws and the entirely unexpected.
(1995) Though I appreciate the arguments of those who believe that a poem should be left in its first published state, I feel that the relationship between poet and poem, like a living marriage, is continually changing and so have taken the opportunity to revise some of the work. As in any relationship, it is very hard to know if one's actions will have good or bad results.
(2000) My mother tongue is English, my ancestry Eastern European; I grew up in the United States. With such a background, I am a good example of what is often referred to as a "rootless cosmopolitan." Although, or perhaps because, that label is often used pejoratively, I accept it with pleasure. It is easy for me to feel connections with people from any part of the world. My writing is the expression of all the factors that combine to make me what I am. As a poet my prime allegiance is to the language in which I write. The literature of the English language is what has nourished, delighted, and instructed me. I prefer not to have any qualifying word attached to "poet" in reference to myself, unless it is to create a new category: not English, American, Jewish, female, feminist, or anything else but an English-language poet.* * *
The poetry of Ruth Fainlight reflects a systematic mining of personal experience. Central to her work are the interwoven themes of the poet's role in "normal" life and that of a woman in a world whose standards are still defined by men. Both of these concerns are explored directly, the woman-poet giving evidence of their effect upon her. As a writer, Fainlight is conscious of herself as being in possession of a gift that to some extent distances her from the ordinary world. It is a mixed blessing, for the compulsive urge for expression devours her own existence as its raw material. The force of this need within her and the paralyzing frustration in those arid periods when she is unable to write are keenly observed in a number of poems, not least in the hospital convalescence of "Late Afternoon." Warring with the poetic urge is the harder, more practical side of Fainlight's nature, what she refers to as "My Stone-Age Self," its earth-bound cynicism denying all spiritual values, insisting that "nothing / but the body's pleasure, / use, and comfort, matters." Such works as "Passenger" indicate that on more than one occasion the poet has found herself wondering if creativity is worth the trouble, if it would not in fact be better if she were a nonpoetic person, unravaged by the debilitating forces that cannibalize the self.
The roles of woman and poet interlock once more in Fainlight's relationship with her mother, which is presented in several of her poems. The relationship is seen as ambivalent, varying somewhere between love and resentment, and in some ways it is equated with her attitude toward poetry itself; it is significant that Fainlight regards the muse as a mother figure whose status she is not always willing to acknowledge. Similarly, in the case of love, while responding to the compulsive urge, she is aware of the threat it poses, the gradual absorption of the self into family life. "Here" presents domesticity as at once a prison and a dangerous lure, the attractions of which compel her to accept it against her better judgment. The male-female confrontation, its conflict and resolution, is tracked by Fainlight back into the looming shadow of myth and fairy tale, imaged in Adam's Fall or in "Beauty and the Beast." At once a wife and mother and an individual, she balances the warring opposites with a clear, unjaundiced vision, setting them down in measured polarities in her verse.
More than second-class citizenship or lack of inspiration, death is the final restriction, the limit placed on all created things. Robbed of her loved brother, a fellow poet who died young, Fainlight is aware of death as a constantly lurking threat, reminders of its presence appearing when least expected in a chance sighting of the moon in the night sky, for example, or in the coming of another spring. In her account of her brother's funeral, the sudden breaking of a storm matches her grief, his death the crucial event that convinces her of the fearful end to everything: "I shall not meet my dead again / as I remember them / alive, except in dreams or poems. / Your death was the final proof / I needed to accept that knowledge."
This Time of Year reexamines the familiar themes with a growing depth and intensity of expression. In the sequence of poems "Twelve Sibyls" Fainlight evokes a range of archetypal female figures who are gifted with the power of utterance and self-creation yet who are still denied, frozen, and curbed by the controlling strength of the male "god." "This Time of Year" blends the fallen leaves of autumn with recollections of her dead parents, the images subtly and indissolubly woven together in a few words, while "Tosca" depicts the memory of other relatives and their everyday talismans. Fainlight subjects herself to ironic self-analysis in "The Author" and "Reflection," humorously visualizing her mirror image in the latter poem as "all contrary." Her ambiguous view of domesticity surfaces once more in "Romance," where she warns of the enslaving properties of fairy tales; the contrasting vision is shown in "Art," where her musings on the preparation of food recall the earlier "Box and Sampler," with its message of shared ritual as a liberating influence.
Fainlight compares her relationship to her poetry with that of a living marriage, subject to constant change, and this is clearly shown in the enlarged Selected Poems of 1995, where several of her earlier works appear in revised form. The collection also confirms the breadth of her talent, including translations of French and Portuguese poetry and texts of libretti written for the Royal Opera's The Garden Venture. It comes over as an impressive blend of her best work, drawn from most of her past collections.
Her versatility is further shown in Sugar-Paper Blue, Fainlight the short story writer adding a handful of prose pieces to this volume of poems. Her subtle use of symbols is seen in "Pomegranate," where the act of eating the fruit is linked to Greek mythology and to the Spanish sisters she visits again after a separation of twenty years and finds to be "strange, yet closer" than before. Inevitably, it is the inexorable advance of old age that dominates Fainlight's later writing. She reflects sadly on her vanished youth in "Friends' Photos" and "Young Men," contemplates short-term memory loss in "Whatever It Was," and in "Whatever" ponders on her increasing demands on life ("This urgent impatience comes with getting older. / I'm sure I once was able to hold out longer, / pace my pleasures and accept postponement. / These days though, I crave them instant, constant.") The aches and pains that flesh is heir to, whether unwelcome encounters with the dentist in "Bruises" and her prose piece "The Tooth Fairy" or an injured toe that refuses to heal in "Jade," are recalled with sad resignation, while in "The Gates" Fainlight is forced to admit the oncoming threat of death: "Still to come is the work / of leaving life."
The title poem once more displays Fainlight's skill in weaving complex associations from the simplest of materials. From her statement "But I thought everyone knew / what was meant by sugar-paper blue" the movement of the poem shifts quickly to her immigrant aunt and mother filling sugar bags in a chilly New York grocery store and on to the blue-painted walls of a house in Leningrad in 1965 where Fainlight—a guest—is suddenly made aware that the poetess Anna Akhmatova lives there and is walking around in the room above. Turning to poetry as a means of liberation and healing, Fainlight finds herself wishing that she could compact all of the world's misery—her relatives' drudgery, Akhmatova's imprisonment, the gulags, and the murder of dissidents—into a stone wrapped in blue sugar paper and throw it away. She knows that it cannot be, in the same way she is prevented from seeing Akhmatova, but the image and the feeling behind it retain their power over the reader and poet alike. The most impressively sustained poem of an excellent collection, "Sugar-Paper Blue" is clear proof of the poet's continuing attempt to set down her markers in the face of oblivion.