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World Poetry Portfolio #18: Ruth Fainlight


Ruth Fainlight

Ruth Fainlight was born in New York City, but has lived in England since the age of fifteen. She studied at art college in England, lived for some years in France and Spain, and later married the writer Alan Sillitoe (who died in April 2010). She received the Hawthornden and Cholmondeley Awards in 1994. Her 1997 collection, Sugar-Paper Blue, was shortlisted for the 1998 Whitbread Award. Ruth has published thirteen collections of poems in England and the USA, as well as two volumes of short stories, and translations from French, Portuguese and Spanish. Her New & Collected Poems appeared in England at the end of 2010. Marine Rose (1988), her translation of the Portuguese poet Sophia de Mello Breyner, was the first to appear in the English language. Her translation (in collaboration with Robert J. Littman) of Sophocles’ Theban Plays was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2009. Books of her own poems have been published in Portuguese, French, Spanish, Italian and Romanian translation. In 1985 & 1990 she was Poet in Residence at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. Her operatic work includes libretti commissioned for the Royal Opera’s ‘Garden Venture’ in 1991 and 1993. The Dancer Hotoke, composer Erika Fox, was nominated for the 1992 Laurence Olivier Awards. Her TV opera, Bedlam Britannica, was transmitted on Channel 4 in September 1995. She was Writing Tutor at the Contemporary Opera and Music Theatre Lab for the Performing Arts Lab (PAL) during its last three seasons in the late 1990s. R.F. has served on the Council of The Poetry Society, is a member of the Society of Authors and the Writers in Prison Committee of English P.E.N. and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She has read her work at festivals and conferences, universities, schools and libraries in most parts of the world.



My Nashville apartment

was near the campus and

opposite the Wedding Chapel.

If only I`d made friends

with someone local

I might have been invited

to a ceremony –

but I knew no-one.


Weekend afternoons

I would sit by the window,

watching them enter,

one couple after another.

I could only imagine

exactly what happened

in the chapel, from the look

on their faces, afterwards.


Sometimes music

from inside would reach me –

interesting, what they chose

(maybe old songs from

the Bluebird Cafe) – notes

which blew across the road

like the gold and silver stars

and moons of the confetti.


It made me feel older, lonely –

but lucky – because I knew

that even though I stayed

the whole semester in Nashville,

when I got back home,

my husband would look at me

as wonderingly as if

we still were bride and groom.



When food goes rotten: white spots

on the cheese and green streaks of mould,

sooty black spores on slices of bread,

and fingers sink shockingly

into the underside of a piece of fruit

when you lift it from the bowl,

wrinkled and collapsed; like


the soft, crumpled face of that woman

swathed in layers of scarves, talking

to someone only she can see and

plucking pieces of lint out of the air – or

the age-blotched arms of a gaunt old man

squinting at the sun, harsh silhouette

against a sea as bright as tin; try


not to forget that what is consuming

the bread, cheese, fruit, the elderly brain

and flesh, has the same immortal

energy as the one about to be born,

that matter can change but never die,

that nothing is wasted – although

each time it takes a different form.



for Suzette

Hemming with herringbone

stitches as small and regular

(exquisite, almost invisible),

as if sewn by that woman

who crouched for hours

close to a smoky lantern

to finish embroidering

the princess`s wedding dress

before the morning,


I sit on my bed, needle flashing

in afternoon sunlight that slants

through the window, or later,

like a kitchen skivvy chopping

parsley fine enough to garnish

an emperor`s dish, realise

that for the cook or seamstress

the only possible freedom

must be perfection of their skill.


Idle thoughts. Unlike them,

I choose my occupation.

Although we share the thrill

of confirmation when craft

becomes art – and gratitude

for that good fortune –

nobody gives me orders.

I know the difference:

I can do as I wish.



The room had seemed completely dark

until, as if a padded curtain

slid across the window, a sepia

wash from a sable brush clogged

with pigment puddled onto a sheet

of paper as thirsty as a blotter,

or a metal blind clicked into place,

the air curdled, blackness condensed.


Neighbours were turning off their lights.

Windows, opposite mine, at different

levels on the other side of the street,

became rectangles of watery

tones, like an early Klee.  As each

lamp faded and the distillation

of darkness proceeded, I felt myself

break free, plunge deeper into space.



Bright against dawn blue

when the blind is raised

and framed by the window bars:

a full moon, pure disk marked

with the Sea of Tranquillity

and Archimedes` volcano.


Haze of cloud: a mauve veil

drawn across a woman`s face

softening its contours. A flock

of pigeons races up and down

the street. The moon fades.

The veil whitens and thickens.


Between a church steeple

and roof-tops opposite

the moon becomes a vague imprint

of its first clear image:

not hammered silver foil

but crumpled tissue paper.


How quickly it moves, like a child

who runs to hide behind a wall

and giggling, calls:  “Where am I?

Come and find me!”

The sky has paled, and the birds

flown off to another street.



(The Hutton Enquiry)

If he`s as sincere as

he sounds – as he

insists – and believed

what he said, he`s a fool.

If he doesn`t believe it

but used it, he`s a villain.

Would you rather be ruled

by a fool or a villain?



To be killed by a rocket

I need not be its target

just another statistic

charged with adrenalin

caught in the crossfire

between two armies

with their own stories:

peripheral damage.



Plunging both hands deep inside the tin,

buttons would slide through my fingers like sand.

I picked out the shiny ones: nacreous

mother-of-pearl, round, oval and square,

cut with patterns elaborate as snowflakes,

edges serrated like the puckered lips

of a cowrie shell, a tightened chamois purse,

or a whale`s curved mouth with its bony fringe.


Cowrie-money: those button-necklaces

I loved to thread with the glinting buttons cut

from Mother`s worn-out frocks. Were cowries

only valued for tone and shape? Her gaze

was powerful enough to make me doubt

myself, and seemed as distant as a whale`s.

As my inheritance, she left her button box,

some necklaces, and three cowrie shells.



I feel a bit crazy tonight,

my mood heightened, unstable:

maybe because it`s full moon,

or maybe because we`re living

on borrowed time. But borrowed

from whom? Maybe the moon –

it could be the moon who allows

you to live beyond your due.

This morning the doctor said

he`s amazed you`re still alive.

I`m not. Why should you die?

Far more reason to live,

so much still to do.

We both look up at the moon,

and silently I beg:

be as generous as you can,

kindly usurer,

give me endless credit.

Later I`ll pay my debts

(I already know

the price will be cruel). Please,

let me borrow again, let us gaze

at you again – and again –

new moon, crescent, full,

in a clear or clouded sky.

Do not allow this moment

to be, or to become, even

maybe, the very last time.




Between my aunt`s house and the backs

of those with their low roofs

on the next block

lay an empty lot.


The summer weeds were tall enough

(in fall, the goldenrod)

to close us off.

The field seemed boundless –


neutral ground – almost a barrier.

No-one but I chose

to enter that space.

It was my empire.



To stand waist-high

in the surf of weeds,

bare feet and dusty toes

a hilly terrain for ants,

heels burrowed by chiggers,

legs scratched by dry stalks

and burrs, bitten by ticks,

the sun burning my shoulders

and small flies circling my head

as I dragged the back of a hand

across brow and under chin

to wipe away the sweat:

bliss – although

I did not know it yet.



Even in winter, when cold scythed

all growth flat, a tangle

of rotted leaves, shattered stems

and muddy snow


kept us isolated

in our small house

on that unpaved street

at the edge of town.


And after school, until

the grown-ups got home from work,

my brother and I, alone,

could fight and talk.


We were strangers – in wartime –

with nowhere else to live, and few

neighbours so far from the centre.

How lucky I was.



The fierce grip of black ants’ mandibles

clipped together the gaping sides of a wound

in my ancestor`s thigh. As the jaws clamped

shut, the writhing bodies were twisted off.


To cure her rheumatism, my great great

grandmother was eased into a tin bath

where a nest of ants had been boiled. Their

formic acid made the water dark as iodine.

(These days, more likely, she would order

Chinese Ant-venom Extract on-line.)


Tons of cement were poured down the vents

and chimneys of an ant city, to map the structure.

Then, with the same care it was built, the earth

around was dug and shifted, to uncover


galleries, garbage pits, pastures where workers

milk honey-dew aphids, air-conditioned

fungus gardens and larvae nurseries,

the queen-mother`s chamber. No single mind

conceived this triumph of the collective.

I contemplate it with awe and fear.


A colony of forty thousand ants

has the same number of brain cells as a human.

Ant brains are the largest among insects.

Each has the processing power of a computer.


“Go to the ant, you sluggard, consider its ways

and be wise,” are King Solomon’s words

in the Book of Proverbs. But ants yawn.

In Japan, they say that an ant-hole will collapse

an embankment; in Africa, that not even

the sharpest ear can hear an ant’s song.




If you stand on the path leading out of the village,

with your back to the airport buildings, the pylons

hidden, the bright motorway signs too far

on the left to enter your field of vision

and the last row of houses too far to the right,


the vista towards that distant line of hills

sloping gently down to the muddy stream

in the shallow valley that lies before you, gives

little evidence of the present moment – seems

a perfect nineteenth century English landscape.


But the moment you shift your head from that one angle

or let yourself hear the traffic-roar: the endless

stream of cars, the HGVs, the freight-planes

lifting off and the holiday flights landing,

you know exactly when and where you are.


It is this interdigitation of rural and

global, industrial and contemporary – this

evidence of encroachment by an augmenting

population and its wants: consumption and

mobility – which fascinates and appals.



Cattle in the shadow of cargo hangars

and new-built terminals. Virgin, Easyjet

and DHL. Sheep with fleeces darkened

to the tarnished silver of clouds emerging

from the power station`s cooling towers.


And past the highway`s wire-link barrier –

and barely noticed by that Mondeo`s only

passenger – discordant acres of acid

yellow rape fields coruscate like molten

metal through an open furnace door.

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