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.
THE WEDDING CHAPEL
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.
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.
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.
A DIFFERENT FORM
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.
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.
LISTENING TO BLAIR
(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:
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,
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.
THE EMPTY LOT
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.
FACTS ABOUT ANTS
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.