Ruth Fainlight was born in New York on May 2, 1931, the daughter of a British father and an American mother with Russian-Jewish ancestry. In 1946 she settled in England, where she studied at colleges of art in Birmingham and Brighton. She married the writer Alan Sillitoe in 1959. The couple have one son and one daughter. Although a successful writer of short stories, a dramatist/librettist and translator, she is best known for her poetry, whose modern style blends subtle image-making with toughness of expression. Her verse pinpoints routine thoughts and actions with striking immediacy, while invoking an imagined ancestry of earlier female oracles and women prophets. A writer of rare originality, she resists easy definition, and her poetry bears witness to her dislike of being categorized. In “Vertical,” from Another Full Moon, she refers to the liberating power of her writing which enables her to escape from the pigeon-holing tendency. “I am released by language …/which sets me free/From whomsoever’s definition:/Jew. Woman. Poet.” Clearly, Fainlight does not wish to be described purely as a Jewish writer and her poetry shows equivocal views on modern Israel and historical Zionism; indeed, Zionist opinions are more forcibly expressed by her non-Jewish husband in one of his novels. Fainlight combines ethnic, female and literary elements in uneasy balance within her own complex personality, but there can be no doubt that her Jewish heritage is a potent factor in her work. Just as the feminist role is revealed by repeated invocations of the moon and the catalogue of sibyls and rebels in her writing, so the Jewish aspect of her nature is shown through the many biblical accounts and references, and the race-memory of oppression and the Holocaust that color her poetry. To See the Matter Clearly includes such poems as the reflective “The Spirit Moving on the Face of the Waters,” with its echoes of Genesis, and in “Gloria” presents a frightening muse that leads the poet “to the burning-place.” In “Sleep-Learning” Fainlight watches her drowsing child and ponders on the dreams he has inherited from his persecuted ancestors.
With The Region’s Violence her writing becomes more fiercely questioning, God and the Old Testament subjected to a merciless feminist critique in poems such as “Lilith” where Adam’s companion is punished with exile for thinking herself his equal. Her image of the Jewish God as a vindictive male chauvinist is matched by her mocking comparison of Adam’s phallus with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The biblical oppression of her sex is seen as continuing with Jesus in the New Testament, Fainlight pondering on the Velasquez painting, with the hard-worked Martha’s “sad, resentful gaze” as she is overlooked in favour of her more spiritual sister. In “My Grandparents” she moves closer to home, considering ancestors of her own who died, victims of persecution, before she was born. Fainlight sees herself as their monument, the one surviving reminder of their suffering, “the museum’s prize,/Memorial to their legend.” Another Full Moon, which contains the self-assertive “Vertical,” is also notable for “My Position in the History of the Twentieth Century,” in which she reflects on her good fortune in being somewhere else when Hitler was killing Jews in Europe:
Lucky to live where it was not dangerous
To look like me (no need for a yellow star).
My good fortune took me far from the Holocaust
—Though it’s easy to imagine how it feels
To read those scrawls on the station’s tiled wall …
I flaunt my being manifest
To whoever wishes to read the signs.
Sibyls and Others preoccupies itself mainly with the feminist concerns of oracular utterance and female mystery whose price is the loss of freedom, but even here Fainlight presents “The Hebrew Sibyl” who prophesies for those about to die, and in “Sibyl of the Waters” imagines the daughter of Noah witnessing the nakedness of her father and seeing in the flood “the nakedness of God.” Fifteen to Infinity finds her digging deeper into her ancestral past: the Bible and the Talmud served as sources for “Miriam’s Well” and “Susannah and the Elders,” where Fainlight champions the rebellious Susannah; “Sister, Sister” depicts the horror of Tamar’s rape. In “Archive Film” images of the Holocaust return, the truckborne Auschwitz victims on their way to oblivion likened to short-lived flowers, while “Red Message” ponders on the race-memory inherited by the living from “lives gone into the earth like water,/poured for ritual.” “The Mount of Olives,” written following a visit to Israel, has Fainlight in an unusually reverential mood, deciding that “Eternity has staked its claim/to the hills around Jerusalem.” In Sugar-Paper Blue, which also includes some prose pieces, the poet studies Genesis while commenting ruefully on the problems of aging. In “Dinah” she recalls with sadness the tale of a girl’s ravishment and the revenge massacre by her brothers, in a way that appears to draw parallels with the present-day conflict in the Middle East, and in “Queen of the Nile” indicates possible reconciliation as “Black Sarah” accompanies the three Marys on a legendary voyage to eventual sainthood. “Horns” describes her own experience of racist bullying as a child, while in “Sugar-Paper Blue” she weaves a subtle web of poetic images that move from her immigrant relatives in New York to the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, imprisoned in the very house where Fainlight herself was staying while on a visit to the Soviet Union. Not simply Jewish, or female, or a poet, Ruth Fainlight is all of them and more, and this threefold heritage is reflected in her writing from first to last.
Fainlight served as Poet in Residence at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee, in 1985 and 1990, as poetry editor of European Judaism, and on the Council of the Poetry Society. She is a member of the Writers in Prison Committee and British PEN. Her awards include the Cholmondeley Award for Poets, 1994.
A Forecast, a Fable (1958); Cages (1966); 18 Poems from 1966 (1967); To See the Matter Clearly and Other Poems (1968) Poems, with Alan Sillitoe and Ted Hughes (1971); The Region’s Violence (1973); 21 Poems (1973); Another Full Moon (1976); Sibyls and Others (1980); Climates (1983); Fifteen to Infinity (1983) Selected Poems (1987) Three Poems (1988); The Knot (1990) Sibyls (1991); This Time of Year (1993); Selected Poems (1995); Sugar-Paper Blue (1997); Poems (1999).
Daylife and Nightlife (1971); Dr. Clock’s Last Case (1994);
Translator, All Citizens are Soldiers, by Lope de Vega (1969); Translator, Navigations, by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (1983); Editor, Harry Fainlight: Selected Poems (1986); Translator, Marine Rose, by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, (1987); The Dancer Hotoke (1991); The European Story (1993).
Bogen, Nancy. How to Write Poetry. New York: 1991.
Couzyn, Jeni, ed. The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets. Newcastle: 1985.
From Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century. Editor: Sorrel Kerbel. Copyright © 2003. Reproduced by permission of Routledge/Taylor and Francis Books, Inc.