APRIL 2009


Isaac Babel Riding with Budyonny by R.B. KitajR.B. Kitaj
Isaac Babel Riding with Budyonny 1962
© R.B. Kitaj
Oil on canvas
182.9 x 152.4 cm

Elaine Feinstein presents her poem, 'Isaac Babel Riding with Budyonny', based on R.B. Kitaj’s work of the same name. This work is not currently on display in Tate galleries, but Erasmus Variations by the same artist is on display in Tate Britain.
Visit the Tate Collection online.

       Isaac Babel Riding with Budyonny
       A swirl of ochre ---- then a brighter yellow
        fills in the woodcut lines of an alien figure;
another stubby man wears a red scarf:
        Carnival colours. What’s the story here?

 This is the euphoria of Revolution:
        Ukraine in flames, the air a grey smoke.
Ash beneath dark skies. From a horse’s white rump,
        the colours turn in a kaleidoscope.

But where is Babel? Such insolence
        for a myopic Jew ---- to ride
alongside Kuban Cossacks into Chagall’s
        villages of dirt-floor shacks.

 The Whites have already trashed the stelt.
        Babel rides with the Red Cavalry,
shamed by their courage, though they loot and kill.
        Bystander angel, he records the dying. 

 Kitaj has sketched a man with a bird’s head,   
        against the scribbled map of a little town,
an image styled after a medieval
        Haggadah, telling the story of Passover.

Secrets of a shared family tree:
        the faithful passions of the trapped,
the cheating promises of liberty --
        Kitaj, like Babel, draws the savagery.

ELAINE FEINSTEIN was brought up in Leicester, and educated at Newnham College, Cambridge. She has lived as a poet, novelist and biographer since 1980, when she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She has received many awards, including a Cholmondeley Award for Poetry, an Honorary D.Litt from the University of Leicester, and a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship at Bellagio. She has travelled widely to read her work at festivals, and throughout Russia and Ukraine to research her biographies of Marina Tsvetaeva, Pushkin and Akhmatova. Her most recent book of poems is Talking to the Dead (2007). She received a major Arts Council award for her latest novel, The Russian Jerusalem (Carcanet, 2008). In 2008, she was elected to the Council of the Royal Society of Literature. Bride of Ice, her new and extended selection of the poems of Marina Tsvetaeva comes out in June 2009.

Elaine is one of the judges for the 2009 Corneliu M Popescu Prize for European Poetry. The significance of translated poetry on our own poetic landscape is one not always recognised. The Popescu Prize redresses the value of travelling beyond our own poetry backyard for both the reader and the writer. Organised by the Poetry Society and sponsored by Ratiu Family Foundation, the prize is given biennially to a collection of poetry translated into English from another European language. Judging with Elaine will be Stephen Romer.