Artist in Residence: Rebecca Hurst
Rebecca Hurst writes poetry, essays and libretti. As artist in residence at the JRRI in 2019-20, Rebecca worked on the Elaine Feinstein archive (with a particular focus on the 2005 hybrid novel ‘The Russian Jerusalem’), and drafted a new auto-fictive narrative poem (‘Speaking Russian in Coulson: Between Countries and Between Forms’).
2 October 2019
I am seated at a table in the special collections reading room at the John Rylands library. From a whole cart full of material from the Carcanet archive I’ve been handed Box 4, containing the proof manuscript of Elaine Feinstein’s 2005 novel The Russian Jerusalem.
Looking back through my notes from that encounter I find it hard to distinguish between Feinstein’s words and my own:
A city of freezing rain — sea and sky —
[ I AM HERE FOR THE GHOSTS ]
It is nine days since Feinstein’s death, on the 23rd of September, aged 88 years.
When conceiving this residency and submitting my application, I hoped to meet and interview her. However, I had heard of her illness earlier in the year and known for some months that our encounter would remain on the page. I spent the summer reading Feinstein’s poetry and translations, and rereading The Russian Jerusalem.
Now, confronted by the papery ephemera that makes up her archive, I feel strongly that I am looking for her in all the wrong places. The reading room is quiet; a handful of researchers immersed in their own papery projects, so hushed you can hear the hum of the reading lamps, the creak of a floorboard in the corridor, the murmur of our collective thoughts. The proofs I am looking at are scantily marked-up; the staples have left rust marks. The corrections Feinstein made to the manuscript in faint blue biro tell me little about the process of writing a novel that is composed of fiction, poetry, memoir, and travel writing. Or about the motivation behind creating this strange, hybrid work.
‘Have you led me here to abandon me?’
I call out. Silence. I am alone at the edge
of a black river.
11 November 2019
I have travelled from a residency in Aldeburgh — where I stayed in Benjamin Britten’s housekeeper’s retirement bungalow and walked daily on the shingle beach — to Copenhagen. In a fog of excitement and exhaustion I take part in a symposium at the university on writing art. Over the summer I moved house, recovered from surgery to treat thyroid cancer, and weaned myself off antidepressants. My brain and energy levels have still not found their way back to equilibrium. I make several pages of notes and sketches. It has been a month since I’ve been able to return to my alcove in the mezzanine of the historic reading room at the John Rylands Library. I miss the milky blue light; standing at the stone railing looking down at the visitors; the spookiness of my reflection in the old foxed mirror in the toilet; Wednesday morning tea and biscuits with other researchers working in the Research Institute. Most of all I miss Feinstein’s company. Sitting in a café in Fredericksburg, eating an almond and poppy seed pastry and drinking coffee, I read over my notes from symposium’s closing day.
Like ghosts, archives come into the future to find somebody to talk to.
22 January 2020
Burrowing deep into Feinstein’s autobiographical writing (Box 46), her writing projects and passions have become far more tangible and vigorous than my own.
I [feel] like a potholer who has climbed too far down and fears it may be impossible to return to the surface.
Reading the letters from Angela Livingstone to Feinstein about their shared project of translating Tsvetaeva’s poetry — at that point, in the early 1970s, unknown to English speakers — is a particular joy. ‘Best things!’ I write in my notebook. The translations started as a personal project, at the beginning of Feinstein’s career as a poet and at a time when her ‘mind felt white and bloodless’. She credits Tsvetaeva as her ‘teacher of courage’, the poet who gave her the key to unlock her own poetic voice. Livingstone, who provided the literal translations and screeds of encouraging and critical comments on early drafts, was the bridge that connected Feinstein with her guide:
…a gaunt, sure-footed spectre
who walks fearlessly into the night…
12 February 2020
Unaware that my Wednesdays in the John Rylands reading room will be cut short by a global coronavirus pandemic, I spend my time at the library as though time were still a commodity I had to spend.
The condition of creation is a condition of dreaming, when you suddenly, obeying an unknown necessity, set fire to a house or push your own friend from the mountain top.
I travel to the library on a packed regional train. I accidentally miss a planned coffee date with a friend; we tell each other by text, no matter, we will reschedule. The collaboration between Feinstein and Livingstone feels like the most vital and interesting thing happening in my life. Their letters are packed with detail about the translations they are working on, spliced with domestic and practical interruptions. I enjoy the interruptions as much as anything else.
Here is (1) £1 note in envelope I’ve remembered I owe you it…(buy some steak with it)…
(2) stationary, and some pens…
(3) your recent versions back, with detailed comments…
Taking Livingstone’s literal version of Tsvetaeva’s poem [Evil Eye], I try my own version(s). I spend a couple of weeks writing almost the same poem, over and again, intrigued by the way a slight adjustment in the arrangement or choice of words shifts the tone of the work.
Blue-eyed crooner / you’ve put a spell on me…
Your name is ice in my mouth / a symptom or sign.
Bare foot over snow feathers I go / to the door. And behind the door /
sits Death, casting his dice.
I call the library to postpone my planned visit to the reading room. In my journal I write:
The feeling that is always on the tip of my tongue:apprehension. How to shore up my defences? Began this morning by writing, taking a walk. I have work to do. A project I need to immerse myself in. Last week the work flowed. Now — bring myself back to that place.
Six months later and I have yet to return, though presumably my archive boxes still sit on the cart under a label with my name on it, waiting for our conversation to begin again.
Read more about Elaine Feinstein on the Carcanet Press website
The John Rylands Special Collections blog also published a tribute to Elaine Feinstein following her death in September 2019. You can find it here.