Cambridge 1949

by Elaine Feinstein

Look, how she teeters in a tight skirt
         on high heels over the cobbled street,
past Heffers’ gabled windows and knobbly glass,
         the music of wartime dance bands still inside her –
what does she know of madrigals and choirs,
         my adolescent self, in her first term?
She dreams of Soho clubs and Raymond Chandler.

Dismissing girls in tweedy clothes as dowdy,
         she does not recognise the family names
connected into webs of social power; altogether
         too unworldly to be a Marrano,
she says Grace at High Table as a Scholar,
         giggling, over wet lettuce and beetroot,
quite unaware of the surprise around her.

Yet reading in her Newnham room the Metaphysical
         poets claim her, and she enters
the Christian centuries with Donne and Herbert,
         filled with an unexpected terror.
What if it were all true? The angels
         on the shore, the judgment,
the dismissal and her secular world denied?

What if this present were the world’s last night?
         The paradise of leaf dust and wood smoke
would vanish in the darker truth behind.
         Unprotected by her own rituals
or any reading in the Sciences, she is caught
         in a history told by eloquent strangers:
she prays alongside Gerard Manley Hopkins,

until a Fulbright student from New York
         rescues her with a raucous mockery,
lends her Pound’s miraculous Cathay
         which staggers her with the sad,
erotic beauty of another culture
         while he, with skilful fingers,
teaches her in the shade of willow trees
         how to explore further outside the syllabus.