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LAVINIA GREENLAW: Invention and Artifice.
William Park

 

One would expect a poet of Greenlaw's current reputation to have produced two full length volumes demonstrating courage enough to have combined all her skills of restraint with genuine passion and urgency. Instead, we have a poet who possesses objective coolness, who can write about a subject (from history, science, or her own life) and, occasionally, can lift into lyricism, only to smother that lyrical flight with detachment or closure. Passion is stunted, atmosphere created through brevity, favouring the neat poem, the poem born from device and design, not compulsion.(1)

Reading her two collections Night Photograph (Faber 1993) and A World Where News Travelled Slowly (Faber 1997) I find myself thinking that Greenlaw's primary concern has been the preservation of an objective voice, and realising that, although this has only partly been achieved, there has been a significant loss also. Greenlaw's poetic sensitivity is masked by reserve, the dark aspects of the psyche, male or female, are too dangerous for exploration The result is a work intent on shaping the surface, while the demands of the psyche lie buried beneath. In this sense, despite the smooth surface, Greenlaw's Poetry is essentially fractured. I'll attempt in this article to find the genuine creative inventiveness in Greenlaw's poems, but, as a whole, though there are skills involving texture and precision of thinking, ultimately the sine wave of artifice runs through them.

It's interesting that Greenlaw comments 'What I attempted was really dry’(2) referring to the early drafts of the first poem in A World- Red Rackham’s Treasure, about an avaricious collector of objects, Henry Wellcome. Then she came across a picture of a cellar crammed with artefacts in the Tintin book Red Rackham's Treasure' and confined the poem to one room. This illustrates one example of her creative process, the building of material until the, often sudden, connecting flash and insight. It leads one to consider that, during the compilation of the second collection, some poems like Parallax which remained in magazines (3) amounted to little more than a relentless collection of historical detail:

The ship leaves Plymouth at the height of summer,
laden with barrels of the pickled cabbage
Cook swears will protect from scurvy.

As with the long River History in Night Photograph:

The Empire expanded, cesspits were banned,
water grew thick with steamships and sewage...

Here, the 'profound engagement with your subject’(4) that Greenlaw speaks of, seems to have been impeded by the history books. This dryness, an intent to impress with facts in a detached tone, remains in A World with the poem What We Can See of the Sky Has Fallen about the scientist Luke Howard:

Those weakened hours the ellipses and questionmarks
of science - ideas, you called them, eager to admit
your amateurism, excess Latin baggage and poor maths.

Throughout, in again quite a lengthy poem for Greenlaw (48 lines) the objective detail is in excess, and fails to lift lyrically, unlike much smaller poems like Millefiori There, the scientific detail is refreshing and precise and becomes magical:

and the molecules of his eye
oscillated into a thousand flowers.

Greenlaw, however, swings one way and then the other, using a precise verb like 'oscillated' then loosening her hold amidst the prettiness of flowers. This recalls the confetti, the 'mess of salty, almost silver scales' that the whale lyrically becomes at the end of Anchorage from Night Photograph. Is mess or prettiness at the heart of Greenlaw's lyricism? Is this the danger which is being curtailed, occasionally 'leached in a moment of helpless intimacy'? It's worth bearing in mind that the darker, more macabre subject matter or reminiscences of childhood that appeared in New Women Poets, The Gregory Anthology, and magazines like The Wide Skirt, don't appear in the collections. Greenlaw has found the formula that works for her poems, be it scientific, or objective - though interestingly enough, she will be returning to her teenage years in her first novel which is now a Work-in-Progress (Radio 3, November 1999).

I would disagree with Matthew Campbell that Greenlaw's poems are 'clipping the temptations of musicality'.(5) What seems to be the case is that music, or an occasional poetical excess, does emerge through the polished performance - but as a one-dimensional clever phrase, not as an inventiveness with the ring of inevitability. Detail and observation are controlled and build up strength through their resolve, then there is a sudden turn of lyricism, as in Reading Akhmatova in Midwinter

We, too, make little impression
walking back from town at midnight
on birds' feet - ducks' feet on the ramp
where we inch and scrabble our way to the door,
too numb to mind the slapstick.

Whether such lines as 'too numb to mind the slapstick' are creations waiting to be used in Greenlaw's notebooks is not known, but they read like serendipitous discoveries, sudden descriptive inventions, but isolated. It's true that the playfulness is reined in to some extent, ‘numb' and 'mind' having a counterbalancing weight to them, so that even here the flatness of tone is evident. A similar thing happens later in A World, in The Oasis in Winter, which, as Greenlaw expressed in a radio broadcast, could be about strong feelings, whether joy, or grief (6):

dying fish, spent fuel, fresh air
and here, a pool of caught salt water.

The discovered water is signalled, made intense by, but also captures gravity In the near assonance of caught and salt. The effects are underplayed, the tone is cool and measured, so that these moments of epiphany or poised observation do surprise with their subtlety, like breaks in an icy season - but the reader is left with a surface impression of language, static, but sometimes glittering brilliantly. This, from the first collection, from In Such Darkness

It starts to make sense,
that she saturates her voice with calm,

which could be a description of Greenlaw's poetic voice. She has said: 'Poets often seem to be those who are scalded by the acuteness of their perceptions while retaining a place of ice in the heart.' (7) Yet it seems to me that there are imaginative limitations in the results of Greenlaw's poetic process - because her romanticism and scientific impulses are opposed, she has, I suggest, drawn on various devices to navigate her way in a less ambiguous fashion. Those devices no doubt keep the disturbing, but surprising depths of the imagination in check. From Greenlaw we have yet to see the darker side explored with any authenticity, as with John Burnside in Swimming In The Flood for instance. Elizabeth Bishop, with her control of detail and her precise observation, is the guiding focus, but there the parity must end. The ice in Greenlaw's heart is, I suggest, freezing the underlying vulnerability of voice which seems rawly but beautifully there in a poem like Closer from Night Photograph, where 'Your touch surprises me/like a breath of sea air.'

I see the drama of the unresolved dichotomy in her work, played out in terms of landscape and the weather. It's as if the weather is a manifestation or reflection of emotion. The 'coming of the snow and cold' (8) that Matthew Campbell found in A World can be detected in poems like Reading Akhmatova in Midwinter, Landscape, The Oasis in Winter, Snow Line, Underworld, and Minus Ten, just as Ian Mcmillan found the link of water (9) in Night Photograph. The scalding heat can just as well be felt in Guidebooks to the Alhambra, and Skin Full. The presence of the weather is pressing, as Greenlaw says in Mainland, 'Why is it I can get no further than the weather,' with, in that poem, its 'glacial volcanoes' an image uniting the impact of heat and ice, and the 'cool late sun' presaging Late Sun, the final poem in A World.

One would have hoped for a real development from the first collection to the second. The science in the earlier poems often seemed to act as a template, to allow her creative intelligence to operate - in the poem Galileo's Wife an exact and immediate engagement with an imagined history was portrayed, as well as a witty evocation of feminine consciousness. Having minimised the scientific subject matter in the second collection, elements of history, landscape, and the metaphysics of the extraordinary are explored. Disappointingly, what might have been powerful, on the edge, true Life Studies, are clipped into domestic fragments where 'Our afternoon gets caught in the dark' (Five O'Clock Opera). The dramas in Our Life As Friends and Tryst are brittle and otherworldly at times, but mostly curiously diluted in terms of effective language: The day is its own machine.' 'I go to sleep where my life is sleeping.' Elsewhere, inventions and objects, essentially exercises in poems, take the place of meaningful development. It's left to the weather and landscape to act as backdrops for essentially static lives and descriptions: 'Birdsong is the languid creak of a stiff bicycle' (Trees in Nine Windows) 'A dog's tombstone, its eroded elegy' (Landscape). There is a sense of loss and loneliness in the world, in the poems The Oasis in Winter, Minus Ten, Reading Akhmatova In Midwinter. With the lifeless or snowed-in scenes, Greenlaw approaches stasis.

What is the role of the weather in Greenlaw's poetics? Since the occasional macabre poems of the early 90's, like Death of a Butcher (not included in the full collections) or the sinister but subjective poems like Resistance (In The Gregory Anthology 1987-1990) with its man who 'wanted/to show me lizards in his garden/but nutcrackered my buttocks' Greenlaw has moved on into a presentation of more objective realms. The presentation has become a clever array of surfaces - as science has provided a set of handholds for a more objective look at the world, so the weather, and landscape, provide a reference point for a display of careful observations. When these trappings are absent, as in p.p. Cadastre, A Changeable Province, from the second collection, the language betrays either a striving for effect: 'a guard/who bulges out of the gloom like a rhizome' (A Changeable Province), or a flatness of affect: The people come/to settle provenance and provocation' (Cadastre) or that dry deployment of detail already noted: 'Onto the streets come the investments,/the deeds, shares, equity and interest' (Cadastre).

The weather, and the environment, often cold, wet, icy, or snowy, acts as a reflection for the moodiness and pensiveness. The combination of the use of weather as reflected emotion, and the homing in to detail as a bulwark against falling into nothingness, is best illustrated in The Oasis in Winter, where:

The rocks at the end
are the rocks you would have believed as a child
to be legendary.

The sense of wonder is crystallised, as is the reverence for the natural world which is also found in Bishop (waterspouts, in Crusoe in England, are 'sacerdotal beings of glass'). There is the hushed voice 'speak quietly' of the narrator in The Oasis, the measured steps, the landscape which embraces both narrator and reader in a vision of snow. The details are careful and sparse, if a little hackneyed: The gothic shriek of a sea bird' or layered with the technique of employing a list: 'dying fish, spent fuel, fresh air which appears in Night Photograph: 'eel-skin, marble, smoke, air. Haunting though the poem is, I can't help feeling this is merely a mood-piece - although emotions aren't mentioned, a combination of solemnity, sadness, or even muted excitement, is conveyed through the acute descriptions of weather and landscape.

I shall discuss Elizabeth Bishop in relation to Greenlaw at the end of this article, but I would say there is a noticeable difference in vigour in term of ideas and imaginative dimension already - favouring Bishop - one reason being that Greenlaw's landscapes are vehicles for mood more than anything else. A strong idea, as in No Particular Horse -exploring the nature and mythology of the horse, in the end appears little more than a collection of modish exercises. How one wishes then for a piece that resonates with myth: Bishop's The Man-Moth being one example.

Despite the after-effect of Greenlaw's work, which at its best can create an impression of elegance and brevity, there is a tendency to undercut with dourness any outpouring of emotion or observation. Ice and snow emerge in Minus Ten as symbols of an emotional confrontation and mood, but the personal note is reduced to cracking through: And the children? What of the children? In Reading Akhmatova in Midwinter 'the landscape shivers but holds' - a withholding of lyrical release, as Kevin Johnson put it (10) found also in the poem Night Photograph:,There is a slight realignment of the planets'.

This, then, is a poetry of stately grace rather than driven invention; pensiveness and curtailment combine with a steadiness of tone and an absence of humour or release. There is no denying the potential of a poet able to organise, sift, and transform experience magically at times. The seriousness of vision is to be applauded, but where is the formal dexterity or insistence of direction, the sense, for the reader, of being taken by surprise and carried off by invention, not artifice?

The poem Invention is one of the more touching and open of the new poems. Greenlaw didn't start to write poems seriously until the birth of her daughter (11) and in this poem her daughter is seen as the inventor of things, a 'six-year-old mechanic'. The piece is simple, poignant, and genuine, unburdened by contrivance. The same applies to Underworld. This can best be illustrated perhaps, by quoting the following:

Will I learn not to cry after,
to lie still on the ice, to know this is
not for ever, that the sky will crack...

It has a rawness and urgency, a sense of genuine momentum and involvement lacking in too many of the other poems, I feel.

Greenlaw has used displacement (Snow Line) and odd configurations of voice (Skin Full) to attempt to tease out aspects of the self and experience which might otherwise have remained dormant. This is commendable, but I can't help thinking that, ideally, there could be more exciting avenues to explore, involving the opening up of her vulnerable poetic voice to a richness of ambiguity and change. After all, Selima Hill, amongst a cluster of contemporary poets Greenlaw cites as reading (12) uses her surreality to be humorous, exuberant, and transformative, who talks about 'my long gold clitoris... streamlined and sweet/like a barge/laden with sweetmeats and monkeys' (Monkeys) and offers, at times, viewpoints excitingly various as well as surprising. I wouldn't want to put Hill forward as always worth the journey - the strangeness can mystify also - but there is, at least, a daring in her approach.

In comparison, Greenlaw is rather tame - in Night Parrot, the air is filled 'with the impossibility of its cries'. 'Animals intended/to live an ocean apart/have got an idea of each other.' (In the Zoo after Dark). Understated, neat phrases abound in both collections. Greenlaw rarely loses sight of what she's walking towards: the face of artifice cannot surprise.

Early on in her work, there was a kind of horror, in poems not in the full collections, like Sign Language (13) about deaf children, with

Mouths that spilt a continual senseless noise:
the collapsed roar of a hundred children drowning.

Then there was the eerie and fatal luminosity in The Innocence Of Radium and the haunting and haunted gathering in Such Darkness after a death (both from Night Photograph). And the chill remains, in A World with its ice, the 'rare violent hunger of the snake of change (Serpentine), the dying wasps, the wind in the Lebanon cedar 'that makes a noise like nothing living' (Landscape) the claustrophobic sky dome (Our Life As Friends) and the adulteress who wakes late 'to a fused morning,/a blistered mouth' (Tryst.)

The exactness and compactness of such imagery is what signals the maturity in Greenlaw's work from earlier days. But I sometimes have the impression, particularly in A World, that the dark vein has fractured into other forms (like the imagery above) and the underlying temperament is informing a melancholic tone, generating the clipped phrases, the reserved observations, the dry and factual delivery.

One can feel both stifled and intrigued in Greenlaw's world - sometimes, as in Our Life As Friends 'There is no atmosphere'. These aren't poems based on strong rhythm or variations in approach - the lack of variability in voice can be monotonous - what holds the poems together are ideas, and a clarified, precise perception. When the idea or subject is less interesting, as in Tenure, nothing much seems to be happening:

The pile of logs unearthed for a fire
falls softly to pieces, all used up...

It is one thing for a poet to be a skilled navigator, and a sharp-eyed lookout - rarely does one get life as a three-dimensional experience In Greenlaw's work, conjuring dangers, shifting depths, or persuading through immediacy things that might occur if she employed rhythm more adventurously, used rhyme at least once in a while, allowed the language to tell its own story rather than encapsulating experience in a series of glass jars.

It's as though, as in The Coast Road, she has a problem telling 'what's growing from what's already dead'. The narrator of Iron Lung (from A World) is trapped, not in a glass coffin but somewhere 'more obscure,/a dark room I cannot go into'. Perhaps the non-entering of a dark room is pertinent here, the dark subconscious depths where may be found not only dangers but a more truthful, if disturbing vision.

The Innocence of Radium from the first collection is a haunting evocation, where the luminous paint, like Greenlaw's own glittering imagery, can have 'the quality of moonlight' but contain hidden inside it the drama of threat and danger. But in a poem like Suspension about Brunel's suspension bridge, the possibility of vertigo is displayed but denied in a neat, sterile construction, where the telling phrase does the job of real revelation:

my sense of balance is suddenly lost
along with my ignorance, the framework of
the physics of what keeps us from falling.

Greenlaw's uncertainty about the world in her poetry is perhaps evinced by the idea of rumour (Monk on a Tractor, Night Photograph, Guidebooks to the Alhambra, A World) and the number of questions peppering A World: 'A dream I had or wanted? Did we laugh? Why? Does it have to be like that? What happens? What grows? What else?

Unease works against true joyousness and confidence - emotions and human expressions are squeezed into italics: we're almost talking in one another's arms. Or. And the children. What of the children? Human contact is explicit and brief only within an architecture of detail:  This heat/opens my skin till I find the strength to pull at your clothes. Guidebooks to the Alhambra. Aroused by emptiness/you push a hand inside my jeans. Landscape. Bare facts make up Easter, Cadastre, A Changeable Province, Five 0 'Clock Opera, Tenure, and What's Going On, and these poems about houses or districts are dry and uneventful.

The title poem of A World Where News Travelled Slowly came from the name of an exhibit, about the clattering mechanics of telecommunications, at the Science Museum when Greenlaw was Writer-in-Residence in 1996. The poem clearly touched a chord with people and it won the Forward Prize for the best poem of the year. As Greenlaw says,'charting the history of communication, the physical effort of the rider on horseback... is more in keeping with the way we talk and listen to each other than the... invisible smoothness of fibre optics.' (14) But the romance and nostalgia of such a concept doesn't come through in the poem, though the contemporary relevance of the idea does. The first two stanzas have the plain, historical approach already noted, and don't appear exceptional. The third stanza ignites with the suddenness of 'Now words are faster, smaller, harder... we're almost talking in one another's arms.' That incantation of suffix can be found in Simon Armitage: 'Now I'm taller, harder, stronger, older' (Kid) and Ted Hughes: Then soaring harder, brighter, higher' (Cock-Crows).

But the emotional dimension of change, faced with contemporary technology, is not explored, and the reader is returned to bare fact: 'Nets tighten across the sky and the sea bed'. The same drawing back from the emotional is evident in New Year's Eve.

Silent, elated by cold air, we are drawn to each other,
then drawn back, by what sounds like an executioner's drum

There was sometimes a looseness and naivety, but a true sense of wonder in Greenlaw's early poems like In the Picture Palace, where the narrator eats her noisy sweets in the cinema. Despite her knowingness, the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, Greenlaw's primary influence, was able to explore subjects with a quirkiness that was also relaxed, and inclusive of all the colour and riot of life.

Greenlaw has cited Bishop's Collected Poems as an influence (15) and they share an aesthetic coolness, but with Bishop's imagination wishing to and succeeding in breaking through. Greenlaw on the other hand, has a vulnerability and emotionalism buried by her skills. The vulnerability can be found in the short Underworld from the second collection, which mirrors the shape and tone of Closer from Night Photograph.

Certainly, subject matter is sometimes shared by both poets: volcanoes, islands, beaches, the sun, the sea, armadillos, even Canada geese. And Greenlaw has the same ability to use the wide-angled lens, or focus on minute details, as Bishop does in Sandpiper or the description of the worms in The Riverman 'with tiny electric eyes/turning on and off and on'. But Greenlaw hasn't yet resolved the problem of the balance between her own austerity of tone and relaxed lyricism. So one doesn't discover the jubilation of Bishop's The Fish: 'rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!' Greenlaw lacks too, so far, the sprightly humour of Bishop's Filling Station, the pastoral beauty of A Cold Spring, the structural formality of Cirque D'Hiver.

Two poems in A World, however, are useful to read in this connection. The Coast Road has the sweep and objectivity of Bishop's Cape Breton and Florida, as Greenlaw's Scoraig; Maine has to Arrival at Santos. Although Scoraig; Maine doesn't have the facility with rhyme that Bishop possesses in Pleasure Seas, for instance, it does end on an internal rhyme:

I pass our name a final time, loosely pegged
to the last mailbox inside the town line.

Though Greenlaw seems happiest to avoid rhyme, unless very casually, as in the short but resonant Late Sun with hair, air, flare. Where Greenlaw is best is in her inventiveness with imagery, as in The Coast Road' 'a rosy glint is an armadillo' which has the kind of brevity and clarity of perception as 'a handful of intangible ash', Bishop's description of a baby rabbit in The Armadillo, though Bishop's image is more evocative, compact, and memorable.

In The Coast Road the armadillos are part of a fable where they 'came north/with a circus, met a hurricane, broke loose' and it's here that Greenlaw can't sustain the excitement; running out of verbs she states: 'and here they are, pink and gold and thriving  up to a point'. One finds oneself longing for the sort of tonal shift heralded by 'Cold dark deep and absolutely clear' in Bishop's The Fishhouses. In Greenlaw:

The fish houses are roped off gutted, safe
only for pelicans, stale birds down on their luck.
Whereas Bishop observes in Florida:
pelicans whose delight it is to clown;
who coast for fun on the strong tidal currents

Optimism and a jaunty humour coast through Bishop's work. In comparison, Greenlaw's oeuvre strikes a note of melancholy.

One way that the fissures derived from the tensions described have manifested in A World is through 'the threat of the new' (16) in Serpentine, which is genuinely frightening:

Those buried lidless eyes can see
the infra-red heat of my blood.

With its crisp 2-line stanzas, its fusing of violent extremity 'He will dislocate his jaw/to hold it' both admirable and alien like 'the mechanism of his jaw' in Bishop's The Fish, and the subtlety of nature's disguises, the 'mineral delicacy' of the snake's colours, this is perhaps the most flawless poem in the second collection.

There is, in conclusion, a particular and idiosyncratic creativeness in Greenlaw's work, and this has matured in A World. But there are problems, as described, involving a curious flatness of affect. The emotional exuberance can be there, and it surprises with its force; but sometimes a disturbing quality appears to arise from the same source, and needs, it would seem, to be quelled. The full sweep of what might be possible is denied the reader at present, yet the level-headedness is to be admired. There is no longer the raw innocence of In the Picture Palace, or the schoolgirl translator of Russian who prefers to go dancing in Boris Goes Fishing. The last poem in A World Where News Travelled Slowly, Late Sun, has these closing lines. In literary terms, it may be possible that:

There are giants among us.
Tall shadows flare.

 

Notes:

1. My husband thinks I'm unusual in that I think in ideas and then find words for them. This is mostly true. LG in Thumbscrew 8 Summer 1997

2. ibid.

3 Poetry Review Spring 1994 (Vol 84 No.1)

4. Times Educational Supplement August 301996

5. Thumbscrew 10 Spring/Summer 1998

6. Radio 3: Young Poets: March 1998. Producer: Fiona McLane

7. TES August30 1996

8. Thumbscrew 10 Spring/Summer 1998

9. Poetry Review Spring 1994 (Vol 84 No.1)

10. ibid.

11. Just after my daughter was born, I found myself sleepless and penniless but provoked by this huge shifting around of my world to take the writing I had always done seriously. LG in TES August 30 1996

12. Thumbscrew 8 Summer 1997

13. The Wide Skirt 12/13 Spring 1990

14. Thumbscrew 8 Summer 1997

15. Poetry Review Spring 1994 (Vol 84 No.1)

16. Radio 3: Young Poets: March 1996