Robert Selby reviews the latest poetry collection from Lavinia Greenlaw, newly published by Faber & Faber.
An ‘island of sky’ is how Lavinia Greenlaw described England in her previous collection, The Casual Perfect (Faber, 2011), referring in particular to how it can seem on its low-lying east coast, the open shorelines where ‘an anchor caught in the mud keeps hold of nothing’. What has become unanchored in ‘The sea is an edge and an ending’ – a 24-poem sequence comprising the first half of Greenlaw’s new collection, The Built Moment – is the mind of her father, suffering from Alzheimer’s and increasingly lost in its landscape of ‘gentle peripheries’. The shoreline’s liminality has become a metaphorical one: Greenlaw’s dramatisation of the subject of ‘The sea…’, commissioned by Film & Video Umbrella, was filmed on a Suffolk beach because, she said, ‘it’s clearly eroding, it’s being eroded by minutiae rather than any big dramatic collapse or threat – it kind of looks like what must be happening in the head of someone like my father.’
Her father’s mind is increasingly an island that cannot be crossed to, so that, unlike Prospero in The Tempest – which Greenlaw has called the ‘presiding spirit’ behind this work – he is marooned alone, his daughter beyond a sea that ‘spreads itself between us’. The sequence is deftly balanced between distress at the growing infirmity – mental and physical – that it chronicles, and the dispassionate acknowledgment of hard truths: ‘Storm follows storm. Why not admit this?’
I’m late for my father and rush towards him
because he has been returned to me and now is my chance to love him.
When I arrive he doesn’t know I’m late or that I was on my way.
When I leave he will not know that I have been.
(‘If I cannot find him then he must be lost’)
Unlike Prospero, who used his sorcery on others, Greenlaw’s father ‘has long been under his own spell’, an inner disquiet or ‘shadow’ we infer led to some level of estrangement from his family (‘We rarely met. // Now and then he appeared / with a bunch of tired flowers’). But dementia has shorn him of the ‘loss and pain that came to him so young’ so that his is now an ‘unshadowed self’. If life’s travails are what gives us our character, our personality, and her father’s travails are over, ‘is that why I cannot see him?’ Liberated from all cares, he is nigh-transcendent:
I thought I was guarding him from a crowded darkness
but now he stands free, locked into brightness.
His world is wonderful.
His mind’s island is where pain has been replaced by the ability to feel ‘everything as if it were nothing’, and so it becomes seductive, hard to leave:
When he finally sees me
it’s as if he’s been through to an open door
and made to appear into a dark night.
He’s afraid to ask who’s there. What if someone’s there?
He’d have to invite them in and accompany them through time.
(‘My father tells me to wait’)
Initially, Greenlaw is too clear-eyed to be as metaphysical as Theodore Roethke at the end of his great poem on infirmity (‘How body from spirit slowly does unwind / Until we are pure spirit at the end’). Her father’s ‘unshadowed self’ is his penultimate, not ultimate, chapter, the latter being his exiting her life for the final time ‘to no evident purpose, going nowhere with no one leading the way’. Death is not an ascendance but ‘being collapsed back into the earth’.
However, alongside the lonely journey of grief that The Built Moment charts – from the long goodbye, to depression (‘All day it nudges / like something swimming up to be fed’), to acceptance – an altogether more miraculous journey is being undertaken. The poems of the collection’s second half – slighter in number as well as impact – build in places on the metaphysical evident in the standing free, ‘locked into brightness’ image. The poem ‘Slowly and from within’, for example, memorably communicates coming to terms as a process by which we realise it can be a destabilising self-pity that we nurse inside us, not the dead; instead, the dead ‘have their own space beside us’, where they will continue to be as we proceed through life until we turn and face them once more at the end. ‘Heaven is loved ones rising / out of the sun and walking with me / into the sea’, Greenlaw puts it startlingly in the collection’s penultimate poem ‘Fleur de Sel’, sea and Heaven analogous as timeless obliterators of cares, and so we come full circle to the east coast’s big skies foreshadowing erasure, this time lightly dusted with a surprise sprinkling of the transcendental.
‘The Built Moment’ is out now and available here, priced £14.99.