I recently listened to an old Scottish Poetry Library podcast with Lavinia Greenlaw (if you’ve never tuned in, you must. They really allow the poets to open up on their art and influences) and was really struck by the way she talked about growing up in Essex and the impact her scientific background has had on her writing. It was also really heartening to hear her speak about how long it takes her to write a poem, especially when I struggle to get anywhere near a final draft within a couple of months.
Anyway, listening to her speak while I walked the dog in the local park reminded me that I’d picked up her second collection a while back and it was still sitting on my ‘to read’ shelf at home. So, I trotted home, picked it up and lost myself in her poetry for the rest of the day.
Communication is something that interests me, so it was inevitable that I’d find a lot to love in a collection where it’s the central theme. In the title poem, her message travels slowly, meandering through time and the changes it brings. As with all of her poetry, it’s very hard to pin down exactly what she’s saying without spending some time with the images and unravelling them – but this is in no way a bad thing. In particular, the opening image of the final stanza is devastating in the way it upends the realities of technologies and it lingered with me for a very long time.
“Now words are faster, smaller, harder
… we’re almost talking in one another’s arms.
Coded and squeezed, what chance has my voice
to reach your voice unaltered and to leave no trace?”
Greenlaw frequently asks questions in her work, encouraging her reader to dawdle over the lines – for a collection with communication as its central motif, this is a very effective way of maintaining a connection with the audience and making sure that the message leaves a lasting impact.
Though rooted in concrete objects, her poetry is quite abstract due to the way in which the imagery is arranged. Greenlaw pulls images together in interesting ways, such as in ‘Reading Akhmatova in Midwinter’, with the lines “We pull glass bars from railings, /chip at the car’s shadow” which create a claustrophobic snowy world that unsettles.
This sense of intimacy in bleak natural worlds is repeated a number of times in poems such as ‘Landscape’, where she manages to mesh intimate moments with a bleak landscape to create a sense of uneasy anticipation. In ‘The Oasis in Winter’, it is the use of the ‘you’ that makes this poem shiver down spines, especially when paired with the perfect encapsulation of “the gothic shriek of a sea bird.”
However, it isn’t just bleak landscapes or explorations of minerals (such as in ‘Islands’) – the collection merges both art and science by containing a number of ekphrastic poems, such as ‘The Earliest Known Representation of a Storm in Western Art’, a poem which reminded me of Marc Chagall and the dreaminess of his work. It is this dreaminess that permeates Greenlaw’s poetry, that makes her messages hard to grasp. Her poetry feels fleeting, but yet still lingers with power – much like an Impressionist piece of art where we get a strong sense of the overall although it’s the detail that is an impression we’re still left with strong emotions. She too paints impressions round objects, as in ‘Skin Full’, filled with beautiful metaphors “The street is a blanket” that make sense alone but not together – one has to let them combine and spend time allowing them to wash over our consciousness before enjoying them fully.
The more personal poems are more concrete, like ‘Invention’, where the objects are secure and listed without ambiguity. Perhaps here, the emotions are so simple (love for the daughter) that they are very simple to communicate and therefore need little in the way of impressionism.
Just as in her interview on the podcast, Greenlaw communicates some interesting messages and explores some intriguing figures from the worlds of science and history. For a collection taken down from the shelf on a whim, this was a spectacular way to spend an afternoon. Recommend!