Poetry - Essex girl
Lavinia Greenlaw Faber & Faber, 80pp, £12.99
Lavinia Greenlaw's third collection, Minsk, deals with themes of home, migration and return. The thought is not so much that you can never go home, more that you can never get away in the first place. In "Essex Rag" we read about
The times I tried to move on . . .
But from here, I mean there, wherever
you get to is not far, still nowhere, so
there's nothing for it but to head home,
unsure whether the last bus has gone.
This is from the opening group of poems, which describes the author's childhood, first in London, then in rural Essex, during the 1960s and 1970s; poems of family games, parental interrogation, adolescent exploration and ennui. As one would expect of Greenlaw, they are expertly executed. Her description of the Blackwater Estuary, say, or of the narrowness of village life, or of making quill pens from crows' feathers, is impressively exact.
One of the major challenges a poet faces in writing this sort of autobiographical lyric is to set up a resonance that transcends the purely personal memory; otherwise, for the reader, it can be uncomfortably like wading through someone else's family photo album or diaries. Inevitably, the dominant pronoun here is "I", which prompts the ungenerous reader to ask: "What's so special about your memories?" Worse, the alienation is heightened by some slight awkwardness in the diction, which at times approaches the perfunctorily dutiful: to begin a poem "The piano years . . ." and another "The hardcore years" risks too close an identification between the poems' emotional text - frustrated boredom - and their tone.
This is a shame because, when she steps back from these recollections, Greenlaw's strengths become clear. There is a delightful group of clipped poems about the animal enclosures at London Zoo, which weaves in events from the date of each one's construction (the Irish Home Rule Bill, for instance, or the building of the Arc de Triomphe). The precision and economy of her descriptive writing are used to full effect here: ravens are rendered as
Birds as pivoted as compass needles,
like new serge:
Peel's boys in blue . . .
And in the drily comic "Scat (the penguin pool, 1934)", the birds huddle together while "protocol ties the continent in knots", their chief concern to "Keep out of the water, stick together,/ store fat. Wait for new feathers." The effect of this sequence is to stress the contrast between history as recorded events and as felt experience. The title poem takes this a step further, positing the cold war separation of two brothers, "reborn under the fixed signs/of Castro and Kennedy", each of whom believed himself "the one left behind in a place he could never return to, beyond the forest wall . . . where history runs to meet itself". The city of the title makes no appearance in the poem, but presumably signifies the mythic lost home. However, I have to admit there are some things that I simply don't understand: who is the "you" the poem is addressed to? Why Minsk, rather than any other distant city? And what on earth are those beekeepers doing grinding stone into bricks? But faith is restored when you come across a poem such as "The Flight of Geryon" (a retelling of a scene from the Inferno), and, with rather less foreboding than Dante, you clamber aboard and take off.
The book's final section concerns a journey to the Arctic, which again shows her style to best advantage. The landscape is elemental, compounded of light, cold, dark, sky; a place that "carries no trace of death,/no methane or anthracite, nothing to burn", where "things turn blue/through stillness and distance". Once more the writing is spare and taut, though at times it becomes almost inscrutably concise. Again, one longs for a little more fat on the bones in "The Boat Back into the Dark", with its heavily end-stopped lines:
We skirt the maelstrom.
The sea leans and slops and changes.
The angels nibble spiral ices.
The captain turns the radio on.
There is a very fine line between economy of language and downright parsimony, and occasionally Greenlaw is just too stingy. But for the most part in Minsk she engages with her theme with a cool, unsentimental intelligence.
Adam Newey is the NS poetry editor