With trademark cut-glass precision and restraint, English poet Lavinia Greenlaw returns with The Build Moment, where she processes her father’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease and the effects of loss on our memories, daily perceptions and sense of self.
The award-winning poet from London, who also has a couple of novels and a libretto in her portfolio, divides her collection into two parts: ‘The Sea is an Edge and an Ending’ (also the title of a short film Greenlaw directed) presents snapshots of the writer’s experience of watching her father’s mental abilities disintegrate; the second part ‘The Bluebell Horizontal’ exposes how this experience colours life as it goes on.
“My father has lost his way out of the present” declares the first poem (named after the first part) with almost medical clarity. This diagnosis becomes the starting point for a series of observations: pieces like His gifts or My father appears have an almost cinematic quality as they glide from blurred introspection to concrete domestic objects like letters, frying pans or coats that suddenly enter focus and expose the fragmentising effects of her father’s illness. Line by line, Greenlaw climbs across verdicts, memories that become irreconcilable with the present and an eventual helplessness the whole family has to accept. The cinematic aspect becomes particularly strong in My father’s weakness, where Greenlaw imagines her family must look like “animals grappling for meat” in her father’s eyes, or My father rises whenever, where she visualises the inside of her father’s head as “bombed streets and brute structures”. The only two prose poems in the collection, His diagnosis and The finishing line, which discuss cinema and gorilla costumes, are in fact among my favourites with their free-moving surprises and hint of Virginia Woolf.
The crisp lightness Greenlaw is known for counterbalances the topic’s emotional weight beautifully – it feels a bit like a 50kg bog lump has been stored in a thin glass vial. In My father tells me to wait, a small gesture carries an unexpected force: “He peers at me and the space between us extends itself/ so that I am where he wants me, out there in the dark / in a place without stars or fathers / and he raises his hand and says Stay there, Stay there.” Every syllable in every line is in its place, which gives the family’s crisis a certain order or outline. Or perhaps it’s rather the wish for order and outline. Greenlaw’s style is unique in that it gives the experience of watching a loved one dissolve in front of one’s very eyes dignity and some kind of defenceless grace.
The more ambient second part of the collection, The Bluebell Horizontal, has a strong after-the-storm feel and sees Greenlaw looking back on what loss has left behind in its flotsam: life lessons (‘A time when work was visible’), uncovered forgotten memories (‘It was me waiting for me’), sudden sensual discoveries (‘Fleur de sel’). Although some pieces have a cryptic air, Greenlaw is a master at what she has called elsewhere ‘containing what can’t be described’ – where words fail to convince fully due to a slightly elitist air, the atmosphere they build up is ever more persuasive. Pieces like “The break” speak about pain in an unsentimental, stripped-down way that made me want to tell my family about it. “A time when work was visible” was a strangely grim joy to read with its observation of pain as human labour that goes unrecognised.
Something that kept irritating me were the pathos-filled questions in many a last line (‘Has he abandoned loss and pain?’, ‘Is this the easiest way to let go?’), whose open-endedness and potential stimulation for the reader to chew this over for a bit longer were choked off by the constant repetition of this technique. At some point, it just became annoying.
At her best, Greenlaw creates seemingly fragile, characteristically slow-burning poems that feel like spiderwebs of tearproof fibre; at her weakest, she adopts a sermonising, elitist tone that stifles the effect of her accuracy. At the same time, the straight-forward sentence structure and clear language make the 44 succinct poems highly readable. The most satisfactory thing about closing this book is that you feel like you don’t leave empty-handed but with a small gift of insights that are now yours, too.
The Built Moment is available now, published by Faber & Faber.