Reclaiming the Moment

A review of Lavinia Greenlaw's 'The Built Moment' (Faber and Faber, 2019)

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Credit: poetryandpoetsinrags.blogspot.com

Lavinia Greenlaw’s latest collection of poetry is scattered with moments built from the ruin of memory. Writing in response to, and so to some extent against, her father’s decline into dementia, the poems seem born out of a need to reclaim moments of pure sight from the vastness of her days. The collection thus becomes a salvage from the wastes of time, a writing against decay, and a demonstration of the necessity of poetry.

The two halves of the collection, one focused solely on her father’s memory-loss, the other more generally on life and love, make for a poised and nuanced whole. Whether reflecting on the loss of a father, in the personal if not the physical sense, the collection offers a generous redress to the trauma of knowing and loving when all love is doomed to end in death, and all knowing in forgetting.

One poem in particular, ‘The Break’, offers a gentle rumination on pain and its inevitability, drawing out moments of tension in the speaker’s relationships with those she loves, against a backdrop of emotional and mental instability. The act of reaching out is complicated by the fact that our days become unsynchronised, even with those we are closest to:

People nodded and moved on. What else could they do?Hold me? Through each and every day? They had their own days.

Such observations come as a revelation amidst Greenlaw’s deftly handled imagery. Her use of imagistic precision coupled with moments of unbridled confession makes for a poetry of tensions sprung and unsprung, coiled and blooming, like carnation Catherine-wheels. In Greenlaw’s hands one gains the impression of a poet self-consciously reducing her words and her images, holding back from total effusion; it would be unnecessary, as she has the ability to invest power into three lines, dropped like an ink-spot on the page.

Each half of the collection complements the other, and a subtle dialogue can be observed between the two. The first, ‘The Sea is an Edge and an Ending’, ends on a note of uncertainty; ‘Will you stop leaving now?’. The question could just as well refer to the poet’s imagery as to her father, as questions of loved ones and moments lost become blurred with questions of the nature of poetry itself. This sense of childhood abandonment and language’s implication in it suggests that poetry, as well as the father-figure, is vulnerable to memory’s decay. The second part of the collection, meanwhile, ends with a direct rejoinder to this very uncertainty. These are the concluding lines to a playful exposition on the nature of the poet’s medium, words:

ABANDONMENT

And yet

Thus, Greenlaw’s collection, through a succession of precise images, and careful explorations of our personal relationships, presents poetry as an uneasy, but ultimately worthwhile monument, built with the triumph over time in mind. Her father may slip from her into illness and forgetting, but her poems remain forever in her grasp, her words the final frontier against oblivion.

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