The Casual Perfect, Lavinia Greenlaw, Faber and Faber, 64pp, £12.99 (hardback)
There are poets in love with poetry as there are poets whose interests are in nature or politics or love. In Lavinia Greenlaw a fascination with science is a visible presence. The eye that looks through the microscope may find images of beauty as well as truth. A synthesis of beauty and fact, according to the Romantics, was one of poetry’s aims. The task is to articulate wonder.
In one poem Lavinia Greenlaw says:
It is not the theme that interests me but the variation.
Declaring her distance from the main current, she follows the tributaries coursing through unexpected and largely unvisited places. She avoids familiar things because they are predictable. We know in advance how our response is likely to sound. Without the whisper of surprise, if not the gasp of astonishment, there is no poetry between the lines of verse, however technically accomplished they may be. When Eliot called Pound ‘il miglior fabbro’ it was assumed to be an unalloyed compliment, but I am not so sure. To be praised as a craftsman is not the same as to be praised for one’s art.
Greenlaw’s poetry is not an affirmation of the things we all know, although such an exercise can be legitimate, given the seemingly boundless capacity of language to express personal perception. But Greenlaw is not a poet of the personal confession. She is hardly present in her work. We learn little about her, but much about what she sees. Her engagement is with the world that may be found in happenstance.
The collection begins with ‘Essex Kiss’, an incisively detailed account of an ordinary people having fun. The theme is uncharacteristic for Lavinia Greenlaw. That should not divert our attention to the choice and manner of presentation. They reveal as much about the poet as the theme she has chosen. Let there be no doubt: unconcerned hedonism does not appeal to a refined sensibility. ‘Most poetry ignores most people,’ Adrian Mitchell once observed. Most people are concerned with the material conditions of life. But, as ‘Essex Kiss’ observes, the needs and fears do not preclude love:
I will lay you down on a bed of nettles and blackthorn. Your body will give way like grain…
There is a sympathy expressed in terms that precede Modernism. The erotic frankness is contemporary, but the language resonates in terms that echo Hardy or Byron or Marvell.
In a chance encounter at an Essex funfair there may be an opportunity that will allow lives a deeper and transforming reality. Such things manifest what Greenlaw memorably calls ‘the hidden continuous’: beneath the surface of the everyday and familiar lies the flow of meanings and purposes invisible to the naked eye. Similarly there is nothing random about Greenlaw’s methods of observation and subsequent description. In this she resembles Coleridge. If my stress on traditional resemblances may seem too insistent, I turn the page to see there is a poem called ‘Coleridge’.
It is complemented later in this collection by the poem ‘Einstein’. Both these poems are alert to the energy contained within nature, and how it may be discovered. For Coleridge it is encountered in a storm. (There is no indication if the scene is imagined. The theme is consistent with all we know of his life and its affects upon his thought and art.) For Einstein the scene is not a horse-drawn coach in the West Country, but the urbane calm of the Zurich Polytechnic where he ‘found himself too close or too much
alone’. Wasn’t that Coleridge’s dilemma also – the need for association with other poets, but the unavoidable intrusion of persons from Porlock? We think of science and art as not merely discrete in method and purpose, but to a degree apart in their natures. Experience stumbles upon surprising consonances.
That suggests there may be a public role for poetry in which Lavinia Greenlaw is in advance of most of her contemporaries. Another English poet who may be considered is Ruth Padel. These poets are writing in the margin between the literary imagination and scientific truth; yet their work is not marginal because literature is in essence a version of reality, and scientific knowledge requires imagination as well as intellect to rationalise its discoveries. There may be a candlelit feeling about poetry but this century needs its metaphors as surely as any other time in the history of civilisation. How else can a complex world be discussed in terms the rest of us may understand?
Where the Romantics had the mail-coach we have the internet. Our world is faster. It is smaller. There is less intimacy, and less that remains to be explored, or so we say. Perhaps we say too much. The lyric poem can be lost in the cacophony of information and opinion. We need reminding:
That in times of uncertainty Every doorway is glass.
This could mean that there are invisible, yet substantial, barriers to understanding. Or it may mean that everything is clear and open. For an image to be intelligible it need not avoid ambiguity. What is ‘the casual perfect’ but the accidental stumbling upon something more interesting, more creative than we have anticipated? It may be a memory, or a slip of the tongue. Greenlaw itemises the possibilities in the poem that gives the collection its title. If we wonder how chaos or emptiness may be considered perfect, we must be aware that the discoveries to be made can offer a sense of completeness. The uneventful journey is more likely to leave the traveller bored and frustrated. The reader who finds in a poem more than one credible meaning is stimulated and enriched by the challenge. The variations make the literature.
Only occasionally does the technique fail. At times the elliptical style hinders the flow of sound. Sometimes the language is so pared down it not only lacks energy but meaning. We are left with symbols in want of purpose. Their promise is not fulfilled. It is at such times the absence of the poet is keenly felt. The exercise becomes too impersonal. But there is much to admire in a generally interesting poet who is working towards significance.
The thread that binds the disparate elements in her poetry is the poet’s repeated reference to continuity. It is not only scientists who stand on giants’ shoulders:
I glimpse a constant so natural, so brightly framed that love becomes as clear as the first thought of an idea.
We discover what we already know. Ancient intuitions are confirmed by empirical research. Lavinia Greenlaw’s search for truth in nature inevitably and irresistibly includes human nature. Despite everything, we retain (it seems natural) an optimistic idea of ourselves. Something is perpetually about to happen, or so we feel. Greenlaw calls this ‘A Theory of Infinite Proximity’, expounded in the poem of that name, where love is outside the frame of space and time. However far and however fast it moves, it is always here. In the end the poet finds not only consolation but meaning in a metaphysic.