Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Built Moment (Faber) grapples with the slipperiness of time, memory, loss and the downwards slope of her father’s dementia. In two neat sequences, these poems gather together the loose, unruly strands of the aging self, along with the grieving observer, and spin them into something beautiful.
The first sequence of poems, ‘The Sea is an Edge and an Ending’, moves with grace and resolution, sharing a series of snapshots of her father as dementia takes hold. Their titles (‘My father appears’, ‘My father on paper’, ‘My father has no shadow’) capture a preoccupation with presence, one painfully slipping away as he struggles to make sense of the world. With the father newly delivered in ‘loose parcels’ every morning, ‘freeing himself of any obligation to the past’ (‘His gifts’), the poems are set alongside the curious parallel of fading into the present tense.
This approach is complemented by the brevity of form, routinely performing spectacularly investigative, intellectual leaps in the brief magic of five or six lines. Momentous but moving, and more than once propelled forwards by the metaphor of the failing motor, these poems snatch a glimpse at a ‘journey of breakdown, / revelation and decay’ (‘His diagnosis’) and one that shakes up faith in destination.
When his mind perceives itself failing
like an engine questioning its part, everything stops
and he sees what it will be like when everything stops.
(‘My father cannot stop’)
The metaphor of the failing motor is revisited in the second sequence of poems, ‘The Bluebell Horizontal’, albeit shifting the focus of the image to examine the troubled inner world of the grieving speaker. ‘I was two things now – the shocked engine / and the broken part I carried the last mile home’, Greenlaw writes in ‘The Break’. Demonstrating the inability to let go through active linguistic performance, the image repeats itself just a few pages later in ‘Desynchronosis’, ‘The engine held back / is finding it hard to give up the moment’, before finding solace in the more meditative lyric of prayer and blessing.
Along this journey, the language sometimes seeks comfort in its own cyclic tendencies. In ‘Four days, three nights’ or ‘Men I have heard’, for instance, literary techniques of anaphora and repetition transform into navigational landmarks. The language functions as a tool of orientation, a linguistic foothold, as if it could guide the way home through chaos. However, for the father, clinging desperately onto language is nonetheless a precarious way to proceed. In ‘While he can still speak’, he ‘has become his own messenger / carrying orders for what once simply occurred’, which only ‘works as long as he can put them into words’.
A cinematic glow casts across these poems, though not through any extravagant expression; poetic reflection is unadorned, and almost goes unnoticed: stripped back to the bare miracle of an able mind. Rather, the motion picture functions as a compelling metaphor for consciousness, most evidently in ‘His diagnosis’. The poem takes us back to 1943 when the father was a just boy, watching a film, which, fittingly, ‘grew out of a scene cut from another film – a conversation about the young not knowing what it’s like to grow old’. As the surrender of Italy to the Allies is announced on the screen, the boy is momentarily confused, thrown off course as the filmic world collides with his own:
Only when he emerged
into bright afternoon and heard someone shouting the news
did he understand that the message had been cut from
another film – the one he lived in. He too would be haunted
by women and lose houses and stand at the side of the
road while life marched past.
A message has just arrived. He tells
himself that it’s part of the film and tries to leave the dark
room but this time steps out into more darkness. Doesn’t
The disconnect between the body and its business is articulated with heart-wrenching precision in ‘It was me waiting for me’ from ‘The Bluebell Horizontal’. The father ‘could not reach for himself and met only himself / turning away’. It comes, therefore, as no surprise that cinema and the association with certainty, thanks to its script and storyline, is described in comforting terms in this same poem, ‘The cinemas and stations / that had been our guardians for so long’ (‘It was me waiting for me’). When the aging self’s grasp upon reality breaks downs, the subject courts danger and, ultimately, destruction. In the aptly titled poem ‘He scares me’, the front door’s left wide open, a frying pan on the stove, and the heating switched off on an icy day. Later, in ‘My father cannot stop’, the father sets out without keys, money, plan or purpose, ‘casting himself upon the world’: like a net at the mercy of its catch.There’s disintegration of the fabric of life at play in poems such as ‘His home comes apart at the touch’. Even the language must resist disintegration, and hold itself together despite the punctuated inquiry:
Is this the unshadowed self he once was
before the loss and pain that came to him so young?
Are such shadows what give us form?
Has he abandoned loss and pain?
Is that why I cannot see him?
(‘My father has no shadow’)
Each unanswered question beckons an inwards glance, at which point there seems to be a flicker of reason, before it’s lost once again.
In The Built Moment, the world is construed as shifting sand, where even the most fundamental framework of time is unstable. ‘Time is not place’, Greenlaw writes in the title poem in the second half of the book. ‘We cannot build on it / but still we think the process is good for us and seek it out’ (‘The Built Moment’). Ultimately, the present tense is exposed as a ‘failed invention […] All that investment, design and loss’ (‘What my father knows’), in fruitful albeit frustrating terms.