A review by Jill Owens
"Theaetetus complained to Socrates
of dizziness when asked to see beyond what is
as it is named. His sickness was wonder."
-- from "Against Rhetoric: A Letter to Lord Chandos,1603"
Lavinia Greenlaw is a British poet who's published several books in the United
Kingdom to much acclaim; Minsk is her first book released in the United
States. She's been compared to Elizabeth Bishop for her plainspoken clarity
and Wallace Stevens for her metaphysical spaces (and possibly because of their
shared subtext of arctic landscapes, both inner and outer). Like Margaret Atwood,
she explores the wildness of place and body; like W. S. Merwin, she frames large
concepts with spacious words and an edged wit. Minsk is a lovely, cool-eyed
look at the world as we remember and imagine it.
The book is divided into three sections, which could be loosely categorized
as memories of childhood and adolescence in a small town, whose inhabitants
are burning to get out; poems as imaginative riffs on influences and mythologies,
often literary (including Goethe, Dante, Wodehouse, and Edmund Gosse); and investigations
of the frigid and enveloping landscapes of the Arctic Circle. Her poems are
populated with witches and wolves, mountains and forests; she has a calm and
vast expanse of vision that can feel archetypal, and occasionally aphoristic.
There is also something Marianne Moore-ish about Greenlaw -- she traffics in
strange and beautiful animals and exotic places, and can build a whole poem
around a snippet from a letter or other out-of-context quotations. Her long
poems, which are mostly organized as series, are arresting and complex compositions.
In "A Strange Barn," Greenlaw explores the London Zoo, over a half-century,
as an extended metaphor to interpret historical and political events (and evokes
hints of Rilke). "Bright Earth" is an alphabetical catalog of chemical
and color (alphabetical catalogs hold, I think, a particular fascination for
many poets, and Greenlaw's succeeds admirably in that tradition), and "A
Drink of Glass" and "The Land of Giving In" chart the seasons
and cycles of the Arctic: "This is the time to live quietly/ to build nothing
and tell stories....I feel patient, honest and kindly and cannot crack a smile."
I sent one of these poems to a friend of mine who doesn't read much poetry,
and he was very impressed, noting that her range within the single poem was
extraordinary, subtle and moving. Formally traditional yet compellingly personal,
Minsk introduces a welcome poetic voice to a new audience.