A World Where News Travelled Slowly

I have just been reading Lavinia Greenlaw’s collection  A World Where News Travelled Slowly – and must recommend her poetry wholeheartedly. Her poems are an overheard conversation, conspiratory and private. She beckons us into a private, old-school world of Greek myths, apothecaries, alchemy and subtle eroticism.

The title poem is probably her most famous. A World Where News Travels Slowly harks back to the stagecoach and calligraphy, the human connection with the message, the act of delivery. We travel forward in time to “the clattering mechanics of the six-shutter telegraph”, beautifully mirrored in the rhythm of the line, to the present day. Now we take for granted the ability to connect with each other – but “we’re almost talking in each other’s arms” – the contemporaneous nature of news makes everything immediate – “nets tighten across the sky” – we are too close, trapped by proximity.

“Acquisitions” explores origins and the appropriation of artefacts, in relation to marriage, traditionally the possession of a spouse. “Is marriage by capture, exchange or purchase?” It alludes to American imperialism, Fordism and a denial of history.

One thing that stands out in this collection is Greenlaw’s shatteringly confident ability to make us see things afresh. “Reading Akhmatova in Midwinter” is an incredibly precise, measured description of the cold. Nature hangs in a cryogenic state, “each leaf carries itself in glass / each stem is a fuse in a transparent flex”. Always she harks back to the specific – in Last Summer, she reminisces of “the housemartins that flew semicircles / over the garage eaves, building or feeding”, while in a broken-down car with her daughter; “the thing’s running on fresh air!”. A snapshot of a commonplace incident, becomes a rhapsody on the freedom of nature vs. mechanism, her daughter’s childish exuberance trapped inside the car, “her fables, her wolf-dance”.

If there is a common theme to these poems, it is that humanity triumphs. In What We Can See of the Sky Has Fallen, a paean to Luke Howard, a Quaker who came up with the names we use for clouds, “somewhere between Income Tax and the Battle of Trafalgar”. He finds himself “skybound, abstracted”, striving to classify the unclassifiable. We impose our way of seeing on the world, it is interpreted through our eyes.

There is a tension between the abstract and the specific throughout this collection, the snapshot and the timeless, hot and cold, romantic and scientific. It does not provide you with easy answers, as in the ironically titled poem, “Guidebook to the Alhambra”, but it will introduce you to unfamiliar ideas, make you think anew and reconsider our position in the world. Isn’t that what poetry should be about?

 

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