The five stages of grief are sequential: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. One begets another five times through, until the process runs its course and the mundanities of life resume. But this reparatory sequence remains at the whim of an unerring procession of time, and time is less orderly than one might hope. Things and thoughts thought long-since passed have a tendency to reanimate, brush themselves down and edge forth once more. What is gone is rarely forgotten; what is forgotten, rarely gone.
Lavinia Greenlaw’s latest collection of poetry, The Built Moment (Faber, 2019), tussles with such a passing of time – or, more accurately, its reluctance to pass in an ordered, linear fashion. Bifurcated into two chapters, ‘The Sea Is an Edge and an Ending’ and ‘The Bluebell Horizontal’, the book sees the poet map her father’s descent into the labyrinth of dementia and her subsequent journey through the sandy doldrums that widen after a death.
The collection begins with ‘The sea is an edge and an ending’ and an opening up of a temporal design: ‘My father has lost his way out of the present.’ (There is something about the deadness of these words, as if torn from a gut.) ‘The act of forgetting used to take time’, Greenlaw writes, ‘Now it accompanies him through each day / and the world folds itself up behind his every step.’
A folding – a collapsing – of time typifies the early stages of Greenlaw’s father’s move toward an ending: ‘The present tense is a failed invention’, she writes of a man synchronously ‘freeing himself of any obligation to the past’. As anticipation, recollection and the immediacy of felt experience ghost across one another’s respective terrains, he lists towards a veritable no-place: ‘I am unclosed, I am going up in smoke, I am freezing over.’ In the poem ‘My father cannot stop’, Greenlaw’s helpless attempts to halt her father’s decline beat a heavy, deadening drum:
When his mind perceives itself failing
like an engine questioning its parts, everything stops and he sees what it will be like when everything stops.
The problem is that nothing stops.
Time does not remain
and terror prompts him to do what he can to be stopped.
Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop that which what cannot be stopped; halt that which must come to pass. And it is not only Greenlaw’s language, but also her form, that empathizes with the demise at hand. Later in the same poem, her father’s cognitive fracture spreads to the very foundations of the text:
And so he keeps setting out – without keys or money
or a plan –
Greenlaw fails, as we fail, to bind it all together.
casting himself upon the world, sure that it will come: the divine hand that reaches down to switch off
– the point of arrest, the rest.
The rest: the unwakeable rest, approached via ‘Unreachable fields / where light is deflected, pearled and pooled / so that it just hangs there.’ And so we edge toward the inevitable. Having entered a care home – ‘a contract / with corridors and menus, footstools and / emergency cords’ – Greenlaw’s father begins the process of dismantling himself, and his daughter deconstructs in kind. ‘He runs a bath at four a.m. […] I run things in my head. / I lie awake at four a.m. and think about his head.’ The two circle and circle and circle the same inevitable moment at different speeds until ‘he raises his hand and says Stay there, stay there.’ And then, in the poem ‘My father has no shadow’, he stops: ‘Suddenly he has one mood and it is sweetness.’ And then, in the poem ‘My father’s loss of feeling’, she stops: ‘He should feel everything as if it were nothing and he does.’
When Greenlaw’s father passes, we meet the prose-poem ‘The finishing line’, a rare moment of catharsis in which the poet laughs with her brother about the fun run that he will miss as a result of the bereavement. But having flirted with the notion of acceptance, she rips back to rage. In ‘My father leaving’, Greenlaw writes how her forebear once ‘pulled off the road and walked away from your wife / and four children […] All we could do was line up to watch you disappear’. As the chapter closes, fury is hurled towards the cold muteness (or mutiny) of a person no longer present: ‘Will you stop leaving now?’
Mourning unfolds outside of the body and, in accordance, ‘The Bluebell Horizontal’ strays into abstraction with a looseness rarely felt in ‘The Sea Is an Edge and an Ending’. The titular poem runs, in full:
Bright shallows overwhelming
a crowd of tensions.
‘Chroma’, its acolyte, heralds a second opening: to a new, now weightless, life:
as if space has risen through image
and I am no longer travelling home but outwards
and into this.
Out of this and into this, with reluctance and a futile hope for deliverance. As with anyone who has fallen beneath the shadow of grief, Greenlaw cranes her neck to discern the markings on the beast’s face, but finds nothing but absence. She writes of sensing ‘the pain I’d been trying to speak of’, but losing it once more; of uttering ‘I am going to break […] but quietly and so often that it sounded like a refrain.’ She writes of those who ‘looked inside me and found reasons’, and she is in awe of their vision, she terms them deities. Like her father before her, Greenlaw comes to occupy a space between the conventional demarcations of time, her present bound to an unattainable future that is inextricably linked with her past. She lives, in unreachable fields, where light just hangs. ‘For months I woke beside my pain / and waited for it to knit itself to me – to become something’.
Greenlaw’s belief in the impending arrival of catharsis or comfort or clarity or renewed cognition gives way in ‘Where are we now?’, with a precise triad that, at odds with the poem’s otherwise lulling aimlessness, feels like progression: ‘He is gone.’ From here, the bereaved begins to interact with her father as a memory as opposed to an absence. ‘I would have met your pain with my body’, reads ‘Flowers for G.T’, ‘and lain with you as in the hours of our youth / with all youth’s ceremony.’ She speaks of storytelling, of dancing, of fancy dress; she speaks of recalled conflict as if it were a dear friend: ‘We wanted scale and depth and glamour / and found them in disused space and a failure to connect. / This was our noise.’
The titular poem, ‘The built moment’, locks eyes with the collection’s ever-present antagonist, time, and the manner in which we ‘poor humans’ interact with it – or, rather, convince ourselves that we should. ‘Time is not place. We cannot build on it / but still we think the process good for us and seek it out.’ In a bid for self-preservation, we convince ourselves that a preordained narrative underlies our every move and moment and, desperate to remain on our always unseen path, we exercise ‘Vigilance to the point of magic: / a hand reaching out to catch something we have yet to see fall.’
We lay faith in progress, process, control, but the logic of a life is anything but defined. Life, like time, ebbs and flows: it folds itself over tragedy, shifting its weight to adjust to its form. We must not view grief as something to grow from, learn from, get over, pass through, get through, deal with but, rather, greet our ghosts, walking with them, in step. ‘We try to accommodate our dead’, Greenlaw writes in ‘Slowly and from within’,
and make space in ourselves which they do not enter
having their own space beside us.
Slowly and from within we must determine
to give that space its freedom
and not to keep building on loss.
It is not a question of running away but, rather, joining hands. ‘Fleur de sel’, the collection’s final full-length poem, ends:
Heaven is loved ones rising
out of the sun and walking with me
into the sea.
The Built Moment ends with the standalone text, ‘A difficulty with words’: a dictionary, an appendix or, perhaps, a crib sheet for continuity. Poignant, cutting, atypically orderly, the endnote is a reminder that, when one is approached by suffering, a beast characterized by its very lack of definition, clarity of language and the self that language creates remain vital.
To fulfil the act of making
At the death, a stutter, and a renewed devotion to the possibility of progress:
And yet –
Main image: Lavinia Greenlaw; photograph: Isaac Hargreaves