Review by Laura Muetzelfeldt
How do we build out of grief and loss? Lavinia Greenlaw asks in The Built Moment (Faber, 2019), a personal and philosophical exploration on the subject of memory. As you would expect given the topic – her experience of losing her father to dementia – emotion is ever-present in this, Greenlaw’s sixth collection of poetry, but it is always kept just beneath the surface. It is this restraint, along with her ability to distil complex experiences with economy and warmth, that make this collection both enjoyable and deeply moving.
The Built Moment is divided into two parts: ‘The sea is an edge and an ending’ and ‘The bluebell horizontal’. The first section deals with the long process of the father’s ‘leaving’ – not only in the sense that he is nearing the end of his life, but also because the man Greenlaw knew is disappearing. This section explores what it means for the father to live only in the present tense, and nowhere is this more evident than in the section’s titular poem, ‘The sea is an edge and ending’:
My father has lost his way out of the present.
Something is stopping him leaving, nothing becomes
the immediate past.
The act of forgetting used to take time.
Now it accompanies him through each day
and the world fold itself up behind his every step.
In the opening lines we can picture the father ‘stuck’ somewhere, marooned and isolated. The shrinking of his life due to memory loss is then expanded upon in the second stanza, where ‘the world folds itself up behind his every step.’ This metaphor conjures the image of a man standing on a map that is getting smaller and smaller, just as her father’s world is being eroded moment by moment. By describing her father’s experience, Greenlaw is, of course, also describing the experience of a daughter as witness to this loss, and as a result there is an emotional undercurrent that runs throughout but is especially resonant in the closing lines:
What unlocked this emptiness?
He knows not to ask. He knows now how small he is,
how small his island, how small his spell.
By repeating the word ‘small’, the father seems to be shrinking before our eyes. What was it like for her, we wonder, to lose someone who is still physically present? The phrase ‘how small his spell’ reinforces his waning ability to engage with others, something that would be painfully obvious to his daughter. It also suggests an acknowledgment of his mortality, foreshadowing the second section of the book.
Throughout ‘The sea is an edge and an ending’ the ethereal dimension of time is given the tangibility of place. This helps us understand the new geography of the father’s life due to memory loss, and emphasises his isolation. For instance, the present tense becomes a place he cannot leave, where time is measured by a map becoming smaller and smaller until it is ‘a land that lacks dimension’ entirely.
Returning to the start of ‘The sea is an edge and an ending’, we can see that for the father the past no longer exists, and so he is lost in more ways than one. Losing his memory means that he is also losing his identity, and the poet explores this idea in greater depth in poems like ‘My father on paper’, in which papers he formerly kept hidden are now out for everyone to see. However, rather than providing a means for Greenlaw to get closer to her father this highlights the starkness of his absence: ‘Now I know everything / and can’t find him.’
Loss of identity is also a concern of ‘My father’s weakness’, as is his increasing isolation:
but now he sits among the conversation
[…] working hard to go unnoticed
to be allowed to remain.
The father is separated from his family and other people in general. His personality is changing – where once he dominated conversations, now he is happy to be ‘allowed to remain’ a silent spectator. The father’s identity, tied up with his memory, is unravelling.
Ultimately, quiet, thoughtful expressions of grief abound in the first section. Sometimes, this means finding the precise metaphor or simile to describe how the father’s memory now functions. For example, in ‘My father rises whenever’ we are told:
I lie awake at four a.m. and think about his head.
The bombed streets and brute structures.
shunting themselves up and down brief tracks.
What remains after reading is Greenlaw’s intense struggle to make sense of this new reality through words. Although her father emerges as a diminished version of his former self, it is ultimately her experience that is recorded here: that of the child watching.
The book’s second section, ‘The bluebell horizontal’, follows on chronologically from the first, exploring the speaker’s life after her father’s death. If the first section recounts the futile attempt to hold onto someone as they disappear, then the second section is an attempt to answer the question ‘how do we not keep building on loss’? Here, Greenlaw keenly recognises how often we stand in our own way when it comes to dealing with grief.
Several themes are further developed or emerge in this section. As well as building on grief, Greenlaw also returns again and again to the natural world, finding solace – if not answers – in the careful and close observation of nature. References to darkness and light also feature prominently, representing the pain of grief but also hope for the future. There are no easy answers, she suggests. However, pairing these opposites points to the fact that both exist, if we choose to see them, which is itself a message of hope.
An intent to focus on small, seemingly insignificant details found in nature characterises many of the poems within ‘The bluebell horizontal’, including its titular poem, a haiku quoted here in full:
Bright shallows overwhelming
A crowd of vertical tensions.
The evocative image is of dark trees being drowned out by a colourful sweep of blue-violet. So, despite the shallowness of the horizontal band of colour, the dark trees disappear into it, and are overcome. Was there a moment when the poet’s sadness and despair were overwhelmed by stumbling upon such a scene? Nothing is laboured or spelled out here, so we are left to infer our own meaning from the three short lines.
The restraint shown here by the poet continues in the poems that follow: often an image from nature is presented and just left to hang there. We, the readers, are then complicit in the creation of meaning. Elsewhere, yellow lichen, the flowering plant wintersweet, and fleur de sel are all singled out for close attention. In these moments of careful observation, what meaning is revealed depends on the reader, but this focusing in on small details does offer a potential solution for how to find a way through grief and despair.
The progress through grief is complemented by the leitmotif of darkness and light. In ‘Chroma’ and in ‘Slowly and from within’, darkness cancels out light, while in ‘The break’, darkness and pain – both physical and emotional – are linked. To grieve, then, is to be in the dark, and the way out is perhaps in those small moments that are there if we are open to them: in a patch of bluebells or the powerful scent of wintersweet. Greenlaw does not make any of this sound easy, but she does make it seem possible.
The last poem in the collection supports the idea of cautious optimism. ‘The difficulty with words’ ends with an unfinished sentence: ‘And yet—’, where that dash is filled with endless possibilities that can’t help but infuse hope. So, if the collection begins by invoking the question, ‘How do we build out of grief and loss?’, the poems in this deceptively slim volume edge towards an answer, though ultimately realise that there are no shortcuts through loss.
Laura Muetzelfeldt is a prose writer from Glasgow who has been published in journals such as The International Literary Quarterly and short story collections like New Writing Scotland. Laura is currently a Creative Writing PhD student at St Andrews.