Books: Ms Greenlaw's sense of snow

A WORLD WHERE NEWS TRAVELLED SLOWLY by Lavinia Greenlaw, Faber pounds 6.99
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The Independent Culture
What kind of a poet are you if you can describe something as commonplace as a snowy landscape in such a way as to make the reader believe they never seen or heard of such a thing? Answer: As accomplished as Lavinia Greenlaw.

The first line of her poem, "Reading Akhmatova In Midwinter" warns us that she is a stickler for specifics: "The revelations of ice, exactly". Each of her metaphors is poised midway between aptness and surprise, and "exactly" is exactly what she gives us: "Each leaf carries itself in glass, / each stem is a fuse in a transparent flex, / each blade, for once, truly metallic." The persona of the poem does not enter until the sixth stanza and by then Greenlaw has created such a hermetically sealed world of this frosted-over landscape that the anxiety for the poet of the title seems suddenly universally dominating. She has succeeded in not only re-inventing snow and ice but in making us worry for Akhmatova with her "fear of traffic and [her] broken shoe".

Greenlaw appears to be inhabiting many different worlds here, all of which disorientate and baffle. Trapped in microcosms of suffocating oddness, she seems light years away from the poet who wrote about science and the gestation of knowledge with such self-possession.

A vertiginous fear of the external world, both natural and urban, pervades her work. In "The Shape of Things", she tells of insomnia "on the fourth floor of a deluded hotel" where she has "seen no one, heard only / the sigh of the exoskeletal lift, / the fire doors cough and groan." In another, roadworks cause a sinister stasis: hearing "the blurt of a wayward alarm", she wonders: "Ice-cream sellers? / Ambulance crew?" Nothing is innocuous: trees "have us surrounded". Walls of houses "are porous and, now, baited / ... At night something in the crawlspace whimpers."

Anxiety, love, desire and guilt pulse through her language. These seismic emotional occurences go some way to explaining her general disquiet: her poetry implies a symbiosis between her emotional state and her perception of the external world. She and her lover are on the run through different geographies and cities: "things change, become home and we must leave them." The air of another city in "Hayseed" is "unbreathable, secret": there's the sense it's less to do with "the catch of pollen, ozone, exhaust" than what the raw statement in the second stanza contains: "you are waiting to fly".

The joy of being in love, though oblique, is unmistakable. "Moderation in moderation" she opines with glee one night, "we will be endless." I hope ours is a world in which news of this book travels fast.

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