The Sunday poem: No 12 Lavinia Greenlaw

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 12 Lavinia Greenlaw
ENGLISH poet from the punk generation. Often labelled a poet who writes about science, but her science-based poems are part of a larger project: exploring perception in every direction. Robert Frost said poetry should be "a fresh look and a fresh listen". Greenlaw explores fresh ways of seeing. Partly via developments in art and technology (eg invented processes, like photography), or scientific explanations for environmental phenomena (stars, global warming); but also via history - she enjoys re- creating and re-sifting past ways of seeing, as in the prize-winning title poem of her recent second collection, A World Where News Travelled Slowly. Her ultimate target, though, is the gradual and very subtle disclosure of new feeling through these new perceptions.

INVENTION

My six-year-old mechanic, you are up half the night

inventing a pipe made from jars, a ski-ing car

for flat icy roads and a timer-catapult

involving a palm tree, candles and rope.

You could barely stand when I once found you,

having loosened the bars from the cot

and stepped out so simply you shocked yourself.

Today I am tearful, infatuated with bad ideas,

the same song, over and over. You take charge,

up-end chairs, pull cushions under the table,

lay in chewing-gum and juice

rip newspaper into snow on the roof.

A poem about a shift in relationship when roles are reversed and playing child comes to the help of "tearful" mum. Greenlaw's verbal precision, and concrete DIY interest in things themselves, are the vehicle of an unspelt-out tenderness. The Poem is also about making new worlds from the fabric of this one - which is exactly what poems do. The poem is mum's invention: what she made from the child's making activities. But, in a to-and-fro of inventing, its focus is the child's

inventiveness.

The first stanza describes this; the second gives its prehistory (how it once ended in shock); in the third, the child uses that inventiveness to salvage mum. The kid's "invention" is the hero of the poem and the relationship. The placing of "You take charge" (the only sentence starting halfway through a line) underlines the child's initiative and brings back the "-ar sound which ran through the first stanza ("half", "jars". "car", "palm"), as if it were the sound-motif for this child who loosens "bars" (another "-ar"). The poem ends with a child who "stepped out" from one domestic structure "up-ending" other ones, to make a safe structure, a protected house for "tearful" mum.

The first stanza's tone is affectionate ("My") and amused (but ruefully, you feel, at "up half the night"). Little pairings of vowels bind it together ("night"/ "pipe", "roads"/"rope") like the bound-together duo of mother and child in their (presumably) snowy night-time isolation. Yet the stanza in spiky with plosive plashy consonants (P and L. plus T, K and C - "mechanic", "skiing car", "flat", "timer-catapult", "rope", "palm tree") as if the apparent calm of mum watching child play in spiked by unspoken anxieties.

The second stanza picks up the Ks and Ts and re-arranges them round new sounds ("cot"/"shocked") but also picks up the softer, more relaxed and gentle "nd" of "candles" ("stand"/"found"/"loosened") and this continues into the third (up-end/under"), giving a feel of continuous growth through this poem which is, after all, about a child's growing emotional strength. The first stanza was sealed off; the sentence ended with the stanza. But the second cuts to three lines the mother's moment of being the strong one. In the fourth line her own anxieties kick in (along with new sounds - "tearful"/"ideas", "infatuated"/"bad") spilling across the stanza-break as if they are never going to stop. "The same song, over and over".

So the third stanza opens with mum needing help. The child supplies it, replacing unexplained grown-up complexity ("infatuated") with simple action verbs: "take charge", "up-end", "pull under," "lay in", "rip". The complicated adult world ("newspapers") is shredded, and turned into the symbol of the outside world ("snow on the roof") against which the child provides determined shelter.

The last consonant is a soft one. "Roof" picks up the F of "yourself" and chimes with "juice": the child is supplying softness and comfort, turning upside-down the structures mum depends on ("chairs"), putting soft resting things like cushions in a new place instead, and "laying in", for the duration, things mums use to comfort children. ("Chewing- gum", "juice".) Child is reassuring mum against a difficult future, getting her to see new possibilities in the home, protecting them both, in their winter night fastness, against any seige of "bad ideas".

In its unobtrusive way, the poem moves towards healing. Necessity is the mother of "Invention". In this "Inventiont", the child dismantling normal ways of seeing, re-using ordinary things like chairs and jars, knows it needs to mother mother. to be her "mechanic" when something in wrong. (607)

"Invention" appears in A World Where News Travelled Slowly.

End

Pat-PA

Invention

My six-year-old mechanic, you are up half the night

inventing a pipe made from jars, a ski-ing car

for flat icy roads and a timer-catapult

involving a palm tree, candles and rope.

You could barely stand when I once found you,

having loosened the bars from the cot

and stepped out so simply you shocked yourself.

Today I am tearful, infatuated with bad ideas,

the same song, over and over. You take charge,

up-end chairs, pull cushions under the table,

lay in chewing-gum and juice

rip newspaper into snow on the roof.

A POEM about a shift in relationship when roles are reversed and playing child comes to the help of "tearful" mum. Greenlaw's verbal precision, and concrete DIY interest in things themselves, are the vehicles of an unspelt-out tenderness. The poem is also about making new worlds from the fabric of this one - which is exactly what poems do. The poem is mum's invention: what she made from the child's making activities. But, in a to-and-fro of inventing, its focus is the child's inventiveness.

The first stanza describes this; the second gives its prehistory (how it once ended in shock); in the third, the child uses that inventiveness to salvage mum. The kid's "invention" is the hero of the poem and the relationship. The placing of "You take charge" (the only sentence starting halfway through a line) underlines the child's initiative and brings back the "-ar" sound which ran through the first stanza (half, jars, car, palm) as if it were the sound-motif for this child who loosens "bars". The poem ends with a child who "stepped out" from one domestic structure "up- ending" other ones, to make a safe structure, a protected house for mum.

The first stanza's tone is affectionate ("My") and amused (but ruefully, you feel, at "up half the night"). Little pairings of vowels bind it together (night/ pipe, roads/rope) like the bound-together duo of mother and child in their night-time isolation. Yet the stanza in spiky with plosive plashy consonants (P and L, plus T, K and C - mechanic, skiing car, flat, timer-catapult, rope, palm tree) as if the apparent calm of mum watching child play is spiked by unspoken anxieties.

The second stanza picks up the Ks and Ts and re-arranges them round new sounds (cot/shocked) but also picks up the softer, more relaxed and gentle "nd" of "candles" (stand/found/loosened) and this continues into the third (up-end/ under), giving a feel of continuous growth through this poem which is, after all, about a child's growing emotional strength. The first stanza was sealed off; the sentence ended with the stanza. But the second cuts the mother's moment of being the strong one to three lines. In the fourth line her own anxieties kick in (along with new sounds - tearful/ideas, infatuated/bad) spilling across the stanza-break as if they are never going to stop: "the same song, over and over".

So the third stanza opens with mum needing help. The child supplies it, replacing unexplained grown-up complexity ("infatuated") with simple action verbs (take charge, up-end, pull under, lay in, rip). The complicated adult world ("newspapers") is shredded, and turned into the symbol of the outside world ("snow on the roof") against which the child provides determined shelter.

The last consonant is a soft one. "Roof" picks up the F of "yourself" and chimes with "juice": the child is supplying softness and comfort, turning upside-down the structures mum depends on ("chairs"), putting soft resting things like cushions in a new place instead, and "laying in", for the duration, things mums use to comfort children ("chewing-gum", "juice"). Child is reassuring mum against a difficult future, getting her to see new possibilities in the home, protecting them both, in their winter night fastness, against any siege of "bad ideas".

In its unobtrusive way, the poem moves towards healing. Necessity is the mother of "invention". In this "Invention", the child dismantling normal ways of seeing, re-using ordinary things like chairs and jars, knows it needs to mother mother: to be her "mechanic" when something is wrong.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

'Invention' appears in A World Where News Travelled Slowly (Faber)

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