Literary Criticism

The Casual Perfect by Lavinia Greenlaw

Perhaps a fitting emblem for The Casual Perfect, Lavinia Greenlaw’s most accomplished work to date, lies in the following stanza from her poem, “Haze”:

The yellow heat of marigold
saxifrage and celandine
is not what burns your throat, my love,
just what fills your mind.

One need not recall the scientific experiments of Olds and Milner to understand that sensory experience is primarily a phenomenon of the mind. Either inundate the mind with sensation, or impair its ability to feel, and all depredations of the flesh will be ignored. Of course, poetry trades on the inversion that transduces mental activity to physical response.

Science has also shown that our sense of being “in love” is the product of the hormonal activities of phenylethylamine, norepinephrine and dopamine. In The Casual Perfect, Ms. Greenlaw has found a way to tap these hormones so that receptive readers experience a sense of love’s intoxication, its joy and pain, as if “jacked-in” to its Matrix. Indeed, this may be the greatest book of poetry about being in love since Elizabeth Barrett’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, for like that great work Ms. Greenlaw has made the trajectory of a personal love story the heartbeat of this volume.

Ms. Greenlaw opens boldly with the “Essex Kiss,” which the Urban Dictionary identifies as fellatio, the trademark of the Essex Girl: “Usually perfomed by a drunk or plain sluttish Essex girl on any old random she meets in jacs” (the toilet). Here the poet’s assumed persona describes her male lover as a Zola grotesque:

A handbrake turn on a hair-pin bend.
Merry-go-round? No, the waltzer.
A touch as bold as rum and peppermint.
Chewing gum and whelks,
a whiff of diesel, crocus, cuckoo spit.
The moves of a half-broken pony.
A poacher’s tickle and snare.

But the man is the prey and the woman the “poacher,” inverting the pastoral myth of the virginal lover, rendering sex the preeminent tender, sacrifice and commodity:

I will lay you down
on a bed of nettles and blackthorn.
Your body will give way like grain,
your body will veer:
smoke over a torched field
as the wind takes and turns it.
The grip of bluebells.
The grip of wattle and daub.

As near as twelve lay-bys,
as far as a Friday night lock-in.
By this are we bound.
No paperwork.

“No paperwork” is not only the negation of the marriage contract, but the denial of any literary conceit that would ultimately define (and hence reduce) the relationship. The love is here and now (“As near as twelve lay-bys,/As far as Friday night lock-in.”); it is outside the law and beyond blessing; it is need and instinct; it is a complete surrendering of the self somewhere between the “grip of bluebells” and the “grip of wattle and daub,” in other words, between mythical romance and hard-headed marriage. Ms. Greenlaw’s biography discloses that she spent much of her childhood in Essex, and we are told she has a 19-year old daughter, but the re-enactment here is not strictly biographical. Rather it is a metaphysical rendering of the poet’s state of mind in passion’s element. “Essex Kiss” is dramatically visceral poem from a poet known for her consummate control over her subject matter. But make no mistake, Ms. Greenlaw was and, perhaps at certain times, still is, a poet who throws caution to the wind.

The theme of the dominant female is further explored in “Acteon,” the mythic story of the huntsman who is transformed into a stag at the sight of the goddess Diana bathing and ultimately torn apart by his own hounds. But in Ms. Greenlaw’s hands the myth assumes a Freudian character, taking place within the minds of the lovers, where the man is reduced to the animal nature of his hounds “on a scent so violent” that he is transformed (“he is all fours./And his noise./And his hounds”) by the naked female/goddess, who is “a dark star/contracting to itself”). The “dark star” is a black hole that, in Sylvia Plath’s words, “eat[s] men like air”.

The power of attraction as undeniable force of nature is again explored in “Superlocution,” where the poet tells the parable of a man and woman who intended small talk of “their landscapes and people,” and suddenly found “so deep a recognition/(as of the self’s engine) took hold,/they cast their truth and secrets.” The story is then directed at the reader:

There is a way into the mountain.
It opens and closes and comes
to rest beneath the bed of a river.
Yourself as slow and sudden
Above– listen! – the hidden continuous.

This symbol becomes the analogue of life itself, “slow and sudden.” The “hidden continuous” of love, like death, seizes us when it is least expected, and we have no control of it. And when love is “slow” it is lost on an unmarked highway and becomes the agony of the “slow motorized/drip of the dark sealing the dark.” (“Slow”).

In this heightened state of mind, emotion invests itself in everything. So, in “Kata” the metaphysical “dance” between movement and space,/between image and perspective” is likened to a romantic encounter with a stranger:

The gravity of form
and the mechanism of each gesture
as profound and dissolved
as the body’s memory of a stranger
who said nothing but in passing
met with you in stillness
wanting to go no faster than this.

The implied waltz time of these lines is suspended in the last line by the confluence of “o’s” (“to go no”) and “s’s” and “th’s” (“faster than this”), reinforcing sense with sound. “Kata” transcends the physical manifestation of enveloping reality so intimately (“profound and dissolved”) that its conceptualization becomes as lovers’ conjoining. The lover’s emotion is M.H. Abrams’ lamp that subsumes and transforms all reality, which is the essence of Romanticism. Dancing is used frequently by Ms. Greenlaw as a doorway into experience, not only as an entré to sex (“Essex Kiss”) and romantic love (“Saturday Night”), but also to revelation and self-discovery (as in “Empty Metaphor” and “Silent Disco”). The confluence of music and dance is often the only way to the sudden ecstatic union of body and mind.

A line from Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose” becomes the epigraph of “Saturday Night,” again reminding us of the shock of surprise when raw nature makes an unexpected appearance. The poem displays Ms. Greenlaw’s deft ability to combine the most luscious of romantic poetry with a modernistic turn. Consider the sensuous beauty of these lines:

And young girls shall gather
to dance on the highway
under petals of light
that float from their shoulders
and dip into lotioned shadows.
They shall coil their salty hair
and tug at their lapsed muslins.

Yet the “strop and tang” of love in the raw preempts all those beyond the lovers’ “chemical blunders/their overgrown sentences,” “whose unmade selves/come unbuttoning out of the dark”:

You who pass by can watch
but never enter the world of this place.
You know nothing of its way
of growing tree from shadow
so all is fixed and root.
You who pass by, pass by.

The feint at the concluding lines of “Under Ben Bulben” imports the Yeat’s epitaph (“Horseman, pass by!”), but Greenlaw’s mortality is the living death of being out of love.

Ms. Greenlaw is content to operate within traditional romantic symbolism and metaphor and hasn’t yet found reason to rebel or break away (as Wallace Stevens and his progeny did) from the archetypal conceits that still serve as fossil fuel to the mainstream of English poetry. Thus, in “Indigo Bunting,” the black feathers and bird song of negation (“I will not – three note, ultra coloratura”) is shunned (“I mean I will not speak of this – this color – again.”). Yet, she understands their constraints, as in “Empty Metaphor,” which plays on the concept of the unexpected mystery of life through the sight of the poet’s 19-year old child in a “hall of mirrors.” The child is the metaphorical mirror of the parent, who tries to define/confine the child to her own familiar prescriptions (“about to be described/and yet to meet her explanation”), but reality trumps the literary conceit to the poet’s surprise (“At the point of exchange/she became so unknown, so clear//I could not tell glass from air.”).

In such ways, The Casual Perfect explores love from the twin perspectives of the sensual and the cerebral (literary). In the volume’s eponymous poem, whose title is taken from Robert Lowell’s description of Elizabeth Bishop as an “unerring Muse who makes the casual perfect,” we have an improvised linguistic Rorschach test, that transits life from conception of the idea (“A borrowed tense”) to realized matter that is either rust proof or not (“The becoming of quartz or iron”). “The Literal Body” provides a litany of symbolism that describes the symptoms of being in and out of love (“That when in love she suffers/ a loss of sensation on the feminine side.//That what her body remembers most clearly/is being held by breaking glass.//That when in love she loses the ability/to digest/”), ending with a characterization of the eternal nature of love’s hopefulness in the face of the most dire circumstances.

That the displacement cells
is a fire in a darkened building

where against all expectation
her lover keeps looking for her
keeps taking her hand.

The arc of the volume progresses toward its center which describes the lovers’ breakup. We know disaster is impending in poems such as “Night Material,” where the passionate lovers “tipping the fence” are in fact surrounded by precarious forces (a “house on stilts,” “the thousand of bats under this roof,” “A thousand rips and bounces” and “A thousand sips and bursts”) which offer little assurance of permanency (“A thousand flits and swerves./How can he contain, how can she hold him?”). The man’s resistance to domesticity becomes the woman’s labor.

Though the man has a knack for “making safe the black path” (in “Drip Torch”), it is ironically framed within the greater truth that love and nature follow an inevitable course that eviscerates our romantic pretenses. In “Drip Torch,” the “land” where the poet finds herself (“far west and south of myself”) has been “growing and dying” and has to be cleared by a “prescribed burn”), after which the man leads the poet through his “woods” to “a place, strangely enough, of sleep” (i.e., not of lovemaking):

The smoke low and still,
a lull of ash and the air of fleece
into which the last weak flames
knitted themselves then disappeared.
As if some great truth that occurred
and we could rest now.

The passion (“flames”) from what appears to have been a clinically planned affair (“prescribed burn”) has now disappeared. While the poet expresses gratitude for being taught the ways of the fire, one can nevertheless taste a residue of sulfur in her words.

Night, the traditional harbor of lovers, also doubles as the symbolic image of “The End of Marriage”: “Night was and they swayed into it.” Here “was” gives symbolic night its unremitting finality, relegating their dead marriage to the “past tense” rather than to the status of lovers who are in a constant state of “becoming,” with all that word might imply in sexual and personal actualization. The twinned images of scissors and sails brilliantly capture the sense of the breakup, a cutting of ties and a leaving taking. The “five o’clock” nature of the relationship only now awaits night, silent as the figurative husband.

The theme of a broken marriage/relationship is continued in the succeeding poems, “Dreams of Separation,” and “The Catch.” In “Lo-Fi” a friend’s self-destruction provides an ironic contrast to the lovers (“A stranger might think us blessed”), with their crippled relationship serving as a lesser of two evils. If one thought the desperate ending, “Where does anyone go?” in “The End of Marriage” was the non plus ultra, it does not get any bleaker than “English Lullaby” with lines such as:“It’s hard to find the dark when darkness/ has no keep” and “I take the train to fix myself inside/what’s left of night.” Granted, we are at a tipping point of emotion, as the poet exposes herself and her vulnerability. But it is here that our human connection with her is so immediate, so unreservedly un-English.

After this point, the falling action of the volume travels into protect mode, and one can see the poet contemplating the effect of her self-revelation (“Silent Disco”). She briefly considers her connection to the divine (“The Messenger of God” and “Hevenyssh”), and seems to relish this time of seasonal self-examination, as she states in “WINTER FINDING – Maeshowe”:

Why rush past into whiteness?

This is the time of the dark half,
the serpent days of seem.

Scribbles of lust and brag
speak like needles on the skin.

This passage counsels restraint and suggests that an addiction to love would be construed from impolitic “Scribbles of lust and brag,” so she is naturally hesitant to venture forth without the circumspect consideration of her position. Nevertheless, though believing herself unready to resume a normal life in this post-breakup stage, she is impelled by the irresistible call of her nature: “where a hare starts out of the earth/wheels like a girl woken and told/to surface. No? Now.” (“Fal Estuary”). She even employs “northern” imagery vaguely reminiscent of Wallace Stevens in “Blakeney Point”: “The fires we build along the northern edge/are no more upsetting to the air/than breath. Is this love?” Passion is sublimated so much it enters the realm of the dubious. In fact, I think Stevens, who aspired toward a “new romanticism” during WWII, would have appreciated Ms Greenlaw’s poems, especially a poem like “Severn” which is an introspective examination of the poet’s romantic ontology.

The poems in the latter half of The Casual Perfect remind me of Ms. Greenlaw’s earlier work, and the journey back leads to her home turf where she feels safe and secure. There are many fine poems here, but, as they sail a long glide home after passion’s flame has burned out, they often lack the dramatic nature and the poetic flights of the first half of her volume where Ms. Greenlaw catches lightning in a bottle. But it would be injudicious to say that these poems are anything less than engaging. If anything, Ms. Greenlaw is a very fine poet and as sure in her craft as anyone writing today. The poems, “We Will Have None of Them,” “Water For Tea,” “A Theory of Infinite Proximity,” “Haze,” “Otolith” and “The Lost Letter,” are by turns enchanting, mysterious and supremely lyrical.

The volume ends with “A Circle Round Our House” which recapitulates and seals the thematic plotline that began this work:

Because we do not live together, we describe a circle
round our house. Like the unpaid milkman
we hurry past, walk hard to the sea wall.

No view, but a ladder. It slopes so far back
we are forced to climb over ourselves
as if growing out of some kind of shell.

Late December, the life between
one year and another. Each day,
an abandoned projection on the flattening sea.

An anchor caught in the mud keeps hold of nothing.
By what kind of arrangement?
It might as well be anchoring the earth.

“By what kind of arrangement?” brilliantly recalls “No paperwork” from “Essex Kiss,” for now Ms. Greenlaw has made the journey from passion’s firmament to its shallow grave.

The Casual Perfect perfects modern romantic expression. Ms. Greenlaw should be very proud to have been the vessel through which this wonderful lyrical work has passed.

© Steven M. Critelli 2012


1 comment on “The Casual Perfect by Lavinia Greenlaw

  1. interesting article.Essex Kiss leaves us breathless with its imagery.Thank you.

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