thirty-three: Lavinia Greenlaw, Minsk

Oh dear, late again…

One of the great things about the school I went to for sixth-form was what was called Wednesday Eight. For the last period of the day on a Wednesday, we’d get a talk from someone outside the school – and it could be anyone, talking about anything. The two poets I remember coming to do readings were Simon Armitage, who was a familiar name, and Lavinia Greenlaw, who was not. I remember being captivated by what she read – which I think was from either Night Photograph or A World Where News Travelled Slowly – and she’s remained vaguely on my (very weak) poetry radar since then, although it wasn’t until the week before last that I finally got around to reading a recent collection by her.

I really enjoyed Minsk. The first section has some really beautifully observed, delicate and wry pieces about childhood, adolescence and growing up. In particular the very first poem, ‘The Spirit of the Staircase’ was enchanting (as well as reminding me of a poem I wrote about childhood experiences of stairs and a brother). From childhood to a section on London Zoo, and from there to wider vistas, including the Arctic Circle.

I think what I respond to most in poetry is when something is written so plainly, sparsely even, but manages to suggest something unutterably beautiful or true beyond itself; where the beauty is in suggestion and obliqueness, somehow. There were a couple of pieces in this collection that really did this for me, where you sort of catch your breath, including one I recognised from the Poems on the Underground initiative, ‘Sisu’:

To persevere in hope of summer.
To adapt to its broken promise.
To love winter.

To sleep.

To love winter.
To adapt to its broken promise.
To persevere in hope of summer.

I really couldn’t explain why I love this so much, but it sends shivers up my spine.

Favourites were ‘The Spirit of the Staircase’, ‘Lupins’, ‘Essex Rag’, ‘Sisu’, and this one, ‘What makes for the fullness and perfection of life’:

It only came back when I stopped to consider
the small ways in which a garden holds water
and paused halfway through the door in suspense
like the dream which, early that morning,
had flicked its magnificent tail then was gone.

Wow. I’m definitely going to be looking up Greenlaw’s previous two collections. I also came across this book in a bookshop recently, which looks totally fascinating (and which I might buy for my sister for Christmas).

Minsk, Lavinia Greenlaw (Faber and Faber, 2003)

2 Responses to “thirty-three: Lavinia Greenlaw, <i>Minsk</i>”

  1. 1 Dave Leek 17 August, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    I love this poem too. Same story! I read it for the first time in the London Tube and it totally won me over. Perhaps because I wan’t expecting it there end then, in this stuffy uninspiring train? It just stood there – dense and beautiful. I wonder how many people had the same response as the two of us.

    I did buy the entire “Minsk” collection after that, but nothing in there had the same impact as the Sisu poem on me.

  2. 2 neil dens 2 November, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    I love Sisu as well. I read it on the tube and it lit something in my head. I love the power of the human spirit and I think this poem sums up the that spirit….and I think the london underground is the perfect spot for this poem


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