Greenlaw, Lavinia (Elaine)

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GREENLAW, Lavinia (Elaine)

Nationality: British. Born: London, 30 July 1962. Education: Kingston Polytechnic, Surrey, 1980–83, B.A. in English (honors) 1983; London College of Printing, 1984–85, diploma in publishing/ production 1985. Family: One daughter. Career: Publications editor, Imperial College of Science and Technology, London, 1985–86; desk editor, Allison and Busby, London, 1986–87; managing editor, Earthscan, London, 1988–90; assistant literature officer, Southbank Centre, London, 1990–91; principal literature officer, London Arts Board, 1991–94. Since 1994 freelance writer and reviewer. Writer-inresidence, Science Museum in London, 1994–95; British Council Fellow in Writing, Amherst College, fall 1995; writer-in-residence, Mishcon de Reya (law firm), London, 1997–98; reader-in-residence, South Bank Centre, London, 2000. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1990; Arts Council of England Writers' award, 1995; Wingate scholarship, 1996–98; Forward prize for best single poem, 1997. Agent: Derek Johns, A.P. Watt, 20 John Street, London WC1N 2DR, England. Address: c/o Faber and Faber, 3 Queen Square, London WC1N 3AU, England.



The Cost of Getting Lost in Space. London, Turret Books, 1991.

Love from a Foreign City. London, Slowdancer Press, 1992.

Night Photograph. London, Faber, 1993.

A World Where News Travelled Slowly. London, Faber, 1997.


Mary George of Allnorthover. N.p., 2001.


Critical Studies: By Ian Gregson, in Jacaranda Review (Los Angeles), 1994; by Pat Barker, in The New Republic (New York), 29 April 1996.

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The earlier poems of Lavinia Greenlaw tend to begin decisively: "With a head full of Swiss clockmakers / she took a job at a New York factory." These lines come from "The Innocence of Radium," which tells of a girl employed to inscribe figures on dials with paint that proves to be radioactive. The product was invented by a chemist who is proud of his product, but it has deleterious effects on those who come into proximity with it:

   Over the years he watched her grow dull.
   The doctors gave up, removed half her jaw,
   and blamed syphilis when her thighbone snapped
   as she struggled up a flight of steps.
   Diagnosing infidelity, the chemist pronounced
   the innocence of radium, a kind of radiance
   that could not be held by the body of a woman,
   only caught between her teeth. He was proud
   of his paint and made public speeches
   on how it could be used by artists to convey
   the quality of moonlight …

Though much of the interest resides in the facts that Greenlaw retails, one should not underestimate her craftsmanship. She seeks, for example, to surmise the nature of the suspension bridge at Clifton: "I curl over the railings, unable to grasp / the push-and-pull dynamics of Brunel's success …" But a tithe of mental struggle gives her a clue, and her hint about the design is self-reflexive. It is, indeed, almost a description of her own poetic process: "then I start to accept Brunel's equation, / the simplicity holding it all in place…." In thisinstance simplicity is the result of a linguistic and rhythmic control that is far from simple. The medium through which Greenlaw's meditations come to us is an elegantly inflected free verse, the real thing, not chopped-up prose or loosened pentameters. True free verse has a pattern that is quite scannable, with a line that thrusts, so to speak, and a line (or lines) accepting the thrust. Greenlaw thoroughly comprehends the pattern, as shown in these lines from "Suspension":

   Now it looks too easy, I can't go on,
   my sense of balance is suddenly lost
   along with my ignorance, the framework of
   the physics of what keeps us from falling.

The poem is not only about the physics of the suspension bridge but also about the art of writing verse. In effect, it reinterprets the dictum of Alexander Pope: "Those move easiest who have learned to dance."

The topics Greenlaw chooses for her poems are unusual. For example, in "The Man Whose Smile Made Medical History" the man in question was the subject of an experiment in the pioneer stages of plastic surgery who succumbed to viral pneumonia because of medical ignorance concerning antibiotics. Reviewers have commented on the scientific basis of Greenlaw's poetry, and indeed she was for a time the resident poet at the Science Museum in South Kensington. What she shows is that science is part of life, not some entity removed from it. Her poetry, so far from being cerebral, is touchingly human.

Greenlaw's A World Where News Travelled Slowly builds on the distinction of the earlier Night Photograph. The later collection is more colorful, more metaphorical, and more fanciful, with a greater extent of play upon words and perhaps a more self-conscious dedication to style. It includes a poem called "Reading Akhmatova in Midwinter" that re-creates encountering the work of the legendary Soviet poet by the Delaware River, a setting thousands of miles away from her habitat. The verse displays a kind of metaphysical yoking together of heterogeneous images:

   The revelations of ice, exactly:
   each leaf carries itself in glass,
   each stem is a fuse in a transparent flex,
   each blade, for once, truly metallic.
   Trees on the hill explode like fireworks
   for the minute the sun hits.

There is not only linguistic invention here but also originality of vision. An astonishing sense of identity links the tragic Russian poet, waiting in the Leningrad winter of 1935 outside the prison where her son was being held, and the young Englishwoman musing some sixty years later in a landscape equally alien. It is, in effect, a dramatic monologue and one of singular skill and scope.

Not every piece in A World Where News Travelled Slowly is so directly narrated. Some of the writing, especially when it approaches what would normally be thought of as human emotion, can be tantalizingly elliptical. Elizabeth Lowry, Greenlaw's best reviewer, wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that there is "a heightened sense of perception restrained by a pared syntax, the suggestion of powerful forces at play." The suggestion can be found in a sequence of what are almost love poems, from "Landscape" to "The Shape of Things": "Somebody has left a shadow on the carpet / as if, blinded by champagne and erotic waltzes, / they had made a grand unsteady staircase exit …"

—Philip Hobsbaum