Lavinia Greenlaw’s most recent poetry collection, The Built Moment is split into two sections, the first of which explores her father’s journey with dementia. The poems included are, in my opinion, some of the finest and most memorable writing about dementia I’ve come across whilst reading extensively on the subject. I’ve repeatedly found that poetry, with its use of white space, metaphor and resonant language provides a good vehicle through which to express some of the more difficult to quantify aspects of dementia. Greenlaw’s writing blew me away.
There’s a warmth to these poems which reveals the relationship between the poet and her father and this often translates into a kind of desperation where the poet admits her own inability to help or arrest the progress of the illness, “I tell him I am saving him as quickly as I can.” There are even moments of genuine humour. I particularly enjoyed “The Finishing Line” where the poet’s brother, sitting at his father’s bedside, shares an anecdote about running a race dressed as a gorilla. It reminded me of the muddle and mixed emotions of tending to a much-loved family member’s illness where all the feelings sit close to the surface: sorrow, grief, and also joy.
However, the thing I found most moving about The Built Moment was Greenlaw’s ability to pin down in words, the experiential side of dementia both from her own and her father’s perspective. It’s notoriously difficult -I know, I’ve tried- to write about an experience as strange as dementia when it isn’t something you’ve been through yourself in your own mind and body. Greenlaw uses evasive, slippery, meandering phrases and words to effectively convey how it must feel to be present and also becoming absent at the same time. “My father has lost his way out of the present./ Something is stopping him leaving, nothing becomes/ the immediate past.” One poem is called “My father has no shadow” and another, “While he can still speak,” in which he talks to his hands and legs as he gets dressed, suggesting he now sits at some distance from his own self.
It’s the use of language which has had me returning to this collection repeatedly over the last year or so. Greenlaw more than most writers I’ve come across is using words to say the unsayable. She does so with a masterful lightness of touch.
The Built Moment was published by Faber & Faber in 2019