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“The world is round”: mystification and the poetry of Lavinia Greenlaw



Night Photograph (1993), le premier recueil de poèmes de Lavinia Greenlaw, se présente comme un prisme qui réfracterait les lois scientifiques dans l’espoir de révéler une vérité, une réalité, ou peut-être même la face cachée de la lune. Ce que l’artiste met en scène, donc, oscille entre le connu et la superstition, entre l’abstraction de la science et la tangibilité de l’art.

Traditionnellement, la voix de la science est masculine. Même si Lavinia Greenlaw ne se considère pas engagée dans une démarche féministe, ses poèmes, consciemment ou non, offrent une perspective particulière de  la question du genre. En effet, six ans avant que Carol Ann Duffy ne publie son recueil The World’s Wife (1999), le poème ‘Galileo’s Wife’ de Lavinia Greenlaw explorait déjà le besoin de réinvestir l’Histoire des hommes avec les histoires des femmes.

La préoccupation centrale de l’œuvre de Greenlaw est le besoin qu’ont les êtres humains de cartographier le monde et d’en dégager du sens. Pour satisfaire ce besoin de repérage dans l’espace, Galilée, cet homme de l’abstraction, envoie sa femme découvrir l’extrémité  de la Terre. De retour, remplie de la beauté de ses expériences, la femme de Galilée annonce à son mari que le monde est rond. Cependant  Galilée n’accepte pas la découverte de son épouse et continue à enseigner la vérité reçue masculine. Ainsi s’opposent la force démystifiante de l’art et la force mystifiante de la science. Les poèmes de Lavinia Greenlaw tentent de résoudre le conflit qui oppose ces deux notions et poussent la pensée empirique dans ses retranchements. Cet article considérera comment l’exactitude de la science peut s’incarner comme le miracle de l’art.

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1The epigraph to Lavinia Greenlaw’s first collection Night Photograph (1993) reads:

Always remember the moon is a sunlit object.
Expose accordingly.
(Greenlaw 1993, ix)

2The pun on ‘expose’ promises a sequence of poems that offer themselves as a prism for the laws of science in the hope of revealing a truth, a reality and perhaps even the dark side of the moon. The stage is set for a performance that will waver between the known and the superstitious, between the abstraction of science and the tangibility of art.

3In 1994 Greenlaw was chosen as a New Generation poet and characteristic of many of the writers selected for the New Generation Poetry promotion was their publication of themed collections. Night Photograph is, in this particular case, held together by a narrative on the theme of science. These themed collections allow the New Generation poets to raise contemporary issues, and amongst these issues are those related to gender.

4The purpose of this article is to consider the relationship between the narrative of science and the representation of gender in Greenlaw’s poetry. I shall begin by situating Greenlaw’s poems within New Generation Poetry, the media label that first brought her to prominence, then consider her treatment of science and, finally, discuss the position she adopts on issues of sexual identity. To put Greenlaw’s position in perspective, I shall compare her poetry to that of Carol Ann Duffy, a fellow New Generation poet who has overtly addressed the feminist agenda. In order to do this I shall pay particular attention to Greenlaw’s poem ‘Galileo’s Wife’.

Greenlaw and New Generation Poetry

5In 1994 the Poetry Review published a special edition bringing together twenty poets chosen as representative of a new trend to be known as New Generation Poetry. The idea of grouping together poets under this new label was born out of a conversation between three editors during the national Poetry Competition in January 1993: Bill Swanson at Harvill, Christopher Reid at Faber and Robin Robberston who was about to leave Cape for Secker. The drive behind the idea was to promote a new generation of British writers and to give an injection of commercial nous into the world of poetry. To help chose the twenty New Generation poets Melvyn Bragg, journalist and presenter of the South Bank Show on London Weekend Television and at the time of Start the Week on B.B.C. Radio 4, presided over a jury comprised of writer and editor Margaret Busby, the poets Vicki Feather and Michael Longley, the Hull University professor and editor of poetry magazine Bête Noire John Osborne and The Guardian’s literary critic James Wood. The final list of poets included such inescapable names as Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy. Out of the twenty poets selected eight were women, including Lavinia Greenlaw.

6Looking back it may be difficult to see the promotion of New Generation Poetry as anything more than a commercial venture. If there was a centripetal force—or perhaps, paradoxically, a centrifugal force—bringing these twenty individuals together, however, it is to be found in Peter Forbes’s introductory remarks to the Poetry Review special edition celebrating this new poetry:

In England especially, the ‘80s was a time of social atomization – after all it was official government policy. The centre could not hold in anything. Private worlds, subcults, proliferated. (Forbes 1994, 4)

7This socio-cultural phenomenon was symptomatic of an all-encompassing postmodernism. Beyond the individualism of the New Generation poets they were all representative of an actualisation of the forms and styles of British poetry. On this increased interest in poetry in Britain The Guardian published a piece by Jenny Turner in which she characterised the poetic styles brought together in the 1993 Bloodaxe anthology The New Poetry as:

Post-Modernism (“Take assorted cultural bric-à-brac, preferably from very remote times and places, assume dandyish posture, free associate like mad”), Europoetry (“Live on the Continent, immerse in Proust, Rilke, Kundera and the recent history of Europe”), Synthetic Scots (“Buy a large Scots/Postmodern dictionary, practise making unlikely connections between post-structuralist discourse and a pre-electrical lexicon”) and South Yorks (“tell yourself everyday that Huddersfield is the poetry capital of England”). (1994, 6)

8Beyond the overt references to Michael Hofmann and Jamie McKendrick (the Europoets), W.N. Herbert (the Synthetic Scot) and Simon Armitage (born in Marsden, seven miles west of Huddersfield), each of these categories listed by Jenny Turner belongs to the postmodern era. A characteristic feature of the postmodern is that one can appropriate all manifestations of culture, whatever they may be, and make them one’s own, and so whether it be in the work of Duffy, Armitage or Greenlaw, vast expanses of historical and cultural references fight for space, come together and interweave. Without being avant-garde, the post-industrial age and the advent of the internet with its collapsing of space and time has allowed these poetic voices to fuse and encode the diversity of cultural references at their fingertips. Beyond this, however, what these poets have been able to do is place themselves within the established literary centre whilst appropriating the performances of postmodernity.

  • 1  The poets most commonly associated with the 1960s Liverpool Scene and the label ‘Liverpool Poets’ (...)

9Lavinia Greenlaw is not a performance poet in the tradition of the Liverpool Poets1 or Linton Kwesi Johnson but her first collection Night Photograph reflects how she has assimilated the inheritance of such poetry with the aim of writing a more accessible poetry for a reading audience of consumers. Indeed, this is true of most of her fellow New Generation poets. A number of the slim volumes chosen for the New Generation Poetry promotion were themed collections, integrated collections or collections with heavily themed sequences of poems. The poems that make up Greenlaw’s Night Photograph explore the world of science “or at least narratives of the lives of people touched by Science” (Forbes ed., 2001, 39). They follow a particular formula of representation and performance that allows for greater accessibility—one could perhaps talk of a type of conditioning or perhaps even packaging.

The Poet as Reith Lecturer

10It comes as little surprise then that in 1995 Greenlaw spent the year as writer in residence at the Science Museum in London. In fact, in detailing the themes the poems engage with, the collection’s back cover immediately announces the nature of the performance inside:

Galileo’s wife, a young woman dying of radium poisoning, the first dog in space… an early beneficiary of plastic surgery… The poet’s level gaze as she contemplates the more bizarre aspects of science… (Greenlaw 1993, back cover)

11Writing in his book New Relations (1998), the poet and critic David Kennedy remembers how, whilst co-editing The New Poetry (1993), he was “struck by how much a poet’s distinctive voice seemed indivisible from some kind of engagement with either scientific subjects or vocabularies” (Kennedy 1998, 153). Perhaps the most characteristic voice representative of this trend is that of Lavinia Greenlaw. The Romantic poets already bore witness in their work to a preoccupation with the antagonistic and ambivalent relationship between science and poetry; John Osborne also notes that “the subject of contemporary physics, especially the work of Einstein, features prominently in the Modernist canon” (Osbourne 1989, 131); Kennedy himself remarks how the poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid is infused with references to mathematics, physics and quantum physics and recollects how T.S. Eliot compared James Joyce to Albert Einstein (Kennedy 1998, 158).

12Nonetheless, the debate between science and art has lost much of its impact on the general public—if, for such writers as the Liverpool Poets, the threat of the atom bomb had been a very powerful symbol of the abuse of science, the menace of global nuclear warfare is now far from our daily preoccupations. Even if there are media-driven fears surrounding genetically modified crops and stem cell research, it is rather the wonders of science that excite the imagination and curiosity of the general public, and there is no doubt that the media has developed and exploited this sense of curiosity. Named in honour of John Reith, the first director-general of the BBC, the Reith Lectures are a series of annual radio presentations given in a particular area of research by leading figures of the day. Since their inauguration in 1948 by Bertrand Russell, the matters discussed have ranged from philosophy to the arts to economics. Of all the Reith Lectures so far given, more than a fifth of the talks have concerned scientific matters. From the physicist and father of the atom bomb J. Robert Oppenheimer to the geneticist Steve Jones, each series of lectures explains to a live audience, mainly made up of adolescents, a research paradigm illustrated with amusing anecdotes and simple demonstrations. In Lavinia Greenlaw’s first collection we find narrators borrowing such scientific paradigms to construct a performance through which the poems oscillate between what is known and what is uncertain.

13As we have already noted, the epigraph to Night Photograph (1993) reveals the tone of the scientist speaking to the general public:

Always remember the moon is a sunlight object.
Expose accordingly.
(Greenlaw 1993, ix)

14The mode of communication here is one of punning, parody and pastiche. If we refer back to the title of the collection of poems we notice that the epigraph is a reference to the technique of night photography. We also notice that hidden behind this instruction lies a scientific exchange that moves between photographic exposure and the reflection and refraction of light. The stage is set for a performance that will vacillate between the known and the superstitious, between the abstraction of science and the tangibility of art.

15In her poem ‘Yosemite’, the poet’s exposé suggests a wavering between the known and the unknown, a shift between a lack of understanding and the resolution of the question facing the reader:

He could make no sense
of the lunatic peaks
thrown together
in a conflict of geology

and closed his eyes
until it was evening
and shadows unfolded
a transient symmetry

that gave him comfort.
(Greenlaw 1993, 5-13, 16)

16The critic and cultural commentator Edna Longley writes that “[Greenlaw’s] concerns for science and communication affect a world in flux, at once vulnerable to collapse but wondrous in its resistance” (Longley 2000, 274). The poetry of Greenlaw places itself between the world’s end and its subsistence. This perpetual flux between a world bent on its destruction and a planet extraordinary in its resistance—or resilience—is considered in the poem ‘Linear, Parallel, Constant’. Here the poet is caught within this flux, a flux where science and the natural world are captured in the symbiosis of the work of art, in a kaleidoscope where symmetry is to be found in the certainty of the missiles, and the transitory beauty lies in the precision of the weapons:

Driving down to Jericho
my car was overtaken
by a trio of missiles.
This was a precise migration –
linear, parallel, constant.
An exact miracle
on a straight road
over flat land
under clear sky.
Such mathematical beauty
filled me with the same
superstition and certainty
that send a rocket
to meet the heavens
carrying the name of a Roman god.
(Greenlaw 1993, 28)

17What seems to underlie the imagery, however, is not particularly reassuring. The beauty of science conceals the threat of its deification; the cult of science is infused with the perils of superstition. The scientific knowledge Lavinia Greenlaw exploits in her poems is not of the highest order, but her aim is to borrow images used for the popularisation of science in order to construct a performance recognisable by the general public. The ambivalence of the voice of these poems, a voice located between superstition and certainty, attempts to express the discomfort one might feel when witnessing the performance of science as spectacle.

18The title of the poem ‘Science for Poets’, immediately conjures up the encounter between these two apparently oxymoronic branches of learning. The world of the laboratory that offers man an infinity of discoveries may be seen as wonderfully exciting but is perceived by the poet as a stilted formal milieu, offering only the environment of the functionary:

[…] Sure, there are

bottles on shelves
and enough radioactive-warning stickers to keep me
standing very still, but the air

is civil service
and the furniture, an indigestible brown.
(Greenlaw 1993, 6-11, 48)

19This particular science, the science that wants to crush all doubt and uncertainty cannot nourish the imagination:

I want a scalpel, a bull’s eye,
its slit cornea and slippery lens, the grubby innards
of an earthworm pinned out on a board;

to catch sight of physics
in the force of a stiletto heel on a dance hall’s
wooden floor; to discuss the uses

of labelled jars –
acetone for the removal of nail polish,
sulphuric acid for the serial killer.
(Greenlaw 1993, 19-27, 48-49)

20The staging of science and its resulting performance is Greenlaw’s poetic formula. The performance, however, is not as skilful as the techniques of poetic staging employed by such other women poets as Carol Ann Duffy or Susan Wicks. Greenlaw’s knowledge of the scientific subjects she chooses to place on the stage appears at times limited or, rather, the manipulation of this knowledge remains hackneyed. The clichés employed seem rarely redeemed by a willingness to engage with the problematic issue of the relationship between science and art. It is, however, possible that Greenlaw’s aim is to demonstrate that the conflict that may exist between the two will never be resolved. If this is the case the absence of an innovative poetic does not allow Greenlaw to achieve her aim. The staging is rudimentary and the actors remain flat. The poems are indeed accessible but do not provide enough room for her actors to perform, they do not offer enough space for true interpretation. For the staging of the poem to succeed, the reader may expect the subject to evolve, the theme to develop, the plot to thicken; Greenlaw, however, appears to fall into the trap of what she ‘sees’ as science and contents herself with applying a formula.

Reaffirming identity poles

21The discourse that directs the performance of the science in these poems is one that stages immediately recognisable actors of science, thus allowing for greater accessibility. Needless to say, these actors of science have a male voice. Commenting on the poem ‘Linear, Parallel, Constant’, David Kennedy goes as far as suggesting that it offers the surprising spectacle of a present day woman in awe of man the god or, rather, God the man of science:

The passage is an uncomfortable one and not least for its entirely appropriate derivation of space exploration and military hardware from the same technology. First, we have the surprising spectacle of a contemporary woman poet apparently celebrating and certainly acquiescing to embodiments of phallic power. (Kennedy 1998, 179)

22If the discourse of science is masculine in voice, however, Greenlaw gives power to the women that people her poems. We may speak of ‘men of science’ but the sphere of art, the sphere of the imaginary, is given over to a female voice and this is where the natural truth is to be found. I shall argue that, despite Kennedy’s comment, the scientific themes are a way for Greenlaw to explore gender issues.

23One of the primary objectives of the feminist critique was to fight for gender equality or, more to the point, justice between the sexes. Indeed, the shift towards the notion of justice is important because justice is seen as being inclusive, it allows for difference, whereas equality is integrationist (Flax 1992). The problems tied to the definition of gender have thus gained in importance within the feminist discourse, and this view has found its clearest expression in the work of Judith Butler. For Butler, gender is the result of a dialectic between choice and culture, and the notion of ‘choice’ in the context of gender is a process based on the interpretation of the body within a network of immovable cultural norms. The body, then, is a cultural locus of sexual identity, a territory of conflict, a postmodern space where it is impossible to distinguish between that which is free from cultural markers and that which is not. To exist within society, however, one needs to be unambiguously gendered and this quasi-obligation is so deeply rooted within the social, that a person performing his or her gender ‘incorrectly’ is perceived as being abnormal or perverse. For Butler this leads to the displacement of gender, and one could see hypermasculinity as a symptom of this because ambiguous gender can only serve to question belonging or even the very existence of the social subject: “If human existence is always gendered existence, then to stray outside of established gender is in some sense to put one’s very existence into question” (Butler 1996, 149).

24In the introduction to their anthology The New Poetry (Hulse et al. 1993), the editors focus on Carol Ann Duffy for the way her popular dramatic monologues give new impetus to the political role of language within poetry by reinvesting the public/poetic sphere with a feminist voice:

Duffy has been exemplary in re-energising a feminist, public voice in poetry. Her habitual use of the dramatic monologue gives her poetry attack and access, and enables her to popularise complex ideas about language and its political role and meanings. (Husle 1993, 17)

25Duffy herself claims that if she is a feminist, it is not as a provider of solutions but simply as someone bearing witness to the human condition and the world around:

I don’t want to write the kind of poetry that tells the reader that I as a feminist think that this guy should have his prick cut off because he was the Yorkshire Ripper. What I want to do is present it as it is. (Duffy 1988, 72)

26Greenlaw could be seen as a precursor of the concerns Duffy expresses through her dramatic ‘historical’ monologues, through the “reconfigured episodes from history and mythology from the spouse’s perspective” (Brookes 14) of The World’s Wife. Six years before Greenlaw had published her collection Night Photograph. In this volume, the poem ‘Galileo’s Wife’ already addresses the need to reinvest ‘masculine history’ with the stories of women, albeit from a different premise as she herself stresses:

I don’t think that women writers are treated with equal respect and given equal expectations yet, but I myself never write from a perspective of gender. I don’t consider myself as a “woman writer.” And while I recognize that, if the work that women writers did twenty years ago in order to get their voices heard hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be able to write as I’m writing now or be published as I’m published now, I do not feel confined by a woman’s agenda. (Greenlaw 1995b, 103)

27In Duffy, on the contrary, the mediation or the performance of the experience constitutes a central preoccupation, as pointed out by poet and critic Ian Gregson (Gregson 1996). In the poem ‘Words, Wide Night’, the poet-narrator—one cannot be sure that the voice of the speaker is that of a woman—tries to explain the love that he or she is feeling. This feeling, that gives both pleasure and pain, is given voice through a song that the Other cannot hear. The reality of this emotion is impossible to communicate because it is constructed through language and because, therefore, the emotion only exists through performance, “For I am in love with you and this // is what it is like or what it is like in words” (Duffy 1994, 9-10, 86). “[W]hat it is like in words”…: the notion that it is language that constructs the reality of our world allows Duffy to explore and deconstruct the multitude of identities and masks that one appropriates each time one engages with the act of writing. Often in an attempt to hold at a distance any typically masculine attempt to label the voice of her poems, Duffy plays on an ambiguous definition of identity: “They are trying to label me, // translate me into the right word” (‘Dies Natalis’, Duffy 1994, 80-81, 34). According to David Kennedy, if Duffy’s preferred poetic form is the dramatic monologue it is because it allows the poet to explore the breach between what is said and the person speaking, to explore “the gap between ‘what it is like’ and ‘what it is like in words’ by playing with the split between her speakers and what they speak, or, more often, what is ‘spoken’ through them” (Kennedy 1996, 227).

28What is spoken, in these persona poems, is often presented as a history or the history of the absence of women from the discourse on men who have ‘made’ history. The title of Duffy’s collection The World’s Wife (1999), immediately identifies the place given to women by a historicising masculine discourse and proclaims its rectification. The title of each poem conjures up the spouse or female equivalent of the historical characters that embody the essence of masculinity, from ‘Queen Herod’ to ‘The Kray Sisters’. These are strong virile women and by appropriating the masculine discourse this sequence of poems wants to reaffirm the ambiguity of gender—here to be understood as a cultural construct—and to suggest that any definition of gender can only be elusive. In the poem ‘Salome’ it is the morning after the beheading that is staged, a beheading that has become analogous with sexual intercourse:

I’d done it before
(and doubtless I’ll do it again,
sooner or later)
woke up with a head on the pillow beside me – whose? –
what did it matter?
(Duffy 1999, 1-5, 56)

29From the very start of the poem the narrator, Salome, is given a masculine voice, with the poem integrating clichés borrowed from the vocabulary of men who are only interested in one night stands. The narrator cannot even remember the first name of last night’s lover—“What was his name? Peter? // Simon? Andrew? John?” (Duffy 1999, 14-15, 56)—and besides “it was time to turn out the blighter” (29, 57). The appropriation of a masculine discourse, the mask that Duffy gives Salome, even goes as far as to imitate the tone of a man believing himself to be hypermasculine:

Never again!
I need to clean up my act,
get fitter, cut out the booze and the fags and the sex.
(Duffy 1999, 24-27, 57)

30Duffy constructs this reversal of situation to demonstrate that both subordinating gender to the Other and subordinating the physical to the abstract are abusive, even abnormal and perverse. Through this subversive presentation of the situation, however, the voice never judges Salome’s attitude. The reversal of the situation reveals not the artificiality of the usurpation of the masculine discourse but the artificiality of the discourse itself.

31In contrast, though Greenlaw finds herself associated to Duffy in New Generation Poetry, and although her poems are collected in anthologies dedicated to women poets, Greenlaw denies that her work is part of a feminist logic. She makes this clear when talking in particular about her poem ‘Galileo’s Wife’:

I never think about or approach my work consciously from the perspective of gender…In “Galileo’s Wife” I’m particularly interested in the human compulsion to map and make sense and what we accept as proof of, in this case, the fact that the world is round. (Greenlaw 1995a, 79)

32The very title of the poem, nevertheless, cannot but remind us of Carol Ann Duffy’s desire to inject the stories of women into the history of man. But contrary to the ambivalence we find in the poems of Carol Ann Duffy, this particular poem stages the performance of an explicit categorical duality—man feels the necessity of the abstract and the objective whereas woman is tied to the palpable, to both physical and lived reality, leaving Galileo’s wife to tell us, “I like to keep my feet on the ground” (Greenlaw 1993, 30, 30). The Galileo of the poem is obsessed by the ontological need to order, ordinate and coordinate the world. On the other hand his wife, the narrator of the poem, knows that no matter how strong her husband’s desire he will never know and understand the depths of his own wife, let alone of women in general:

He knows why stone falls and smoke rises,
why the sand on the shore in the morning
is gone in the afternoon.

He gobbles larks’ tongues from Tuscany
and honey from Crete. If only he could
measure me and find my secrets.
(Greenlaw 1993, 4-9, 29)

33The “he” of line 8, “if only he could”, is ambiguous—is this Galileo recognising his own limits as a scientist, perhaps even the limits of science itself, or is this the wife criticising her husband’s gaze, a gaze incessantly turned towards the abstract and the need to define the abstract? The lines that follow leave us in no doubt—even when Galileo’s children tragically find their death, he remains within his world of abstraction:

Our children were trapped in a tower.
He watched them fall, a feather, a stone,

and land together. He dictates notes
and ordered their bodies weighed before burial.
(Greenlaw 1993, 20-23, 29)

34Galileo turns the death of his children into a physics experiment on gravity. The mother, however, grieves for her loss, mourns the absent presence, “I sleep among their clothes” (Greenlaw 1993, 24, 29).

35In another episode of the poem, Galileo sends his wife to find the physical ends of the Earth. Contrary to what the masculine discourse of history teaches us, however, the experiment thus carried out is not to help us understand the mysteries of the world but to confirm and consolidate the received notion of the time that the Earth is flat! From that moment on Galileo will be able to finish tracing the topography of the Earth, allowing him to locate himself and to feel more secure in himself and safe in the concrete knowledge of the unchanging static world around him: “He says I am to locate the edge of the world. / Galileo must complete the map” (Greenlaw 1993, 26-27, 30). The urgency of disambiguation is here underlined by the use of the modal “must”. The historical absurdity that casts Galileo as a partisan of the theories that he spent the better part of his life refuting is disconcerting. Are we meant to conclude that the poem is looking towards Galileo’s retraction of the Copernican system in 1633? Such a metaphoric reading of the poem does not seem to be justifiable. During her trip around the world, Galileo’s wife experiences at first hand the physical realities of planet Earth, the deserts, the glaciers, the mountains and the oceans. This is a world beyond the laboratories, the lecture halls and the amphitheatres, beyond even the inquisitors in Rome. But when she returns home to her husband and reveals to him the truth that the world is indeed round, Galileo’s reaction is violent. The unambiguous male, the hypermasculine male, must react as the cliché requires, and so Galileo, a man who has been contradicted by his wife, raises his hand to his spouse: “I draw a circle / and he closes my eye with a single blow” (Greenlaw 1993, 53-54, 31). Regardless then of his wife’s discovery, Galileo continues to teach that the Earth is flat:

Every night he is at the university
proving the existence of the edge of the world.
His students sleep and applaud.
(Greenlaw 1993, 58-60, 31)

36Of course, Galileo’s students are all men and they thus feel reassured by the safe claims of their professor—they feel comforted enough to fall asleep, this is, after all, something of which they were certain. This is also why they give Galileo an ovation, not because he has demonstrated a scientific breakthrough but because they can now rejoice in the solidity of their own belief system.

37It seems clear that the need for location expressed by Galileo in the poem is the masculine need to feel unambiguously located. The masculine and feminine are thus constructed here along the traditional lines of polar opposites. Furthermore, the masculine preoccupation with the abstract is put forward as a quest to define oneself, to seize and position oneself. Man, more particularly men, cannot live within the mysterious or the unthinkable; they cannot live within an ambiguous environment, in an elusive world. When Greenlaw talks about this poem in terms of ‘the universal need to map the world and situate oneself’, she may well have in mind Butler’s notion of the displacement of gender.

38The artifice of this poem, however, does not outplay the cliché of the thought that underlies it. The woman is playing the man’s game—these experiences belong to Galileo’s wife, the reason being that the woman here, and women in general, are not rooted within the abstract. The duality of genders, therefore, remains unresolved.

39A duality that can know no resolution, between the female Self and male Other, is again explored in the poem ‘Years Later’. The scientific phenomenon of attraction—by which one heavenly body is subjected to the gravitational pull of another, where one such body is in orbit around another without ever separating from it or meeting it—is used by Greenlaw as an analogy to describe a relationship between two young adolescents that is never consummated:

He explains how you get pairs of stars
that pull each other into orbit,
forever unable to touch or part.
(Greenlaw 1993, 5-7, 5)

40The male voice doing the explaining here is that of the poet-narrator’s brother. He reminds his sister of the boyfriend she once had as a child, a young love too shy to touch her but always tied to her in memory, inextricably linked to her past:

you would take off my clothes,
run a finger as light as a scalpel
across my stomach, then do nothing.
(Greenlaw 1993, 11-13, 5)

41Beyond the cliché, it is difficult to see to what purpose the analogy of the planets serves. Is it simply to make the reader understand that there are people who are attracted to each other but who will never be able to know each other intimately? Could the imagery here serve to tell the reader that the duality which exists between genders is a fixed and determined one, for all eternity? At the end of the poem a voice declares, “And I like / the idea of those stars” (Greenlaw 1993, 15-16, 5), but who here is speaking? Is it the narrator or is it perhaps Greenlaw the poet herself, holding firmly onto the analogy and firmly refusing any metaphoric interpretation of the image? By purposefully choosing and cultivating a simile whereby the subject and the analogue remain linear, parallel and constant, as the title of her poem ‘Linear, Parallel, Constant’ suggests, Greenlaw remains within the language of polar opposites. In Greenlaw’s poetry the narrative of science mystifies rather than it demystifies masculinity and femininity.


  • 2  In The Mad Woman in the Attic (2000), Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar insist on the necessity for t (...)

42Greenlaw, like most of the women poets chosen for the New Generation promotion, is conscious of the fact that she is a conquest of feminism. Even if she does not perceive her work as consciously having a gendered perspective, her ‘scientific’ poems necessarily confront the gendered discourse of history which in turn sometimes finds its way into the expression of sexual identity. In their highly influential book The Mad Woman in the Attic (2000), Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar remind us that the woman writer must face up to the mythical masks that men make women wear so that they can define and possess them2. The majority of the women poets chosen to represent the New Generation use poetry to tackle these masks and manipulate them ambivalently in order to reaffirm the ambiguous nature of all gendered construction, notably that of the feminine identity as constructed by the male gaze. On the other hand, as we have seen, Greenlaw seems almost to shy away voluntarily from such an engagement. Rather than articulate a poetic voice that is continuously shifting in the margins and that places itself above and below the dominant masculine discourse, Greenlaw almost forces her female actors back centre stage—a stage designed by the male voice of history where women are still strangers waiting to be ‘measured’ by science.

43If the postmodern discourse on gender allows us all to position ourselves along a range of sexual identities from the masculine to the feminine then it also allows Greenlaw to position herself with regard to the polar extremes. One may argue that this is a post-feminist stance that aims, legitimately, at destabilising received discourse. Ultimately it is the performance of the Other that is being examined here and it is the gaze of the Other that perceives and interprets this performance. The Other, however, is double, both intrusive and complimentary to the Self. The Other is also the hidden side of the torn Self and this is perhaps where Greenlaw’s poetry situates itself. Greenlaw reminds us that the moon is a sunlit object, two spheres at polar opposites meeting from our earthbound viewpoint.

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Brooks, Xan, 2006. ‘With a lot of artists, the mystique is to baffle their readership. She never does. Her aim is to communicate.’ The Guardian. National News Section. Friday January 20 2006: 14.

Burnett, Craig, 2003. ‘Sound and Vision: an interview with Lavinia Greenlaw.’ Frieze. 79. November/December 2003.

Butler, Judith, 1996. ‘Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig and Foucault’. Modern Literary Theory. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh, eds. London: Arnold.

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1  The poets most commonly associated with the 1960s Liverpool Scene and the label ‘Liverpool Poets’ are Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten. They were themselves influenced by 1950s Beat poetry.

2  In The Mad Woman in the Attic (2000), Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar insist on the necessity for the woman writer to transcend the those polar images of the angel and the monster that the men writers have created:
Before the woman writer can journey through the looking glass toward literary autonomy… she must come to terms with the images on the surface of the glass, with, that is, those mythic masks male artists have fastened over her human face both to lessen their dread of her “inconstancy” and by identifying her with the “eternal types” they have themselves invented to possess her more thoroughly. (Gilbert 1998, 596)

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Electronic reference

Raphael COSTAMBEYS-KEMPCZYNSI, ““The world is round”: mystification and the poetry of Lavinia Greenlaw”E-rea [Online], 6.1 | 2008, Online since 15 October 2008, connection on 25 July 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author


Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris 3

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