Flow, Fissure, Mesh

Home » Posts tagged 'Lavinia Greenlaw'

Tag Archives: Lavinia Greenlaw

Ellen Foley, No Stupid Girl

In her disco-punk memoir The Importance of Music to Girls, Lavinia Greenlawfrequently dwells on a disconnect, an existential fracture that shapes and even constitutes her self-image; the book maps out her negotiations – some deliberate, some instinctive – among a conflicted mix of adolescent identities, of identifications, that seem to circulate around what it means to be a girl, to be called a girl, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I’m not being tentative when I say seem to: the work of seeming, as both pretending and appearing, is at the crux of her methodical self-fashioning. The book consistently returns to a vocabulary of wanting, of want. Greenlaw depicts herself as a teenaged wannabe, trading costumes, styles and surfaces: always trying, always coming up a bit short. For instance, she articulates her admiration for “Tina,” role-model for nascent disco queens, by collating a wilting deference to peer-pressure with an ersatz Amazonian fierceness:

I was becoming a girl as instructed by girls but I knew I wasn’t a real girl, at least not of this kind. I wanted to be a disco girl like Tina whose every aspect conformed to some golden section of girldom: her height relative to her shape, her prettiness relative to her smartness, her niceness relative to her toughness. Tina offered certainties. She issued instructions on how to dance, who to like and what to wear. . . . Each morning, her face would be retuned – the brightness turned down, the colour turned up – and she would stride into school, her hips and breasts armoured, her hair a winged blonde helmet. I wanted this shell, which she used to attract or deflect at will. To me she was wise and ruthless, a goddess of war.
Those certainties soon become illusory, their surfaces shivered. Greenlaw’s leave-taking from disco (to take up another set of surfaces, another glamour, in punk) involves an accidental collision – a moment of casual violence – with her friend on the dance floor; as she waits for help with her cut face, she catches a glimpse of herself in a washroom mirror: “the face I saw was mine but this was not a reflection. It was too far away, more like some inner self that had slipped free and looked back at me now with my own fundamental sadness.” Mimesis is belied by its own bad promises. What’s fundamental for her, as a girl, what’s essential to who she wants to be, can never be more than pathos in lack: a likeness – “more like some inner self” – that sadly never can or will make herself whole.
         Lavinia Greenlaw’s about my age. My own leap wasn’t from disco but from some sort of sci-fi soft rock – I liked Styx a lot – to punk and after, but the dynamics were roughly the same as hers. Except, of course, for the girl part. I was enabled by the same dynamic as Greenlaw, and I understand her preoccupation with want and fracture, with that fundamental sadness, but I came at it as more of an insider, as a boy. I didn’t seem to need my own version of that armour, and I could choose to identify more directly, though still at some remove, with Joe Strummer or (like Greenlaw) Ian Curtis or with any other self-styled punk frontman.  I perceived the homoeroticism in Pete Townshend’s 1980 song “Rough Boys” as emblematic of a transgressive effeminacy in punk ‘s – particularly the Sex Pistols’ – preoccupation with image, although I am not sure how far I was ever able to follow through on its gender trouble.
Still, I was reminded of this version of the girl problem with the release in November of About Time, Ellen Foley’s first album in about thirty years. (I haven’t listened to the record well enough yet, but it sounds to me so far like the power, the tough richness of her voice has remained undiminished, and I’m so glad to be able to hear her belt out some raw, driving rock and roll again.) Ellen Foley’s return to recording recalls how important her first two albums were to teenaged me – Nightout (1979) and Spirit of St Louis (1981) – as well as her vocal presence on Sandanista! by The Clash (who are essentially her backing band on the second record, which was made while she was dating Mick Jones, billed in the liners as “my boyfriend”). She was the girl, as far as I could see and hear then. Her sound, her image and her sensibility yoked together a seemingly fey prettiness – what Greenlaw says she wanted simultaneously to embrace and to throw off – and a powerfully resilient, gutsy resistance to bullshit effeminacy. Despite appearances, she was nobody’s girl, nobody’s fool.
         There is plenty to say about what Ellen Foley’s music comes to embody, but I want to concentrate on her take on the iconography of the girl. She first made her presence known in pop music as the female interlocutrix on Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” and she recorded duets with Ian Hunter (who had produced, and performed on, her debut album, Nightout) and others that extend her role as respondent, as the girl you serenaded but who could out-sing and even out-swagger you back. She performed a version of “We Gotta Get Out of Here” with Hunter on “Fridays,” ABC’s short-lived answer to Saturday Night Live, on May 5, 1980, a performance that suggests much about how Ellen Foley takes on a male-dominated stage.

She comes in half-way through the song – you can catch glimpses of her, back to the audience, waiting to pounce. Most importantly, for me, is her refusal to be subdued, even by Hunter’s obvious recalcitrance. (And it’s important to note that these are rock-and-roll theatrics: Ellen Foley has stressed in a number of interviews how grateful she was to Hunter and to Mick Ronson, and how happy she was with their musical relationship.) At the close of the song, she declares into the mike she’s going to have a dance contest with Hunter, and he turns to face her, but does nothing. Undaunted, she goes ahead and has a dance contest all by herself.
         She seems here in one sense to have donned the blonde armour, the make-up of girlish deference that Greenlaw describes around disco girls, but – strident in her flashy white pantsuit – she also becomes something more in this clip: unshaken, energized, assured. She owns the last minute of that song. This playful, ironic  doubling emerges most tangibly in one of the most memorable covers on Nightout (a song she still performs in concert), the Jagger-Richards penned “Stupid Girl”:
I’m not talking about the kind of clothes she wears 

Look at that stupid girl 

I’m not talking about the way she combs her hair 

Look at that stupid girl
You see the way she powders her nose 

Her vanity shows and it shows 

She’s the worst thing in this whole damn world 
Well, look at that stupid girl
The song first appeared on the Rolling Stones 1966 lp Aftermath, occasioned as both Keith Richards and Mick Jagger have separately admitted by their frustration with female fans and with their failed relationships. Prima facie, as the lyrics make obvious, it’s a misogynist rant. Girls are sick and stupid, Keith and Mick tell us, because they’re so shallow, so vain, because of their obsession with image. (Not at all like Mick and Keith. Not at all.) So why would Ellen Foley choose to sing this particular song? Because the thing is, if you listen to her version, backed by snarling guitars and thumping four-on-the-floor kick drums, you get no sense of anything but absolute commitment, of anything but digging in and digging deep. There is nothing vain, nothing insincere about Ellen Foley’s voice. It sounds completely like she means it.
But what exactly can she mean? Because, despite the venomous lyric, what we hear from her isn’t a woman calling others out, sniping at all the Tinas she can’t ever be. She’s singing the admixture of desire and loathing that the Stones song articulates, sure, but she’s also shoving it back in their faces, in their ears, our ears. I remember hearing this song as an adolescent listener, blasting it out of my stereo, and feeling that mixture of toughness and allure that few singers beyond Ellen Foley, in those transitional years, ever managed to catch. In a lip-synched video of “Stupid Girl” made for the Kenny Everett television show in1980, that catches a little of this pushback in its campy staging around body builders and beauty contestants.
When Ellen Foley sings into the beefcake armpit of some muscleman or into the plasticized coiffure of a pretty second runner up that “She purrs like a pussycat / Then she turns ’round and hisses back,” it’s not at all certain whose image – boy, girl or her own – is being confronted and undone. Rather than self-pity, the fundamental sadness that Greenlaw highlights, Ellen Foley offers her audience a means to uncover another certainty, a centredness that the unshakable timbre her voice enacts.
         Mick Jones wrote “Should I Stay or Should I Go” for Ellen Foley. As a provocation, it seems to offer a bitter critique of indecision, of a girlfriend unable to make up her mind and of a boyfriend in thrall to her waffling. I’m assuming the song comes at the end of their relationship, and the recording by The Clash does appear to offer a sort of vindicating, and maybe even vindictive, catharsis for Jones. The thrashing guitars and double time chorus enact a release, a letting go that the lyrics themselves never allow.

A 2007 audience video of Ellen Foley performing “Should I Stay or Should I Go” suggests that her vocal power remains undiminished, and goes a long way to reclaiming her agency, again by taking hold of the song and singing it back at the boy or boys who authored it. More than that, it points to the subtle ways in which the indecisiveness of the lyric comes not from the object of its attention – an interlocutrix who doesn’t really answer back within the framework of the song – but from its male persona, who stays bugged by his own irresolution, by the unsatisfied involution of his own desire. When he says that if he stays there will be trouble, but if he goes it will be double, he’s pointing – at least when we hear the song with Ellen Foley’s voice in mind, in our mind’s ear – to the essential conflict, the trouble, around heteronormative desire, around gender and identity, that Greenlaw’s memoir confronts, and into which it sometimes spins and stalls – the difficult importance of music to girls.  And for me, that importance, that insistence, sounds something like the intensity, like the depth and like the ruthless beauty of Ellen Foley’s voice.

Sound Tracks: Elizabeth Bishop and Lavinia Greenlaw

This is the text of a colloquium presentation I gave for the Department of English at UBC on 16 March 2012. Please pardon the formality of the MLA style — I decided to put it up on the blog rather than on academia.edu because of its autobiographical content, because of its closely contemporary subject matter, and because it’s still underdeveloped as an academic paper. There are probably also a few formatting glitches; my apologies, I’ll try to correct those. I hope it’s of some interest.
When I try digging through swelling shelfloads of criticism and secular hagiographies that, by her 2011 centenary, have become associated with Elizabeth Bishop, it starts to sound like those of us who read her, and who try to read her “straight through,” have a pressing and symptomatic need each to have our own particular Elizabeth, to craft from her work a genetics of voice to which we can belong, as recombinant latecomers. I want to explore one such attachment today, through the poetry and electroacoustic work of Lavinia Greenlaw – or maybe two such attachments, including my own. It seems to me, though, that it’s important to acknowledge that while many poets have been and continue to be reclaimed, repurposed and tentatively canonized, Bishop forms a particularly crucial case, if for no other reason than her writing practice assiduously troubles and even resists such claims, such figurative colonization, with its deliberately dislocated and dislocating geographies, – or, perhaps better put, with its careful unmooring of what Bishop calls “the family voice / I felt in my throat” (Poems 181).
We’re told Elizabeth Bishop disliked the sound of her own voice. She “read her poems with reluctance in public,” writes J. D. McClatchy in his notes for Random House Audio’s The Voice of the Poetseries, “and she loathed being recorded” (9). She also typically refused permission to tape her readings, although recordings made for Robert Lowell in October 1947 when he was poetry consultant at the Library of Congress (a post for which he would recommend Bishop two years later) provide some source material for this audio compilation, officially issued for the first time only in 2000, after extensive pleas by editors and admirers to Bishop’s reticent estate. Listening to her awkward, plainspoken delivery and to the audible traces of her anxiety, Bishop’s pronounced distaste for her own untrained verbal performances seems justified enough. In a letter to Joseph Summers sent from Halifax, Nova Scotia in August of that same year, Bishop refers disparagingly to “records I made for [Jack] Sweeney” at Harvard in 1946, which she hears as “pretty dreary” (One Art 149). Conversely, she praises Sweeney’s recordings of Lowell, whom she had just met through Randall Jarrell in New York in May 1947: “they aren’t at all professional, but they are extremely good in parts.” Lowell’s own invitation to record her reached her in September, just after her second sojourn in Nova Scotia. Their correspondence had begun in earnest that summer, with Lowell following up on a review by him of her North & South, and, more significantly, responding enthusiastically to the publication in The New Yorker of Bishop’s Nova Scotia poem “At the Fish-Houses [sic],” which had appeared in the August 9 issue: “The description has great splendor,” he writes, “and the human part, tone, etc., is just right” (7). That very human, tonal restraint is clearly also what Lowell hears in Bishop’s voice, and his invitation – which he politely asserts she doesn’t have to accept – is coupled to a plea that she might “oust some of the monstrosities on [his] list” of overblown poets he feels obliged to record (8). The recording session did take place some time on or around October 17, and Lowell enthuses in a letter to Bishop on November 3 about the excellence of a number of her readings:
I’ve at last heard the records and some of them couldn’t be better – “Faustina’s” the best I think, but “Sea-Scape,” “Large B. Picture,” “Fish,” and “Fish-Houses” are wonderful too. “Roosters” is swell in places and not so hot in others. Anyway you’ll get them in a few days and can judge. (11)
Lowell goes on to apologize for some technical shortcomings in the recordings themselves, and laments that “perhaps they won’t do for publication,” which in fact did not happen until the 2000 audiobook. The reasons for his enthusiasm aren’t ever made clear; nevertheless, I don’t think he’s just being polite. There is something poetically remarkable about these awkward, inadvertently suppressed records.
That something might be called their resonance, though I have to be careful to define what I might mean by that term, which seems odd in the context of Bishop, and of these readings. Jo Shapcott describes hearing Bishop read in a “deep rich voice” in the late 1970s at Boston University, but this is surely a combination of mistaken memory and a desire to heighten the posthumous heft of Bishop’s “strange, precise, profound poems” – their poetical depth (113). Profound seems to me precisely the wrong word for what Bishop does. Bishop’s voice, based on the surviving tapes, was never especially deep or rich, but always reticent, diffident and withheld. (Ruff a bit more kindly attributes this shyness to a combination of anxiety and asthma, but I hope it’s clear that it’s not my intention to criticize Bishop for reading poorly or for being somehow shallow: on the contrary, I want to pursue the poetic rightness of what she does achieve.) This hesitancy was a hallmark not simply of her speech, but of her poetics: “I’ve always felt that I’ve written poetry more by not writing it than writing it,” she famously tells Lowell in a letter of 21 January 1949, after she herself had, with characteristic reservation, assumed the poetry consultant post at the Library of Congress two years after him. Voice acts both as a harbinger and as a disavowal of self, of what it is to be and say an “I,” an Elizabeth: to speak oneself into external being. As James Merrill among many other has noted, Bishop’s “I” – especially insofar as it remains implicated in personal history, in memoir – models what feels like a formalized disavowal, a writerly reserve:
I think one saw the possibilities, perhaps through Elizabeth Bishop, where “I” could be used with the greatest self-deprecation, humor, a sort of rueful sense of “Well, yes, I did this, but you know what to expect of me.” (Neubauer 85-86)
Deeply suspicious of both the confessional and the expressive, Bishop does not consistently retreat into the detachment of craft, but tends instead to dwell poetically in the tense uncertainties between bios and graphē, the written and the lived.
The year 1947 is significant for understanding the specific genetics of Bishop’s voice, what Michael Donaghy calls her “accent” (Shapcott   ). The summer and fall of that year would see the second of her return visits to Nova Scotia after the death of her mother, trips that would provide Bishop with raw matter for many of the poems and stories she would write until her death in 1979. In the final lines of her New Yorker poem, “At the Fishhouses,” she writes herself – distanced a little into a “we” that collects her enunciative I and the readerly you – into what becomes a maternal, liquid and lapidary Atlantic physiography:
         It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
         dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
         drawn from the cold hard mouth
                  of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
                  forever, flowing and drawn, and since
                  our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown. 
                             (Poems 64)
“I have seen it,” she tells us, “over and over, the same sea, the same, / slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones” (63). Hands and tongues, she says, are not so much nursed on saltwater as burned by it, marked by its hard indifference. Bound to our historical and genetic limits, we are incised by but also finally lost to oceanic depth, to “what we imagine knowledge to be” rather than what we can in fact ever know. Brett Millier, like Shapcott, falls into clichés of profundity when he describes Bishop’s first visit to Nova Scotia – involving visits to Halifax-Dartmouth and to Cape Breton – after the death of her mother:
From the many notebook entries of this summer [1946], and the poems that grew from those notes, it seems clear that the trip [to Nova Scotia] was both deeply disturbing and deeply significant to Elizabeth in ways that it would take her years to articulate. (Millier 181)
Poems such as “At the Fishhouses” and “Cape Breton” had their origins in these notebooks, and certainly do speak to Bishop’s tenacious attachment to Nova Scotia as her genealogical locus. Under her yearbook photo from Vassar College, for example, Bishop lists “Great Village Nova Scotia” as her home, while in fact she had lived there only from age 3 to 6 with her maternal grandparents. As Lavinia Greenlaw puts it, “while [Bishop] is justly celebrated as one of America’s most important poets, it was not America that formed her.” Greenlaw – whose poetic enmeshment in Bishop’s work I will soon come to – recasts “At the Fishhouses” to explain the internals tensions within Bishop’s poetic voice, as an effect of cultural genetics, of what Bishop herself might calls the “question” of how she travels, and the complexities of rootedness and uprooting:
The young Elizabeth stayed with her grandmother for just three years but retained her connection with Great Village all her life. Nova Scotia is the setting for many of her best poems, and its geography of vast skies and wild Atlantic coastline is present as a sense of being on the edge of something deep and dangerous into which she might disappear and into which she might want to – an ambivalence that is one of the most striking aspects of her writing.
The hyperbole here, while perhaps warranted by the occasion of an effusive book review, is wholly out of step with Bishop’s poetic, although we can certainly hear the echoes of the ironically-framed sublimity at the close of Bishop’s poem (as well as the falling from the world that informs “In the Waiting Room”). Greenlaw isn’t wrong to affirm that Bishop’s writing is marked by Nova Scotia; but if you have ever been to Great Village, you will know that it is hardly a place of vast skylines or wild coasts. (These stock-phrases sound more to me like the figural language of Canadian tourism.) The disturbances, instead, are much more closely personal and, importantly, accentual.
         In a 1947 letter to Lowell, Bishop remarks – coincidentally, in a paragraph immediately following a description of having herself recorded “like a fish being angled for with that microphone” – on the “strange rather cross-sounding accent” of Cape Bretoners, a hybrid of something “Gaelic,” “Scotch” and “English,” she thinks (147). What I hear in Bishop’s voice on those Library of Congress records, after her return from two summers in Nova Scotia, aren’t anything so overt or so strong as those Anglo-Celtic brogues, but I do hear the pronounced and, to me, self-evident traces of time spent in the Maritimes. Her voice obviously – obvious, perhaps, to anyone who’s from there – migrates and shifts through an inconstant array of East-Coast inflections. When I first heard these readings, I thought Bishop sounded like my grandmother, who comes from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and of whose voice I have a cassette tape, still. There is something in the way that both Bishop and my grandmother pronounce their Rs, pulling the rhotic slightly back, swallowing it just a little, to create what linguists call, if I’m not mistaken, a rounded retroflex approximate – which is a fancy way of saying an east-coast R, an inflection that among others you can still hear in recordings of Bishop.
I have to pause here to tell you a story, a story about me. My reading of Bishop has an even more personal angle than its link to my grandmother’s recorded voice – it connects to my own colloquial speech genetics, too. Here is my story. I was presenting a paper at a conference at UC Santa Cruz – the American Pacific Southwest – in December 2009. The paper was on the poetry of Charles Simic and its relationship to the music of Charles Lloyd. At one point in the talk, I discuss Simic account of hearing Thelonious Monk play in a New York bar. At the end of my talk, I took questions, of course, anticipating discussion of improvisation and aesthetics, or the complex relationships between music and poetry. A younger colleague of mine put up his hand and asked: “Are you from Nova Scotia?” I was a bit dumbfounded – “What?” “Are you from Nova Scotia?” he repeated: “you said baerr.” Apparently, despite a continent of distance and a good two decades of life elsewhere, my mouth still betrays my adopted origins. It’s been ingrained, coded into my tongue. So too, I think, it might be with Bishop. Leaving Great Village at six, she never can shakes its inflection, shoring against her embouchure.
2.
Lavinia Greenlaw is one of a number of younger British poets who claim Bishop as an influence. She has written numerous reviews of Bishop’s work, has produced a audio documentary for BBC Radio 3 on Bishop’s childhood, and, perhaps most significantly, has directly repurposed and reworked a number of what you might call Bishop’s keywords into the core of her own work: “Questions of Travel,” “The Casual Perfect,” and others. But Greenlaw is more than a fan, and “influence” is hardly the right term for her relationship with Bishop’s work. Greenlaw has remained a decidedly London-based writer, but her interests tend to gather around resisting the genetic determinants of her Anglocentrism. Her voice characteristically oscillates in her writing, a crucial ambivalence that has frequently been misread by reviewers of her work as hesitancy, between where she comes from and where she’s looking to, between the way she speaks and what she hears.
The Importance of Music for Girls, Greenlaw’s disco-punk memoir, begins with an account of her own near-death at age 4 when her mouth was accidentally pierced by a length of bamboo garden cane: “It could have affected your speech,” her mother tells her, “by changing the shape of the roof of your mouth” (3). Voice is both determined and deformed by her domestic, maternally-governed backyard. I want to claim that the difficult vagaries of Bishop’s accent, its complex dislocations, help to explain something of Greenlaw’s fraught lyricism and her attention to the displacements of public, performative language. Greenlaw’s shape-shifting elocution involves a recombinant genomics that synchs her to a poly context in which the dislocations and displacements of recording technologies come to inform how we sound ourselves.
Greenlaw’s poems resonate with Bishop’s, or perhaps alongside them. “Millefiore,” a lyric from Greenlaw’s 1997 collection A World Where News Travelled Slowly, thematizes resonance – as the sympathetic material attunement of molecular glass with intensified sound – but also recovers a fractal sounding, a version of the disavowed recorded voice that I have been tracing in Bishop’s poems. “Millefiore”’s dedication to the Scottish poet Don Paterson, who happens also to be an accomplished jazz guitarist, suggests that Greenlaw wants self-consciously to re-frame an ars poetica here, but a poetics that is at once intermediate and multimodal, aspiring conditionally to the feel of vocal music. The glass eye described in the lyric is “vitreous not ocular,” externalizing its opaque substance rather than pretending to be an organ of vision: neither poor prosthesis nor crafty fake. The inherent fluidity of glass – which as the long viscous drip of cathedral windows remains us, is not solid but a silicate liquid – allows the eye to hold rather than transfer the light of “everything,” but also enables it materially to oscillate, and Greenlaw imagines the eye recreating the ceramic texture of millefiore, an interlace of a “thousand flowers.” Despite its lyric trappings, this is not the visionary sublime, but a material registering, a sonogram, of someone’s artful voice: that is, it’s a glass phonograph. The inscribed sound-waves are apparently unplayable, vibrating senselessly in a dysfunctional skull socket. But in registering the limits of that listening, of what’s knowable, in the lyric textures of her poem, Greenlaw produces what she would later term an “infinite [as in, non-finite?] proximity,” a collision of the immediate, embodied auditory and the mute, representational visual at, and in, the virtual surfaces of poetic text. In her review of Exchanging Hats, a posthumously-published collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s paintings (which Greenlaw calls “poems made in pen, ink and water”), Greenlaw takes Bishop’s seeming lack of painterly technique, her uneasy primitivism, more deliberately as emerging from Bishop’s poetics of disavowal: “The wobbliness of it all is her argument with what the eye expects, how the eye wants to tidy up what is really seen.” Both Greenlaw and Bishop have sometimes been castigated for a forced formalism, a willful tidying up; in fact, the work here dwells not on the well-turned artifact, but in the argument itself with form, what David Kalstone presciently names Bishop’s “becoming a poet,” rather than ever her claiming actually to be one.
The open-ended discovery of an unsettled and unsettling poetic voice is mapped as a kind of mistaken listening, a creative misprision, in an episode from Greenlaw’s The Importance of Music to Girls, in which she outlines her first encounters with recorded music, specifically Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. As a child overhearing her parent’s music, she admits that she can’t quite make out the words to “Lay Lady Lay,” which she hears as “lay, lay, delay.” This goofy distracted mistake becomes foundational to her own work as a poet – with the book open in front of us, we overhear, at a silent remove, the moment at which she first feels her way toward a poetic re-making of language, its resilient fluid stuff. There is also a specific lyric temporality, its “delay” – her own version of a Bergsonian durée– that can only come from not understanding Bob Dylan, not hearing him correctly. Significantly, there is also a peculiar genetics of accent at work in her description. She transliterates the surreal nonsense that she hears in Dylan’s lines: “brass bed” becomes BRA SPED. Admittedly this isn’t IPA, and I’m putting some undue pressure on the accuracy of her transcription of her own audition of the song, but Dylan does not say or sound out “BRA,” ever, in the song. In a peculiarly throaty falsetto, he sings with a nasally Midwestern American accent something like “BREH.” I don’t mean to criticize Greenlaw’s ear at all by nitpicking this way; what I do want to notice is that she overlays her own London accent onto Dylan’s voice – she hears her own inflection, herself, re-sounded on Dylan’s very strange, idiosyncratic vocal performance. She has Dylan intone, like a slightly posh Londoner, BRAWSS. This imposition might be understood as antinomian, as reciprocal to the traces of Nova Scotia we can detect, liminally, in Bishop’s 1947 recordings. Greenlaw’s accent goes in the opposition direction, expressed rather than impressed. But it nonetheless re-casts that wobble as reciprocity, as give-and-take rather than determinism – regardless of what trajectory any tidy closure might follow.
I have taken too much time already, and there are numerous significant collisions and collusions with Bishop in Greenlaw’s poetry, but I want to conclude with a brief description of a recent electroacoustic project undertaken by Greenlaw at two railway stations in England, Manchester Picadilly and London St. Pancras, called Audio Obscura. Greenlaw created two audio installations which recorded the random chatter of travellers on their way through a rail station; that chatter was then edited to script and re-recorded by voice actors, and the resulting audio tracks made available for listening (on personal audio players with earphones) to passers-by in the stations in which they originated. In a print version of the transcriptions, which have been aggregated and shaped into fragmented lyrics, Greenlaw asserts that she has mined a kind of verbal DNA, caught in passing, and distilled a poetry that exists between vox populiand the solitary lyric voice. The resulting pull between close attention and diffused distraction, she suggests, enacts the subjective becoming of poetic voice, as its texts “hover between speech and thought,” or “somewhere between what is heard and what is seen, what cannot be said” (6). The texts themselves, as concatenated fragments, incline toward the legibility, the sense, promised by a poem – they look like poems – but finally resist hermeneutic finality:
Most of us don’t set out to scrutinise those around us or to listen to their conversations yet we find that faces, gestures and phrases stand out and are remembered whether we like it or not. Things catch our attention because they raise a question and fail to answer it. We are left in suspense. (4)
Those unanswered questions derive for Greenlaw directly from Bishop’s questions of travel, which Bishop distils into one key interrogative in her poem: “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” (Poems  ). Home becomes unheimlich, dislocated and disturbed in under Bishop’s scrutiny. Or, in Greenlaw’s hands, interstitial, transitional. Her set of glosses on William Morris’s Icelandic journal, also published in 2011 alongside Audio Obscura and The Casual Perfect, involve Greenlaw taking up phrases from Morris’s prose and writing her way across and through them, not so much as explanation or expansion, not footnoting, but to recognize the intersubjective disturbance, the wobbles, of travelling. For her, Morris offers
the document of a journey that becomes a description of all journeys: the tensions that set in once the decision has been made, the hope that something will keep you at home coupled with the fear of missing your plane or boat or train, the realization that you are dis-equipped however much luggage you have brought along with you, the dropping of habits and co-ordinates, the ease with which you cobble together new ones, and the point at which you stop travelling and start heading home. (xxiii)
 That turning point, that peripety, is where the voice, both for Bishop and for Greenlaw, feels its way into audibility, into view.
Books and Such
Bishop, Elizabeth. Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 2011. Print.
– – -. Exchanging Hats: Paintings. Ed. William Benton. New
York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996. Print.
– – -. One Art: Letters. Ed. Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 1995.
Greenlaw, Lavinia. The Casual Perfect. London: Faber, 2011.
Print.
– – -. A World Where News Travelled Slowly. London: Faber,
1997. Print.
– – -. Audio Obscura. East Anglia: Full Circle Editions,
2011. Print.
– – -. The Importance of Music to Girls.  London: Faber,
2008. Print.
Kalstone, David. Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with
 Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. New York: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 1989. Print.
Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It.
Berkeley: U of California P, 1993. Print.
Shapcott, Jo, and Linda Anderson, eds. Elizabeth Bishop: Poet
         of the Periphery. Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 2002. Print.
“Sweeney, Jack and Maire.” Archival Finding Aid, University
Travisano, Thomas, with Saskia Hamilton, ed. Words in Air:
 The Complete Correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and
Robert Lowell. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
2010. Print.

A Poetics of Listening

I have been reading about Lavinia Greenlaw’s Audio Obscura, an installation in Manchester’s Picadilly Station that invited participant listeners to overhear the voices of people passing through the train station and, I think, to begin to reassemble that human noise into a vestigial poetry. The work is currently “on tour” in London’s St. Pancras Station as well. These works are site-specific, of course, and I can have no direct experience of them myself, but the concept is resonant, for me. Listeners wear earphones as they circulate in the councourses of the stations, which seems to me to create, with a very tactile apparatus, a blur of public and private audition. The enclosed audio world of the iPod/earbuds wearer opens itself up, as what is heard — what they’re eavesdropping on — is the audio mix of the passing voices around them. The earphones become something like prosthetic membranes. Greenlaw herself (in a column about the work published about a month ago in The Guardian) associates this permeability with what she calls “unsettlement,” and in reworking some of the recorded overheard material into script or text or poem, she re-positions herself, as a poet, more closely in the role of orchestrator or listener rather than ego-centric speaker: “By listening instead of speaking, and orchestrating instead of editing, by doing everything I always do but differently, I prolonged the unsettlement in myself. I thought it was taking me to the edge of what I do as a writer but I can see now that it has taken me to the heart of it.”

This concern with the poetic work of listening has been a key part of her writing for a long time now. I have taught The Importance of Music to Girls several times, and one of its significant aspects is the refashioning of self in listening, in the byplay of fabrication and physiology. One of my favourite of her poems in “Millefiori,” in which she addresses an audiovisual-tactile mix by encountering a moment of resonance in glass, a glass eye. In a poem from The Casual Perfect, just published, she writes something like: “We have no choice. It is in our particulars and variables to write noise.” (I have this only via an audio version, in an interview; I still need to buy the book.) Making noise into poems doesn’t mean righting it, editing it out; it means turning an ear actively toward the in-betweens where audio reaches toward form, where it emerges into audition.