Lavinia Greenlaw is an English poet. For an understanding of this poem, it is useful to know that she was born in 1962 and brought up in rural England. She now teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia.
The poet is remembering a time in 1980 when she made an unaccustomed visit to the city, maybe for the first time without her parents. The clause ‘I was returned’ suggests that her visit was somehow dictated, just as much as her upbringing in the country was involuntary. The journey back to the city is along lighted roads – probably a freeway – where light and dark alternate as you drive along like the exposures of a series of photographs. In memory, the first thing they – the poet and a friend? – do when they arrive is find a bar; it’s down an alley and its brightness is both literally neon bright and shorthand for ‘the bright lights’. Then comes a list of the attractions of the bar. I like ‘a doll’s parasol’ because it relates both to childhood, which she hopes she is leaving, and to a common decoration for a cocktail. As well as cherries on toothpicks, there are ‘actual limes’ – not the cordial of childhood. The word ‘actual’ expresses her almost incredulous pleasure at this abundance. The word ‘physic’ also carries a lot of freight; something or someone is wanting to be cured here, but this very literary word is probably also an allusion to studies she did in her A levels. Such bars open early and close late; you can get rum at any time. The five lines up to the full stop after ‘rum’ are full of the physical titillation you get from alcohol.
The next line is more reflective and sober; she is remembering how it all happened. She was old enough to drink, and had some kind of allowance – possibly a student allowance – and was for the first time able to feel free to indulge. They knocked back the drinks, and the melting ice suggests not only the ice in the glass, but also the barriers in the relationship between the poet and her companion. It seemed like freedom. But then she wonders in retrospect what on earth they were doing? ‘What possessed us’ is a clever line because ‘possessed’ has the double meaning of alcohol and irresponsibility. The kick of spirits is both the alcohol and the spirit of newly found freedom. The ‘invisible syrup’ I have trouble with; probably it is part of the cocktail, but syrup is also associated with medicine in childhood. The alcohol gets them into their car, and driving back the way they had come.
I find it interesting that the first stanza ends here. It contains the experience of leaving, then of the bar, and then the reflection about why they had acted in this way. Why stop here? I think it is to highlight where they went –which is back to the countryside they supposed themselves to have escaped from. Perhaps their sortie into the world of alcohol didn’t really free them from the thralls of childhood, which is why the description of that world has references to childish things in it.
The second stanza begins with this return, emphasised as a new line: ‘to the fields of our years of boredom …’. To the young, boredom is a curse, but a state they spend a lot time in, watching paint dry, as it were. Sundays are especially bad; they ‘drank our blood’ suggests the not merely enervation but vampires sucking out life, making them zombies. ‘How people died bursting out of a quiet life’ sounds like youthful exaggeration, but there is a literal truth underlying it. Boredom leads to excess, leads to drink driving, leads to death. ‘Who can see such things and live to tell’ sounds like a cliché, but also has a deeper truth in the dangers of excess.
The next section of the stanza returns to a review of what happened after their visit to the bar. This recollection also seems heightened: did they really spend all night, or fall eight feet through a hedge? Are they still in the car? These lines seem shrill – striking, lurching, smashing – a tone perfect for the disjointed consciousness that comes with too much to drink. But then the tone changes again: ‘Of course we felt nothing’ – being drunk dulls the senses, and with these words she dismisses the whole experience as an overblown recollection.
What were they really escaping from? By going to the city bar they were trying to escape the boredom of home, but, the poet asks, wasn’t the problem really with themselves? ‘As if’ such escape was really possible is the sad conclusion of an adult, looking back at the self-delusion of youth. By the title, the poet wryly suggests her younger self was still only partly living, a zombie whether bored or drunk.
1980, I was returned to the city exposed
in black and white as the lights went on and on.
A back-alley neon sign, the first I’d seen,
drew us sweetly down and in to brightness:
A doll’s parasol, a spike of green cherries,
the physic of apricot brandy, actual limes
and morning-to-night shades of rum.
Newly old enough and government-moneyed,
we knocked them back, melting the ice
between us and the unaccustomed looseness
of being legitimate and free. What possessed us?
Was it the kick of spirits or the invisible syrup
In which they swam that worked in our veins,
charming us into a car and forty miles east
to the fields of our years of boredom …
Did we not remember the curse of this place?
How Sundays drank our blood as we watched
dry paint or the dust on the television screen.
How people died bursting out of a quiet life,
or from being written into a small world’s stories.
Who can see such things and live to tell?
How we hunted all night for noise and love,
striking out across the ploughed and frozen earth,
lurching from rut to rut until at the edge
we smashed our way out through a hedge, to fall
eight feet to the road. Of course, we felt nothing.
Was it not ourselves who frightened us most?
As if brightness or sweetness could save us.