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Book Review: ‘Questions of Travel: William Morris in Iceland’ by Lavinia Greenlaw

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Notting Hill Editions publishes outstanding essays with painstaking principles of organization. Its collections depend upon structures with its reliable brand of what I call magnetic cling. This collection, Questions of Travel: William Morris in Iceland (Notting Hill Editions, London, March 2017), pairing contemporary poet and writer Lavinia Greenlaw and the exuberant, rather ubiquitous 19th-century artist William Morris, sustains a particular kind of strangeness which yields an unexpected, satisfying unity.

The term defamiliarization or ostranenie (остранение) serves well for this collective journey a deux, this mind-capturing pairing. Ostranenie refers to an accurate artistic rendition, even exaggeration, which makes regular things seem uniquely irregular or unusual, so as to accentuate one’s ability to see the ordinary acutely afresh.

The word strange coagulates throughout this extraordinary book, used both by Greenlaw who introduces the unexpected, energizing term “a hit of strangeness” early on, and by Morris who writes, “it affected me strangely to see all the familiar flowers growing in a place so different from anything one had ever imagined” (p. xxi, 19). This stimulating, cross-the-centuries book makes it stranger strangely: it is, after all, Greenlaw’s book about Morris, about herself, about herself knowing him and Iceland, his journal about how he is reacting, and how Iceland and his life become to him, especially in the light of how he had thought it to be before. Appropriately and a bit strangely too, Morris systematically calls himself I, and Greenlaw systematically names herself you, narratively turning herself inside out to see more perhaps. One might surmise initially that Greenlaw nets Morris and Morris casts himself.

Greenlaw took the book’s title from Elizabeth Bishop’s home-wondering-wandering poem, “Questions of Travel,” which asks lingering questions about home and travel, one of which strangely addresses what the book broaches throughout: “Is it right to be watching strangers in a play/in this strangest of theaters?” My response here has four sections: an introduction to Greenlaw’s introduction, my first literal reading, a second reading of Greenlaw and Morris separately, a kind of flying, and a third reading which I call “balancing the books,” finding the sections exciting together, dancing together now in a new present rather like a minuet.

Lavinia Greenlaw’s far-ranging introduction reads sometimes like the flight of a bumblebee. Fascinatingly brilliant in each place that it lands, it succeeds in making the reader long to know more of William Morris. Greenlaw herself is conspicuously absent from this heartfelt overview of Morris the man and the artist, except for mention of a trip she made to the geysers which had been, 140 years earlier, “all bestrewn with feathers and wings of birds, polished mutton bones, and above all pieces of paper” (xix).

She gives us several views of Morris—comparing his two dramatically different trips to Iceland in 1871, the first of which Greenlaw calls a “painful drama” (xx), and 1873; sketches his convoluted relations at home; and suggests his main focus in Iceland as “graphic, geometric, diagrammatic” (xiii). She infers that his emotional life is over-calculated, maybe even pre-drawn, “which would make his wife all the more inclined towards the sinuously emotional Rossetti” (xiii). She humanizes Morris’s permeable ability to go through the daily motions, to be up to things. She spends a lot of time talking importantly about his writing: “it has grain and grip,” she praises, but unobtrusively faults his Icelandic writings for being “largely without insight,” his feelings “remain[ing] unprocessed” (xiv, xvii, vii).

Sometimes, her Morris seems stuck in a kind of stick-shaped-ness, a clown-copy of himself-ness. One of my favorite sentences about his language is “his sentences are upholstered with colons. And semi-colons, and take a very long time to approach a full stop. His adjectives are also bright and clear…” (xiv-xv)

The formal introduction is followed by a tell-all coda called Notes on the Text explaining her editing method. Here, she brings in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Questions of Travel,” her sense that Morris’s Icelandic journal is a meta-journey, a “description of all journeys” (xxiii). For the first time, she introduces the unusual you voice of the traveler, editor – of herself? She explains that she worked by finding a compelling phrase in Morris’s journals which she then extracted and usually rephrased so as to “direct the reader towards what Morris didn’t know he was writing about” (xxiii). Greenlaw’s overall question to herself is perhaps: Why does one – Morris, herself, anyone – go through the difficult motions of making journeys? What does one learn about home, about oneself? The book’s first sentence is clear evidence of this uncertainty: “Why did William Morris want to go to the corner of the map?” (vii)

My first reading was a tit-for tat, purely chronological, linear sort of reading page after page – Greenlaw’s writing on the verso side of the page and then Morris’s journal on the recto sides. When Greenlaw quotes Morris, she puts that quote in red at the top of the page. Then, under the quote, she lists her reflective responses, her attempts to get inside what he felt as a traveler, that which she said he “didn’t know he was writing about” (xxiii). The first page has, in red from Morris, “As if I myself should be left behind” (2). This figurative as if appears 13 times in the book, used both by Greenlaw and by Morris. On her first page, Greenlaw writes these remarks: “we cannot believe we are taking ourselves with us,” “If we travel to escape ourselves, we also find it difficult to leave ourselves behind,” and “You make rapid new attachments to each other, to blankets and water bottles, to whatever is going with you” (2).

Meanwhile Morris, on the first recto page under the specific heading “I. London to Reykjavik” and the date, appears in perennial motion, beginning for one thing to “get very fidgety, for though that morning my heart had failed me and I felt as if I should have been glad of any accident that had kept me at home,” and “at last he came in a cab without his womankind, who could not get off till the next day; he fidgeted me still more….” Yes, Morris writes a bit diffidently about being left behind. “Of course I felt as if I had left everything behind, yea, as if I myself should be left behind” (3). However, the bulk of his first page is laced with detail, meeting his fellow travelers and the intensity of his voluminous imposing presence, feeling and noting what he felt. These first two pages establish an instant contrast between her meta-critical poetic eye and his omnivorously experiencing voice.

Sometimes, in this first reading, it feels that the two voices don’t fit exactly. Greenlaw is conscious of and meditative about homelessness, perceives that “The unanchored self is conscious of the hinge of simile: a hesitant connection, as if” and “You are out of your life, with time on your hands and no purpose” (22, 6).

In terms of tone alone, Morris is recording on page after page his intense experiences, as in his “keen remembrance of his joys of that dinner” (52). For instance, he alludes to being “too excited to sleep” being “right glad to be back in the saddle again…” (5,59) His is often a surging euphoria: “the whole scene was most impressive and exciting” and “we rolled and roared” in a consecutive laughter (53, 32). His verbs render an involving person of enormous passion, voluminous, impulsive and impetuous, such as “moon time away,” “snorting, blowing furiously,” “buttressed,” “swagger,” ”crept,” ”staggering,” “squelched,” “fretted,” to pick only a few.

Greenlaw’s fine and intricate questions feel a bit stranded on the first reading. It’s just sometimes they don’t seem to converge with Morris’s dramatized I-centered adventures and emotions. Sometimes, too, Greenlaw’s verso comments refer to something pages away in Morris. And I felt myself surging ahead in open space to locate the connection to her verso page comments. And then too, there is not a Greenlaw verso page for every recto page of Morris. There are many blank pages. So I determined to read again each writer’s “book” separately to find out more about each of them in close reading depth.

My second reading felt like a flying, like reaching altitude in a 747. It made me hope that now I’ll get it, not try to fit the parts together, but just get closer to each one. That made me recall that the best reading incites a kind of burning concentration in language, a process that remains somehow here and just beyond, fleeing here and diving there in its combined fictional-factional elements. Greenlaw confronts her jagged anticipations: “My sense of what to expect was entirely abstract: a surface of calm and a depth of wildness, a combination of the vague and the absolute” (xxiv). After reading a bit more, I saw that her writing grows in what I call “factual thought,” declarative, conclusive, yet also “entirely abstract.” She names herself “you” except for a couple of we’s; it is as though she has no need for I, has been able to leave I behind for this journey.

In contrast, Morris is fiercely subjective, personal, anecdotal, volatile, inconclusively mysterious and strangely incomplete in his itemized particularities, un-interpreted without her philosophical speculations. While I read her for conclusions, interpretation, consequence, and meaning, whatever that tired word means, I read Morris for what happened, what he did and how he responded, for nuance and violent emotions. While her writing minimalistically proliferates in daring metaphor, his stabbingly sizzles in specifics. Greenlaw early on explains, ”I’m as interested in the idea of the place as the place itself and think the actual and the imagined versions are equally valid, even after I have arrived” (xxiv).

Her “book” then becomes an extended meditation of how to be there where there is, how to dwell in it. As she puts it in contrast with what she saw in Morris, how do we take ourselves with us travelling, do we have to leave ourselves behind? (4) In wild abstract freedom, she brings alive factual thought-places like “what lies between yourself and smoothness” (52) or “travel has prepared you for what follows travel” (184). Her “book” glides in an intricate see-saw of intense factual metaphors, like “you are moving and so things keep changing” (36).

She is wonderful to read before reading him. Morris read by himself brings out how relational and emotional he is, how brilliant and actual his writing, how dependent upon other people’s responses and positions, how ready he is to criticize himself for letting his imagination run away from himself, for being a coward in his eyes. My second reading brought me closer to each one but, immediately, I told myself now I have to go further; I have to balance the books, bring these two accounts together.

The third reading, balancing the books, became exciting, a stunning, mutual minuet. Tony Pinkney suggests that “Greenlaw has brilliantly found a new form for writing about Morris, and for this we can only be grateful.” I would add that Greenlaw comes into a brilliant new form for writing about travel, about herself and Morris together in their flamboyantly distinctive movements. The book is a veritable coupling of different beings together. Theirs are two palimpsestic adventures, his seemingly physical and hers apparently ideational – two homecomings, and two perceptual surgings.

They share a cryptic quivering proximity in travel’s ineluctably unsettling unfamiliarity, its very strangeness. Morris repeatedly says the words “queer,” “strange,” and “odd.” Early on, he could not sleep because “the strangeness and excitement kept waking me up” (41). Ever referring to how he feels, Morris would write his journal, but could not, “for a strange lazy sort of excitement…was on me, made up of half-a-dozen things” (175).

Each of them sometimes becomes undone by this strangeness, thoughts of when now ends, whether they are going too far, how much they are being in their moment. Greenlaw queries, knowing full well she can’t yet, “Do you want to stop going back?” and Morris has a glorious epiphany in one of what I call his expanses, his extended glorious presentations of a place: “once again that thin thread of insight and imagination, which comes so seldom to us, and is such a joy when it comes, did not fail me at this first sight of the greatest marvel and most storied place of Iceland” (175, 167).

Here follows one of the book’s four wonderful mating dance steps, where their thoughts build upon each others’. Greenlaw puts it her way: “That thin thread of insight and imagination. Not just seen in the mind but seen into” (164). Each “book” thrives in profound and simultaneously perceived over-excitements which each writer survives and returns from. The thrilling moments in the third reading are those of bonding, when each one is writing of or speculating about a similar circumstance. They and the entire book come together as in a profound mutual recognition. Questions of Travel is a collective dance of fast-paced colloquial speech mingled with precipitous physical adventure, ignominious fear and self-conscious awareness.

Greenlaw prepares us for the end, “Going on from now will be going back,” and refers again to the book’s psychic setting, to “the fluidity of strangeness” (160,168). That going home is a prerequisite part of travel has been established from the outset, from many homesick moments. Each writer comes into resolution, a real felt conclusion. Greenlaw finds that “Going home you don’t look about you, only ahead,” and feels completeness: “Remembering what it is to be inside” and “Now that it’s over, you were very happy” (188, 190). Initially, being home, Morris is overcome by a sense of bewilderment, “not knowing what to ask for” and troubled by what he saw as the “disproportionate” size of the houses and horses in a landscape “that…all looked like a scene at a theater.” His last words however are praise for Iceland, “a marvelous, beautiful and solemn place, and where I had been in fact very happy” (191-193). So, finally, the two of them have a happy ending.

This bountiful book rocks away in a stunning mélange between strange and sure, between factual thought and exhaustive experience. The magical happens: Greenlaw meets Morris, and, through her journaling his physical journey, she bonds with him and with us the readers. They leave and come home together. Greenlaw here has taken the figurative to another dimension, making it all both triumphantly strange and believable. This reader wants more of them, more of this factional fictional form, this being “unanchored” with them in this place, on “the hinge of simile; a hesitant connection, as if…” (22)

This magical carpet ride of a book comes full-circle complete. Morris who needed change has indeed “unsettled his perceptions,” and Greenlaw has crossed borders and centuries and genres and genders in her journey, finding how language matters: “The simpler the form, the greater the need for simile” (xxi, 168). In this exceptional book, I discovered that balancing the books can be unexpectedly figurative.

©2017 Linda E. Chown

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