Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan, Faber 2018
Hannah Sullivan’s T. S. Eliot prize-winning debut collection comprises three long-form poems: You, Very Young in New York; Repeat Until Time, and The Sandpit After Rain. Her ambition in the age of the 9-second attention span is commendable. Likewise the confidence to allow the long lines of these poems their elbow room.
She says her aim with You, Very Young in New York ‘wasn’t to write a “poem” but a kind of essay in verse.’ Yet there’s plentiful poetic form on display, shape-shifting between terza rima and rhyming couplets amongst others.
She addresses her younger self in an unflinching, documentary style, capturing a particular, privileged, young life, oblivious to the luxury of ‘waiting to get older’, the impatience for things to ‘happen’ even in the expected excitement of New York.
Nothing happens. You try without success
The usual prescriptions, the usual assays on innocence.
I love you to the wrong person, I feel depressed,
… But the senses, laxly fed, are self-replenishing,
Fresh as the first time, so even the eventual
Sameness has a savour for you. Even the sting
When someone flinches at I love you
Is not unwelcome, like the ulcer on your tongue
Her self-exposure can make for uncomfortable reading. At times it resembles the kind of thing teenaged girls are warned against posting on social media, for fear it will show up years later and scupper their careers:
You are thinking of masturbating but the vibrator’s batteries are low
And the plasticine-pink stick rotates leisurely in your palm
There is a whiff of ‘too cool for school’, a passive-aggressive showing-off, which may indeed be the preserve of a privileged twenty-something:
Your psychiatrist said it would help your productivity,
But it feels like drawn-out sex on coke, like something dirty.
When she stands outside herself and considers the world of which she is a part/apart, this brittleness comes into its own and flowers into beauty:
Overripe in September they need to rest in the icebox, sitting with their bruises.
All summer you have been dreaming of Fall and its brittle confection of branches.
From peaches to novelists in Starbucks
Picking like pigeons at the tail of the morning croissant,
Shifts in tone accompany shifts in form, turning deftly from the wryly pertinent description of an ex-lover’s foreplay as ‘like someone testing the grass for a picnic’ to the bluntness of ‘trying out the bad banana taste of Durex on your tongue’.
Likewise from the height of self-absorption to what is surely a riff on T. S. Eliot’s ‘April is the cruellest month’:
Now plans have changed, it is April, and the first hot day of the year
Has exploded from nowhere. Skin is as profuse and white as funeral flowers.
Subtitled The Heraclitus Poem, Sullivan calls Repeat Until Time ‘an essay on repetition and history’. It is still personal, but there is a shift towards the philosophical. This is the hinge of the book. The theme, the familiar idea that one never steps twice in the same river, is addressed head-on in the opening lines:
The picked mosquito bites scab over, resin sap.
The bites are as itchy as ever, and the anaesthetic river
Still concentrates its cold, but the ankles are different this summer,
Less lean, veinier, slower in the river.
The poem includes within its scope pollarded trees, cats auditioning for a movie based on Poe, Henry James at the start of WW1, theories of the nature of the universe, the first atomic detonation … a potentially huge territory, but it is grounded in the particulars of the everyday:
Days may be where we live, but mornings are eternity.
They wake us, and every day waking is absurdity;
All the things you just did yesterday to do over again, eternally.
But, forever fumbling for the snooze button, the gym is there
Forever, and the teeth silt over yellow to be flossed, and there
Will be, in eternity, coffee to be brewed…
It is also the most poetically self-referential of the three poems:
Some words have also lost their pairs:
Some rhymes are only painful memories,
Recycled like family sagas at Christmas, cliches.
The almost-instincts of minor poets.
What will survive of us?
Larkin thought the answer might be ‘love’,
but couldn’t prove it.
There are intriguing ideas to consider:
When things are patternless, their fascination’s stronger.
Failed form is hectic with loveliness, and compels us longer.
With the suggestion that it is this, its limitations, that lies at the heart of linguistic compulsion:
Language with its simple action words, verbs:
Language with its ‘past’ and ‘future’ and ‘present’,
Pointing to what it doesn’t know, I love you, now, babbling of unicorns.
Meanwhile (in the shadow of the detonation of the first atomic bomb)
Now nothing will ever be the same again.
And everything will be as it always was.
Historic moments are as tiresome as first nights,
All lines to fluff, after being cooped up,
The meaning eroded by gabbling in rehearsal.
Contemplating the birth of her child and the death of her father, The Sandpit After Rain is the most personal of the poems. It is arguably the most accessible but not for that reason so much as for the clarity of its compelling imagery:
how the foetus lolls in the womb
swelling like a wine cork left out on the counter
how he wasn’t himself
why the new waxwork lolls in the bed,
the colour of A4 rubbed with Nescafe,
the distressed colour of fake parchment;
blank, dismayed, the worn-off face
of a cloth doll a girl is bored by
Here is the realisation that ‘birth and death happen on adjacent wards’, no respecters of our notions of proper sequence, ‘that both are labour, halting and starting’.
Three Poems covers a lot of ground from ‘belly of the beast’ autobiography from the perspectives of both a young self-involved woman to a more mature one whose experience and identity is inevitably bound up with others: the loss of a father, the birth of a child. The philosophical breathing space of Repeat Until Time acts as a bridge between the two, leading to the book’s closing lines (surely with a further echo of Eliot’s Four Quartets):
A mother and the child you were.
You have been among the living twice,
And loved both times.
You have fallen in the lurid air.
There is a sense of constant movement in terms of both restless formal variation and subject, and the seeking of an ongoing forward momentum with the acknowledgement that such is largely illusory. It is a book I admire rather than love (one for the head rather than the heart, perhaps) though it repays re-reading and thinking about as there is indeed much to appreciate.
I regret to take issue with the cover blurb’s assertion that Three Poems offers the ‘unique perspective of a brilliant, new female voice’. If Sullivan’s perspective is unique, why is it immediately generalised (and simultaneously limited) to ‘female’? Can a woman who writes not simply be called ‘writer’ or ‘poet’? It is an unfair burden of responsibility to place upon her: the implied assumption that for a woman to write is to represent all women and not only herself.