Timepiece

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:

1.1
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:

2.1
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:

3.3

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.

3.31
What will survive of us?
Larkin thought the answer might be ‘love’,
but couldn’t prove it.

There are intriguing ideas to consider:

1.2
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:

4.2

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)

4.4

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.

Afterword
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.

A Heaviness Inside Each Feather

Falling Awake by Alice Oswald
Jonathan Cape 2016

T S Eliot Prize shortlisted
Costa Poetry Award 2016

Backlist reader that I am, over the past year or so Alice Oswald has become my favourite contemporary poet. I appreciate never knowing where she will lead me in a poem whilst trusting that something astonishing will be revealed which will raise questions that refuse an easy answer. She is erudite and intelligent, with an instinctive eye for the visionary within the ordinary, especially with regards to the natural world and our relationship with it.

My willingness to trust her comes from a sense of her poetic integrity, the feeling that she herself is discovering the poem as she writes it: I don’t imagine her composing a killer last line and reverse-engineering the poem in order to get there. This focus on process rather than destination results in a sense of continual unfolding/enfolding. Her subject becomes the inevitable changing of mortal forms when acted upon by time, within time.

She herself has said (in BBC Radio 4’s Book Club programme) that a poem on the page is like a musical score: it is a description of a performance, with the words being punctuation for the silence (paraphrasing T S Eliot) which contributes as much as the words do. The book’s final poem, ‘Tithonus: 46 Minutes in the Life of the Dawn’, is a performance piece beginning in darkness (represented in the book by a black page). Immortal but without eternal youth, his is a voice without end: like the dawn it is constantly beginning and is gone without ever quite happening ‘but is always almost’.

The ten rhyming couplets of the opening poem, ‘A Short Story of Falling’, echo Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ (‘To see a world in a grain of sand/ and heaven in a wild flower’) in their apparently simple musicality:

It is the story of the falling rain
to turn into a leaf and fall again

Nothing is still. All is in constant motion and transformation:

It is the secret of a summer shower
to steal the light and hide it in a flower

as we move from the natural world to the human realm:

then I might know like water how to balance
the weight of hope against the light of patience

and back to the natural world to close:

which is the story of the falling rain
that rises to the light and falls again.

This sense of movement/momentum prevails throughout the book: the focus is (paradoxically) fixed upon the process of becoming, rather than upon states of being. In ‘Swan’, a rotting swan lifts ‘from the plane-crash mess of her wings’ to see

how thickly the symmetrical quill points
were threaded in backwards through the leather underdress
of the heart saying…

what a waste of detail
what a heaviness inside each feather

The swan imagines herself as a bride, recalling Mary Oliver’s ‘all my life / I was a bride married to amazement’ (‘When Death Comes’).

The other side of amazement is a bewilderment that results in a fractured or dislocated articulation. Orpheus (‘Severed Head Floating Downriver’) and Tithonus are compelled to speak without ever getting out what they mean. Orpheus’ sense of self is eroding as he floats along (‘the water drinks my mind’) while in ‘Flies’

This is the day the flies fall awake mid-sentence
and lie stunned on the window sill shaking with speeches
only it isn’t speech it is trembling sections of puzzlement

Just as we are standing off at a safe distance, ‘they’ shifts without warning to ‘we’:

there is such a horrible trapped buzzing wherever we fly
it’s going to be impossible to think clearly now until next winter.

It’s intriguing. The flies evidently lack the benefit of the page’s white space, its silence. And yet there is an immediacy here: not ‘thoughts about’ something. What does Oswald mean to convey by foregrounding this insect sound? And how does it relate to expression/comprehension through language, conveyed through the rhythm as much as the understanding of the meaning of words (which is, after all, a large part of poetry)? I need to live with these questions a while.

The beauty and vividness of the imagery holds everything together. Take the badger in ‘Body’ meeting with his body’s death, for instance, who

went on running with that bindweed will of his
went on running along the hedge and into the earth again
trembling
as if in a broken jug for one backwards moment
water might keep its shape

The title Falling Awake evokes the tension between the gravity acting upon our physical being and awareness as the alert mind simultaneously takes flight. Not for her the transcendental ascension narrative: inescapably earthbound, her vision soars yet.

A Violent and Fragile Mystery

Human Work by Sean Borodale
Cape Poetry 2015

Feeding people, and all that entails: a time-consuming, daily task that isn’t work, that too often takes me away from the work in hand, the attentive simmering of words, such that I rarely pause to consider what may be going on a fingertip’s depth beneath the surface.

Sean Borodale wrote Human Work amidst the pots and pans (it’s easy to imagine the jam- and blood-splashed pages) but while his kitchen is the arena of this work, its subject reads as an enquiry into the nature of the heart(h) of the home, of the fundamental sustaining of our human-animal selves. What are its concerns and its communal purpose (he is feeding family and visitors, not just himself)?

The first thing to become apparent is how violent a process it is. In the opening poem, Stewed Apple, the flesh in the pan ‘bellows and blows’ and he uses the technical term, ‘flensing’: this is not so much cookery as going whaling (with Captain Ahab?).

In Making Apple Juice with Makeshift Apparatus (and what a grand metaphor that is for the making of a poem, pressing out perception from the pulp of experience with the best words one has to hand – never mind for the actual business of living!) the work is revealed to be ‘part violence, part sacrament’.

There is a simmering restlessness throughout. In Apple Jelly (ongoing), the opening line, ‘I was asking is a body ever at peace?’ finds its answer later in Elderflower Champagne: to Serve

… you undress your principles
and expose the constant of you rummaging through perception
for an exit.

Nothing holds steady. Everything is in constant transformation. Life is feeding on life and it is not a delicate business.

the eaters wait:
staring,
sat in the trees of their nerves
like rooks.

Globe Artichoke

There is as much death as life in this book, to the extent of (metaphorical) murder:

Beans I kept

like a killer keeps a corpse –
in the freezer five months.

Broad Beans

Yet this prevalent death proves to be inextricable from birth, or rather from pre-birth:

Each stone opened like a wooden womb
or a small sarcophagus;
the vision – very mute nevertheless –
of the small pip, quite naked, pale:
two white foetal feet pressed sole to sole over each sought tree.

Damson Cheese in Detail (Part 1)

The further into the book one travels, the more the tenuousness of our being becomes apparent. The fragrance of Blackcurrant Leaves Steeped in Cream is ‘like the heat of a body / left in a bed’ while in Pears: to Poach (a Meal for Others)

the vapours climbed unsteady – through the existence of air,
vagrant and stray

even the line is stretched to breaking point.

I noticed that many of the lines that caught my eye were the closing phrases or stanzas of poems, which suggests that I was more taken with Borodale’s conclusions than with the reaching of them. On reflection, that would seem a fair assessment. I would also have welcomed a greater variation of tone and pace at the level of the collection as a whole. It may be concerned with the keeping of body and soul together, but it is to the mind that this book most appeals.

It’s not a comfortable collection, this, and I like it the better for that. This maintaining of our human selves – our tenuous and ultimately futile project – what a violent, bright-dark and fragile mystery it turns out to be, encountered and enacted through the ingredients we have to hand in our daily routine.