Spurious, Glorious

Lavinia Greenlaw

  • Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan
    Faber, 73 pp, £10.99, January 2018, ISBN 978 0 571 33767 5

The long poem pre-empts its own significance. We expect more of it and less of ourselves, adjusting our pace and investing in the big picture. Hannah Sullivan’s majestic debut offers three big pictures – birth, coming of age and death – but this isn’t a triptych. Instead, these themes extend across the book, with the poems acting as a set of transparencies that enlarge and complicate one another.

Sullivan’s handling of time is also a matter of layers. Possibility, immediacy and loss are simultaneous from the start in the title of the first poem, ‘You, Very Young in New York’, and its opening lines:

Rosy used to say that New York was a fairground.
‘You will know when it’s time, when the fair is over.’
But nothing seems to happen. You stand around

On the same street corners …

Rosy doesn’t say it any more. She has warned of an ending before anything has begun and yet there ‘you’ still are. This English ‘you’ is complicit and deflecting, so that we (you?) read what follows in a state of perpetual recalibration, just like the bright and blunted young things the poem describes:

Nothing happens. You try without successThe usual prescriptions, the usual assays on innocence:
I love you to the wrong person, I feel depressed,

Kissing a girl, a sharpener, sea urchin, juice cleanses.

The coolness with which Sullivan nets such detail could dull the poem’s urgency. Most of the time it doesn’t. The airy terza rima of its first section is tossed aside, suggesting that she knows when to respect a poem that announces it has other plans.

The nostalgia that colours the writing is for something that was never fully experienced and a self that is never constituted: ‘The thing about being very young, as you are, is the permeability/Of one person to another.’ This feeds the desire to be recognised and to connect which roars out of the page in moments of strikingly simple language: ‘He has seen you now and he is here and, as he says your name.’ Everything in this version of a life in a version of New York is performed. Responses when they come are off-kilter. Possibility and failure conflate, leaving little room for actual event. The repetition of ‘nothing happens’ (three times on the first page) leads to ‘Nothing seems real or right, so you just press send.’ Perhaps when you’re young things happening is not the point. Otherwise you’d have to stop lingering on street corners. You’d have something to do.

Meanwhile, ‘the long perspectives open out, into white light, into the infinite’, bringing to mind Hart Crane’s New York with its chastening vistas. This is also Auden’s spurious, glorious New York, and he is here on backing vocals (‘poetry makes nothing happen’), in person on Middagh Street, and in Sullivan’s willingness to reach for the bracingly ugly phrase. Sections of this poem are prefaced by unattributed quotations. There is a list of sources at the back and a riffle through a literary Rolodex on the page. Along with Auden, there are mentions of Shelley, Larkin, Forster, James and others. Sullivan’s handling of them has a curious effect. They’re neither looming nor vital. Like statues in the park, they’re just there.

The looser second section of the poem consists of dissolve after dissolve in which being ‘half aware’ is a desired or safe state. But the extended line is getting tired and I am, too. Perhaps I’ve been expecting less of the long poem and more of myself. It’s hard to expect anything much of the hipsters, bankers, coffee-shop novelists and over-thought cocktails referenced here, though they aren’t irritating cultural shorthand so much as a source of language of such texture that it becomes its own image:

Schramsberg ’98 is working well for Caitlin
in the nouveau Bellini.
Jed crafts a drink from porter, coffee rum, and Brachetto d’Acqui,
It can only be written in Chinese but is ordered as the ‘vice grip’,
Its taste is whipped cream and kidneys, beer bitter and honeyed.

Elsewhere, rhymes start to wink at us: ‘Thoreau/snow’, ‘Victorians/Emersonian’, ‘productivity/something dirty’, ‘Frank Bidart/questions in art’.

Three Poems has an aerated extravagance that brings to mind Wallace Stevens’s ‘Parfait Martinique: coffee mousse, rum on top, a little cream on top of that’ – though that sounds positively austere beside these cocktails. Sullivan’s balancing acts are more strenuous than those of Stevens but her authority, reach and ambition are exhilarating. Her metaphorical scope is that of the internet, as access-all-areas as it is frictionless: ‘the fog falls/Like a solid,/ Like raisins in soda at elBulli.’ She enjoys the hinge of simile, and images that take time to tease out and lead to sensory clash: ‘night seeped/Gently from the sky, like red wine stains in watery bleach.’ Or: ‘The malted cream of the filling is so rich it clumps like shit./You lick it off your fingernails and google the bakery’s website.’

The second poem, ‘Repeat until Time: The Heraclitus Poem’, deals promptly with its source: ‘There is no stepping twice in same or different rivers.’ We are not the same person in any repeated act, an idea the poem reflects on in overlaid depictions of leaving and returning. One effect of repetition is the dilution of an act from the singular to the multiple to the general. A river is a river is a river. We want to share but we also want everything – sex, language, memory – to be our own. Solipsism might help us lock a moment in place but it also locks us into ourselves:

The slick wet ostrich feather between your legs,
Is not important as yours, but because it connotes sex.

And the turn of his face away, a babyish hiss in orgasm,
Is not something shared, but the key turn of solipsism,

No, none of those things that meant so much survive,
Untarnished, hearing the same things multiplied.

After the immersions of the first poem, we are propelled back to the surface of the page: ‘When things are patternless, their fascination’s stronger./Failed form is hectic with loveliness, and compels us longer.’ Briefly, it feels as if I’m reading something that’s been cross-stitched. Sullivan traps this poem within its own emergence so that it is ‘forever fumbling for the snooze button’. It regains momentum with a plunge into cosmology and first principles: ‘To speak of when and then and moments is a figure of language,/It is language addressing itself to what is not, and to what it is itself not.’

The blistering primordial soup gives way to conception:

Stained under a microscope,
An ovary is Venice at sunset,
‘Too beautiful to be painted’ said Monet.
Midas-touched sperm, bulging and fanning.

The brilliance of ‘bulging and fanning’, and of comparing an image emblematic of infertility to an unfixable vision of beauty, is qualified by the addition of Midas. We can only set off in so many directions at once.

The long poem has already announced that it’s going to take time, so we may be more than usually willing to stop and solve a series of puzzles on the way. The difficulty comes when the poem does not want to be slowed down. Urgency is at times muted by an overinvestment in observation: the ‘forelocks of a crocus’, the ‘penumbra of the streetlight’, the ‘glissando’ of a motorbike. We can be made to look or listen too carefully at the wrong time. Despite a sense of pacing myself, I became so absorbed in the book that I noticed the repetition of an adverb (‘voluptuously’) used many pages apart and a possible contradiction involving an old blue dressing-gown. The voluptuous actions are those of hair-removal wax spreading into genital crevices and a spilt bottle of breast milk soaking into a carpet. Here, preparing for sex is much like preparing for motherhood: effortful, inadvertently transgressive and negotiated with a clash of hope and disbelief. In both contexts, ‘you’ is evaluated, enhanced and probed by herself, lovers, doctors, family and friends.

The book ends with ‘The Sandpit after Rain’, in which her dying father and expected baby are equally inscrutable. This is magnificently ambivalent writing about belief – not least about trying on other people’s beliefs as if belief itself might be a cure:

I remembered the itchy feeling of lying on a futon,
Masked, while a man who had eaten garlic prawns
Wafted tuning forks, occasionally checking his phone,
Unblocking each stagnant meridian of my soul.
I knew the sob through the plywood wall.
I was afraid of the sadness of energy workers.

Is this wit or agony? Its sharpness, though enjoyable, might be read as uncontrollable detachment.

Three Poems is not about our expectations of life events but of ourselves as we face them. Of childbirth, Sullivan notes ‘the feelings I ought to be feeling’, that ‘I had, of course, begun to resent it,/And the insistence on it coming out’, and that ‘The blur of oxytocin after labour is called joy.’ When surgery becomes inevitable, the poem diverts to elaborate satirical simile of a kind I imagine Sullivan could produce under anaesthetic. ‘Why’, ‘how’, ‘remember’ and ‘think’ become a chorus pushing forward speculations that are unanswerable or unbearable. Sullivan’s protean image-making is restrained here, allowing us to get more involved with the emotion behind it. The dying man’s mouth is ‘like a mussel prising open’; there is ‘the pop, like champagne, the first time you opened formula’. Her drive to perceptual flood is exhilarating. It can overtake the reader, leaving us scrambling to catch up. It can overtake the poem, too. But I enjoy the confidence of this claim on my energy as well as my time.