From The Women’s Review of Books, January 2020
Three Poems By Hannah Sullivan
Reviewed by Laurie Stone
Hannah Sullivan thought she might write a novel about being a sharp-elbowed young woman in New York—raising an arm for cabs, kissing a girl, and getting a Brazilian waxing before saying ”I love you” to the wrong bastard she will remember for the rest of her life. She mentions this in a YouTube clip filmed after receiving the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2018, adding she didn’t think she had anything original to bring to the novel form. So instead she turned the material into the verse chunks that comprise her exhilarating debut collection, Three Poems. Sullivan, a Brit, is thirty-nine and has one of those career carving, back-jacket bios—Harvard PhD, teaching jobs at Stanford and Oxford, awards and short lists up the wazoo—you would have to be dead set against her for. You can’t be. With her buzzing mind and technical brilliance, she deserves what she’s racked up, and her book asks us to think about the freedoms different genres afford writers.
Composing poetry in small bursts and dispensing with the nag of a narrative arc freed Sullivan’s voice of breathless, moment-to-moment consciousness. She could have done the same thing in the form of a novel, which would then have been called “a novel-in-prose-poems,” the way some books are called “a novel in stories.” These days I think we care less and less about the genre attached to a book. We care about narrative momentum and the layering of thought in a scene more than whether a story arrives at an ending somehow imminent in its launch.
Sullivan is right about the ordinariness of her life passages. The first poem, “You, Very Young in New York,” looks back to the time you prove how young you are by notching your belt with forlorn experience you think is adult. The second poem, “Repeat Until Time,” meditates on repetition from the perspective of noticing it for the first time. The third poem, “Sandpit After Rain,” jump cuts between the death of the poet’s father and the birth of her first son. Most stories sound trite when summarized. The power of Sullivan’s writing is in its no-limits subject matter and riotous experiments with language. She freely admits to the autofictive component of her poems, but she’s not engaged with stuff because it happened to her. She’s engaged with what language can generate in the reader, and stuff that happened is what she hangs language on.
She has mentioned Joan Didion’s memoir “Goodbye to All That” and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City as prompts for “You, Very Young in New York” and her use of the second person pronoun—an inclusive you (really a distanced variant of I)—that can feel cozy one moment and presumptuous the next. When men use you, they are doing what they always do: unconsciously assuming their readers are male. When a female writer uses you, she subversively implicates the male reader in female experience, and it’s thrilling, especially in the hands of a writer like Sullivan, who likes to push the reader’s face into the bodily.
“You, Very Young in New York” speeds like walkers on Broadway, capturing sudden intimacy that is also anonymous, capturing a time of life when you take vitamins without wondering what will happen if you stop. (Answer: nothing.) Whatever else the poem is about—writers sitting in Starbucks “Picking like pigeons at the tail of the mourning croissant”; a vibrator with low batteries that “rotates leisurely in your palm”; shorting the market; and feeling the tongue dry up as Ritalin kicks in—it’s about a doomed affair that sharpens your movie-scene recall.
In preparation for the potential fuck that awaits, Sullivan’s narrator says, you “take two Advil and lie/On a table in Chelsea holding yourself open, ‘stretch it’ she says,/Irritably sometimes, and ‘stretch’ as lavender wax wells/Voluptuously in hidden places, and ‘turn’ as you kneel on all fours/So she can clean you up behind and, still parting you open, her fingers/Spend one moment too long tissuing off the dead wax with almond oil and/’All done she pats ….” Finally, when the bastard shows up on a rooftop, “he says, ‘you’ve lost weight, you look great’ which is true/(He dumped you) you think of elderberry and magnolia, quietly pulling/At the silver-starred skirt, pulling it over the ripple of your thighs./But when he says one more, for old time’s sake, you say why not/And sit rigidly in a cab, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge beside him.”
Almost any experience can stir philosophical and historic associations for Sullivan. It’s what she’s after. In the second poem, contemplating a still photo from the 1961 movie The Black Cat, she notices an older woman “Squeezing her cat like a tantrum,” knowing “that 1960 was the future and JFK is in office” while a blond kid “in a tapestry waistcoat … is waiting for the sixties to start, for the violence to be real./He looks like David Bowie on the cover of Young Americans,/Uranium-bright hair, a softly permed disco halo.” The second poem is set in San Francisco, where Sullivan lived while teaching at Stanford, and the third poem is set in England, her home and where she now lives, but the book feels like one long Alice in Wonderland dream of expansions and contractions.
Sometimes her fever of images is show-offy and doesn’t add anything to the moment contemplated. We don’t need to know, for example, that the look of lights going out in a high-rise across the way reminds the narrator of a Mondrian. Other people don’t seem real to her, even her dying father. Being a good writer does not make you a good person, and hats off to that. In the practice of writing, you don’t care about anything but the effect the writing will produce in the reader, and Sullivan bets she can net you by describing the “gristle” she pokes back into her father ’s neck rather than by measuring the meaning of his departure from her life. Sometimes, though, you have to pretend to be more human than you really are, lest the reader find you too cold, clinical, and fancy with your techniques. You have to stop with the writer-y writing in order to trick the reader into thinking you are an actual human with emotions you don’t have when you are writing.
She manages this often and perhaps most brilliantly in the third poem, first dwelling on the limbo plight of a saltwater eel in a suburban restaurant:
It wants to be rid of the tank, the shriek of lobsters,
The monotonous view of leatherette banquettes, The off-duty industry folk, greedily appraising, ‘Let’s do it half sashimi-style, half dry-fried-spicy’, And also not to be rid of the tank, to remain forever Chosen and not yet chosen, neither living nor dead, Eddying between two walls of bubbling glass. Learn something about indifference.
A few pages later, in a jump-cut to the Caesarian birth of her first child—a pregnancy that has forever banished the poet from limbo—she sympathizes with her unborn baby’s reluctance to leave his tank:
Under a tangle of capillaries,
A baby is dreaming of his old home.
The Sunday morning swimming pool
Of far-off children.
Then yellow glows in the curtains And his mouth snapdragons open
. . . .
This is the world:
The street-cleaning machine
The slow lob of rubbish
What can narrative offer if it lacks plot? It prints the shape of a mind looking at the world, and from that a pattern takes shape—which might be another word for personality. In all three poems, Sullivan masterfully follows the best recipe for narrative: start in the middle, fail to arrive, remember to love things, make the reader hot, and make the reader laugh. She knows there are no good endings. All endings are bad. That is why it is difficult to end a story, and you have to stop before the end. The standard ideas about endings, she doesn’t buy. Arrival, no. Death, no. Marriage, no. A baby, no. Love gained, no. Knowledge acquired, no. You have to look for the next tank.