Book Review

As certain traditional ways of keeping time in poetry such as meter slowly disappear, we find ourselves stuck in a perpetual present. Along with a sense of rhythmic regularity, the sense of being en route also vanishes. This is an anxiety we have inherited partly from the modernist ideas of dependency, which insisted on foregrounding how specific features of things become available to our consciousness, and how, in return, our consciousness hinges on their availability. Most successful reactions to this modernist inheritance have come in the form of long-line poetry in which there’s a perpetual uncertainty about progression. This uncertainty, paradoxically, gives rise to an affirmation of the present, or what Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht calls a “broad present”: a strong awareness of inhabiting a moment and the many simultaneous processes that generate a sense of intensity, and a weak ability to assess its specific relationship to the past or future.

These reactions to modernism retain its sensuous images while inserting them into long stretches of attention. They capture, in other words, how a perpetual continuum is sustained through specific personal attachments. They expose the habits or forms of insistence that make our present moment inhabitable or, more importantly, available for contemplation in the first place. Poets drawn to long lines deal with this uncertainty by replacing the security of some formal devices with other forms of insistence: for Ginsberg (as it was for Whitman), it is often through the regenerative shock of anaphora; for early Ashbery, through a continual recourse to conjunctions which elongate the feel of a thought even when it has been variously outsourced to description; and for later Jorie Graham through a fragmentation of language, which is relentlessly magnetized by astounding sensorial stimulation.

Hannah Sullivan’s first book of poems, Three Poems, absorbs many of the tensions latent in the modernist and postmodernist experiments with free verse and long-line poetry. Though it would be wrong to limit the formal ambitions of the book to the domain of these two verse forms (it has a good number of rhymes and short lines), they seem to be its general and often unconscious proclivity, or simply, what the book spends most of its life doing. Like when somebody says, I’m really an introvert but I can be an extrovert, the book seems to affirm the ultimate slipperiness of formal categories in modern poetry while at the same time testing the agency that ensues from bending them. Through a self-conscious flirtation with formal tendencies and a general abidance to long lines, Sullivan’s poetry actively reinterprets the nature of our desire for the present moment. In so doing, she captures a crucial limitation of contemporary poetry whose insistence on a “broad present” makes our most commonly used poetic forms seem ahistorical as well. Establishing a satisfying personal relationship to the past and the future entails, for Sullivan, understanding the historical activation and substantiation of what we take to be contemporary formal and rhetorical drives.

The three long poems in the book all capture different periods in life. The first poem, “You, Very Young in New York,” is a melancholy recollection of youthful experiences in the hustle and bustle of New York City, meeting with an ex for drinks and an uneasy consent for “one more” night “for old time’s sake.” Just as we try to adjust our voice to get into the poem, it begins with the speaker trying to make the right adjustments to stop feeling out of place or to secure a momentary pose of innocence.

You stand around,

On the same street corners, smoking, thin-elbowed,
Looking down avenues in a lime-green dress
With one arm raised, waiting to get older.

Nothing happens. You try without success
The usual prescriptions, the usual assays on innocence . . .

The poet is describing an urban kind of indulgence where the self feels incomplete unless it can serve as an ornament to the general atmosphere of the city and assume a textbook pose of melancholy that unconsciously affirms one’s participation in an otherwise indifferent stream of movement. One might hear, in this first poem, many echoes of Frank O’Hara: the yellows of the city, the bees, the taxicabs, the desire to capture everything and nothing, always being at the threshold of a personal emergency and a performative sense of melancholy. “ . . . And the shape of traffic / Bulges and breaks in waves while the slam and the slam-hold of horns / Sings a scale of human frustration.” Seemingly random details are continuously integrated into the flow of the scene: the dreadful rush, the arbitrariness of urban perceptions, the random encounters with other people’s lives on social media, the ongoing internal monologue of the poet. The self could disintegrate at any minute were it not for the intimacy forged by the incessant and spontaneous flow of observations. The “slam and slam-hold of horns” captures something about the form of these long lines: a mixture of individual observations and the maddening insistence of the present moment to hold its breath.

Differently from O’Hara, however, the temptation to capture experience, and too much of it, is somehow tamed by the form-giving compulsion that is announced early on by the insistent use of adjectives and, specifically, compound adjectives like “thin-elbowed” and “pore-ticked.” This search for precision and the desire to get the world right hint at one of the most important questions in the book: Can the particulars suffice or do they always have to be folded into abstract generalization? Does it pay off, this desire to secure a sense of the world at a specific moment in time? Or are we simply destined to end up with a sense of what it was like? Are we, in other words, always fated to an exile in the land of rhymes and metaphors, or can poetry let us inhabit those places where “so much depends on” a particular poise or arrangement?

I have to take a step back, however, for the traditional correlation between the activity of likening things and a sense of loss becomes much more complicated in Sullivan’s book. Her rhymes are multifarious and carry out wildly different operations. They have been compared to those of Browning for their occasional boldness and performative insincerity.

He is applying to Columbia, NYU Stern, and Stanford GSB.
He thinks of going abroad as an attempt to live deliberately . . .

The cheap internalization of Thoreau’s motto, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” is captured by the artificiality of rhyme, managing to make the reader feel suspicious: The poem can churn out rhymes just as easily as people can glue philosophy to their lives. Sullivan’s rhyming couplets, which return throughout the book, are always satisfying but they maintain a complex relationship to the form. In the first section they can afford to be amusing and playful given the overload of information that wants in, whereas, in later sections, as the speaker’s attitude toward life undergoes great transformations, these couplets work to tie up the loose ends or cultivate necessary illusions of structure. The shape-shifting of and persistent return to specific forms and patterns, then, are integral to the book in its entirety, and to the second poem in particular.

“Repeat until Time: The Heraclitus Poem,” is an extended reflection on Heraclitus’ famous maxim, that no one can step into the same river twice. The poem opens with a description that announces the passage of time and aging: “but the ankles are different this summer, / Less lean, veinier, slower in the river.” The subject of change and the idea of one’s life narrative absorbing everything and reducing them to mere materials for a philosophy of life are central to this second poem. To counteract these anxieties, the poet’s ways of paying attention to the world transform entirely. She does not shy away from engaging in overtly philosophical and epistemological reflections on time (in some ways reminiscent of Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”), yet she controls the breadth and reach of such reflections through a decidedly descriptive and imagistic engagement with memory and history. For example, section 1.2 begins with the following stanzas:

When things are patternless, their fascination’s stronger.
Failed form is hectic with loveliness, and compels us longer.

The horse chestnut gets on tediously with its leaves,
Provides spiked toys, diets middle-aged in winter,
Gets low-carb skeletal, squash lean, only to
Have another go with the old Coolwhip come spring.

What is lost in this second poem is a clear sense of placement and narrative. The different sections hopscotch from 1960s Hollywood to “the flamers in the Castro from last night order[ing] oat pancakes”; from Henry James’s home in 1914, to going back home to London to “the Terminal 5 cathedral lighting” and the poetic ambitions of Percy Bysshe Shelley. It is difficult to trace a coherent sense of self in this section, and maybe that is the point: it simply is not available to the speaker. The poem feels like a Poundian interlude in which the poet pieces history together through highly descriptive and evocative language. This, then, allows the poet to relate the process of inheriting and creating historical narratives to the process of creating narratives around our own lives.

My turn toward the language of lack or absence in this poem has also to do with the general unavailability of an emotional register that the speaker of the first poem could take for granted. Upon going home to London and getting off the plane, the speaker realizes that “London is home and it is foreign.” This sense of an unfamiliar familiarity urges her to put things together without imposing a formal order on them. However, the speaker’s gaze is so precise and penetrating that even in the absence of a formal structure, the attention resolves itself into a discernible form.

Home: a queue of open-toed sandals by the door,
The Velcro straps slack, guileless as dogs’ tongues,
The Persil-white brocade of laundered sheets,
And on the wall the Harvard calendar you bought them,
The knife-smoothed fondant of the frozen Charles,
Only your name against the day of coming home.

All of these lines somehow orchestrate a sense of nostalgia and capture the unassuming, silent reminders of parental love. This very reticence of objects that announce love and care is often what gives them the knife-sharp ability to pierce the heart.

Family becomes the central theme of the last section, “The Sandpit after Rain,” a profoundly moving poem about opposed experiences: losing a father and childbirth. The question of bringing form to one’s itinerant thoughts continues to occupy the speaker here, who tries to counterbalance images of labor contraction, anxiety, stress with meditative exercises. The repetitions and anaphoric imperatives (remember, atone, think) and Sanskrit phrases (a nod to Eliot) clear the way for memories to play a more generative role. As opposed to the second poem, where personal memories often refused to collaborate and dilate the present without philosophical surplus, here—though in ways that are painful—they come to the speaker. The proximity of the two major incidents—birth and death—discloses uncanny similarities between the two.

 . . . that there is no necessary season for things
and birth and death happen on adjacent wards,
that both are labour, halting and starting . . .

Moments like this echo the conceptual ambitions of the second poem. The theoretical proximity of life and death begins to establish a central thread, and returning to the physical world becomes a matter of urgency. Wallace Stevens once wrote: “The greatest poverty is not to live / in a physical world, to feel that one’s desire / Is too difficult to tell from despair.” This is exactly what conceptual acrobatics in poetry risks: a complete loss of touch with physical reality. And even if reality is slippery at the end of the day, even if it cannot be entrusted to time, it is still perhaps our best resource for new expression. And in fact, some of the most moving passages in the book are in this last section when the theoretical pressures on the instance, the singularity of the instance and physical reality, are lifted.

So when something singular
Comes along, it is a miracle:
Hail tap-dances down the tarmac,
Skittering in its silver shoes.

Three Poems is a remarkable work that allows readers to think about the achievements of modernism under an entirely different light. Sullivan’s at once remarkably careful and deeply personal images manage to keep the modernist distance from hardening into intellectualism and fill it with forms of desire that may grant the reader the rare pleasures of presence and affirmation. The book’s final insistence on the present feels hard-won, convincing, and true to experience.

About the Reviewer

Melih Levi is a PhD student in comparative literature at Stanford University.