Jane Simmons continues her reviews of contemporary women’s poetry with this review of Hannah Sullivan’s award winning Three Poems.
Hannah Sullivan’s debut collection recently won the prize for poetry in the Costa book awards. At the award’s presentation, Sinéad Morrissey said of Three Poems:
A magnificent debut . . . assured, cool, and anthropological in its focus on a life lived via distinct stages and in discreet contexts. The elasticity of her poetic gift – the sheer range of what she can make language do and say – coupled with formal mastery, ensures we’ll be reading this collection for years to come.
Later, Morrissey praised the collection further, saying:
Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems is an astonishing debut, challenging the parameters of what poetry can do. Her collection stood out even amongst this year’s outstanding and diverse shortlist. Rarely has such a significant poet arrived so fully-formed.
This is only the second time that a debut collection has won the poetry award
Until winning the award, Hannah Sullivan was best known as an academic. She received her first degree in Classics from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 2000 and then spent a year as a Kennedy Scholar in the Comparative Literature Department at Harvard. After studying for a Master’s degree in Cultural Studies at the London Consortium, she went back to Harvard in 2003 to begin a Ph.D. in English and American Literature. From 2008-2011, she was an Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University in California, where she taught undergraduate courses on T. S. Eliot, the 1910s, British Modernism, and Book History, and graduate seminars on 20c Authorship, Textual Criticism, and Literary Periodization. She is now an Associate Professor at New College, Oxford.
In 2013, Hannah Sullivan received the prestigious Philip Leverhulme Prize for her outstanding contribution to English Literature. In addition, The Work of Revision (Harvard University Press, 2013) was awarded the 2014 Rose Mary Crawshay Prize from the British Academy and the 2015 University English Book Prize. Three Poems (Faber, 2018) is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Spring 2018.
The first poem of the collection, You, Very Young, in New York, follows a young woman living in the city
On the same street corners, smoking, thin-elbowed
and tells of the
huge lost innocence at which she aimed
the lost innocence, of course, is the acquisition of experience which the young woman yearns to achieve but which is never attained. After this you sleeps with a former lover, the poem doubles back on itself and the narrative of its final section rejoins that of the first section of the poem where the you stands on Fifth Avenue at dawn and watches
unlit cabs go by
and, like the idea of lost innocence
recede like long perspectives
It is never made clear in You, Very Young in New York, whether you is a substitute for I – that is, the younger self of the poet, or whether the poet is addressing another person.
You, Very Young in New York (an extract)
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, 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:
I love you to the wrong person, I feel depressed,
Kissing a girl, a sharpener, sea urchin, juice cleanses.
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
Whetted on the ridges of a tooth.
And when he slams you hard against the frame,
The pore-ticked sallow bruise seems truer
Than the speed, the spasm, with which you came.
So nothing happens. No matter what you try,
The huge lost innocence at which you aimed
Recedes like long perspectives, like the sky
Square at the end of Fifth whitening at dawn
Unseen, as you watch the unlit cabs go by.
The doubling back of this first poem is developed further in the second poem, Repeat Until Time – a poem which takes repetition as its subject and incorporates it in its structure. It is divided into numbered sections and moves through different times and places, from San Francisco to Rye in England, once the home of Henry James, before finally arriving at Nevada and a representation of a nuclear bomb test
Now nothing will be the same again
And everything will be as it always was.
The third poem The Sandpit After Rain takes as its subject the death of a father and the birth of a child. This poem is divided into four sections – but unlike those in the second poem, these are each given titles. Unlike the momentous events, these titles are simple, domestic, Stuffing a Chicken. Near the end of the poem, the speaker explains it has been a year of life events – the language is borrowed, but its use by the poet to refer to such momentous events is clearly an example of bathos or irony.
This wit alternates with melancholy as she juxtaposes the birth of her first son
hauled out, in a windowless room
Somewhere near Paddinton to Radio Five Live
with her father’s death:
there is no necessary season for things
and birth and death happen on adjacent wards,
that both are labour, halting and startling.
In each of the three poems of the collection, Sullivan moves between comedy and tragedy, social commentary and cultural satire, demonstrating her ability to represent the most intimate experiences in the powerful and inventive use of language and imagery, and her interest in poetic form – reportage, prose poetry, rhyming couplets, tercets and quatrains with irregular rhyme schemes:
When things are patternless, their fascination’s stronger.
Failed form is hectic with loveliness, and compels us longer.
It is a quotation which sums up her achievement in this debut collection of poems. It certainly deserves the acclaim and accolades it has been awarded – and makes Hannah Sullivan a poet to watch.
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