Longing Distance by Sarah Hannah. Tupelo Press, 2004
Inflorescence by Sarah Hannah. Tupelo Press, 2007
In May 2007, the talented and vibrant poet Sarah Hannah died tragically young, leaving behind a small but impressive oeuvre, her bereft family and friends (including this author), and many devoted students. As a person and a writer, Sarah was complex and exceptional: erudite and down-to-earth, strong and fragile, scathing and compassionate, her profound humanity undiminished by a caustic brilliance. She had a wicked sense of humor, but also great generosity of spirit. To understand her personality’s exhilarating—and difficult—marriage of contradictions is to begin to understand her writing too. Having received her B.A. from Wesleyan University and Ph.D. from Columbia University, Sarah taught at Emerson College in Boston. Her first book Longing Distance (Tupelo Press, 2003), a semi-finalist for the Yale Younger Poets Prize, received widespread acclaim from leading poets, for its formal dexterity, its verbal play and emotional potency. Her second volume, Inflorescence (Tupelo Press, 2007), published posthumously, confirmed the promise of the first.
Longing Distance established her formalist credentials, although I suspect Sarah herself would have squirmed uncomfortably at a categorization implying some dry, toilsome, Casaubon-like endeavor, or a practice borne solely of ideology and therefore at odds with her sensuous love of language and what she would have seen as the writer’s instinctive urge to understand how sound, rhythm, music, and a “precise manipulation of syntax, rhyme and structure” (to borrow her own phrase) distils meaning in poetry. Adherence to tradition can arise out of a sense of obligation, a fondness for linguistic exercises, or as a reactionary gesture. Alternatively, form can be understood not merely as an intellectual construct, but as the inevitable outcome of an organic process, starting with the basic components of rhythms and sounds, which ultimately progress to those forms because they most profoundly express otherwise inexpressible depths. Sarah’s engagement with literature was as much visceral as intellectual.
[private]These matters were often the subject of our conversations, right from our first meeting, when she was my student at Wesleyan Writers’ Conference. Knowing I’m a sonnet junkie too, she brought me one of hers. She was the kind of student who makes you forget your next appointment, although that teacher-student relationship was almost instantly supplanted by a deep kinship on many levels, and an enduring friendship. “You Furze, Me Gorse” impressed me with its deft technique, its use of figurative language, its sly asides and the way she incorporated into her writing a certain self-conscious reflection on language itself, which was not at odds with the poem but, rather, contributed to its tenor: “Furze, Gorse, of equal and abiding value / But for the speed of each word off the lips: / The warm and cornucopic cup of U / Hanging on by the very fingertips / Of the lazy Z . . . .” The poem bears her distinctive hallmark of lyricism cut with a sharp edge. The slangy diction of the title is set against the sonnet form’s measured tone, almost doubling as a line itself and so adding an extra dimension to the poem, as any good title should. The witty take on “You Tarzan, me Jane” swiftly disposes of an entire misguided view on gender relations and announces the central theme, timed nicely to emerge at the turn into the sestet: “Raise the lamps high, let us look at ourselves; / Once a tender union, now turned fierce.” Sarah often multilayered her references with a finely tuned self-awareness, as with this title, which allowed her to comment on the very process in which she was engaged and to offer a kaleidoscopic view of any one image or idea. I often think that process is discernable, even transparent, in the best poetry, clarified and not usurped by product.
“The Linen Closet,” also from Longing Distance, and a signatory poem of hers —“Oh, the linen closet, imperial / Ladder of shelves”—is imperial in its demeanor, its stock-taking: “gold towels glowing / With repose, night creams pearled, in pots / Their risen oils yellowed at the rims, / Tubed salves, perfumed proteins. // Tall and narrow, narrow and deep, / The linen closet of worry and care!” The closet houses a museum of bottles and jars jumbled together, the significance of their contents similarly confused: the cures and even the items of comfort implying the pain they’re meant to alleviate. The ladder of shelves stretches upwards, a majestic structure housing an apothecary of life and death, the poet’s inner fears distilled into “tinctures”: “. . . But no matter the potion // You could not ignore the space / At the back, the absolute black / In the bowels of the shelves, beyond the patch / And blanch of gauze, the catch of clots— / That unflagging question (past cure) // No tonic or robe could appease, / No meter or prodding inspection / Could probe . . . .”
A sort of archetype for her unconscious, this linen closet is drawn from a child’s skewed sense of perspective; as with a Christmas tree from the past, it is recalled as infinitely taller than in reality. Merging, the child and adult views are drawn inexorably towards the finality of that terrible darkness at the back: “. . . you could not quite make it out, / And you would not forget it.” Drawn in by a language rich in assonance and alliteration, the reader sees through the writer’s eyes—and feels too—the fascinating grandeur of her own fear.
In “Anaesthesia Green,” which begins: “At the forked vein’s crux, / The largest on the back of your hand, / The doctor points his needle,” we accompany the poet on a journey into unconsciousness: “Count backwards from a hundred. / You’re going in. // To the sleep bath, the sulfur pail.” In this poem too her language is at its most terrifyingly seductive:
You are peeling back leaves
In the darkened forest.
You have cooled to lichen, almost
Silver, outspread in the eaves of the bark
Like small arthritic hands.
You comb through the ionic ferns,
The mosses lying like animals.
You drift, cooler still—
Crassula, sedum, sempervivum,
Thick as limbs.
In her second book Inflorescence—with its cover featuring a painting by her mother, Renee Rothbein—Sarah’s most urgent and deepest preoccupations become starker, shedding light on many poems in the first. Architectural tropes, such as the one in “The Linen Closet” recur regularly throughout this book in poems like “The Hutch,” “The Safe House,” “Read the House,” and, one of my favorites, “Eternity, That Dumbwaiter,” which ends:
Age of sickness, age of pause.
And so it waits at ground
as dour burly men
Heave in the load. It buckles
With the box; it stalls; it will not go,
and then it rallies, then it’s off—
Resumes its loop and chore,
Determined servant through the stories.
Someone’s calling from another floor.
Many of her poems also loop back to a re-imagined childhood idyll, evoked by place or, in the poem “At Last, Fire Seen as a Psychotic Break,” by a home which has long since burned down. This event was itself irresistibly symbolic of a state of mind with which she was all too familiar: “You have to evacuate the family, but no one / Wants to go. And when they are dead, / And you are contemplating / The sticks, the wheezing ashes, / The iron pots melted to pools on the lawn, // The authorities will say it was structural.” The startlingly bleak imagery—“iron pots melted to pools”—is characteristic in its inventiveness, its merciless rendering of a scene of imagined destruction, its revelations about the inner self, and its homage to Sylvia Plath.
Although she wrote a monograph about her famous precursor, Sarah’s deeply rooted artistic and intellectual affinity with Sylvia Plath can’t be reduced to biographical terms only, however congruent their emotional landscapes and use of figurative language. Given more time, she might have gone on to write, for example, about W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, or Homer as well, these being just a few of the poets in her personal pantheon.
The monograph, “‘Something Else Hauls Me Through Air’: Sound and Structure in Four Late Poems by Sylvia Plath,” is a scholarly analysis of that poet’s formal development. She writes of “Fever 103”: “Tone is central to the poem’s effectiveness both on the page and in the ear . . . One of the poem’s great successes lies in the voice of its speaker, who mercilessly combines . . . high and colloquial language, and serious and mocking tones . . . In the second line, the terror of hell is instantly deflated and lampooned in the image of Cerberus.” This commentary is an apt description of her own handling of common vernacular set against an elevated tone: her use of form is perhaps a riskier usage than the confessional these days since in some American circles a whiff of traditionalism is practically a hanging offense.
Even the simple sentence can serve as “a hypnotic and expressive device in a poem,” she remarks of the poem “Little Fugue,” describing how embedded even in Plath’s free verse are the formal precepts of poetry. With her range and fluency, Sarah was equally at ease writing free verse:
7. Get rid of the wicker furniture. It was uncomfortable anyway.
8. Bend at the knees again, raise your hands slowly from your
sides wide—wider, up above your head, and repeat in a tone
that steadily ascends:
I am not a dark lord, I am a Queen.
(“First Singing Lesson at Forty,” Inflorescence)
Despite her erudition—or, rather, because of it—her approach to literature and culture more generally wasn’t precious, elitist, or hierarchical—neither in her life nor her writing, which were for her inextricable.
Throughout Inflorescence the security of place and home is inextricably tied to her love-hate relationship with her mother, her sole career for years—if this is the right term to describe a mother who was in and out of mental institutions. So it wasn’t quite a reversal of roles when finally Sarah cared for her during her mother’s final illness, the period that provides the backdrop for her second book, described as a “memoir in verse” (a description A. E. Stallings rightly objects to, because it diminishes Hanna’s stylistic accomplishments). One of Sarah’s most powerful poems, “Azarel (Angel of Death),” strides forward with savage exuberance and an inventiveness which packs a devastating punch, right from the opening line “Death the lawyer adjudicates between us.” Ostensibly about her mother, the poem’s last stanza begins “Death the lover. / You loved him many years,” and concludes:
Whored him, married and divorced him;
Coaxed, cuckolded, and cozened him;
You high-stakes rolled, you bet the house
And won, but now, my dear,
He’s really come.
Although the book’s ostensible unifying device is a taxonomy of flora, its real theme is her mother’s mental illness, an illness that formed the narrative of Sarah’s childhood. The tone throughout, informed by the confessional mode, remains that of a poet who, while passionate about a natural world especially connected with her mother, is also indebted to her father, Nathan Goldstein, a painter whose oeuvre, unlike her mother’s, is in the classicist mold. Sarah poignantly and wittily explores this rich inheritance of opposites in the poem “Sky Pencil,” from Inflorescence: “So we’re of one mind that there are two names for / Every real thing—in Latin, Genus, species— / More, if we can count the common ones from lore / Many impartial // Parties call this poem’s title tree ‘Japanese / Holly’ but you should know right now: we aren’t here / At all concerned with neutrality.” Her trip to London, the city of her mother’s birth—“Oh my Greenwich Mean. Zero Longitude!”—was one chapter in a lifelong quest to understand a mother who was both nemesis and inspiration, and to reconcile the ensuing opposing forces within her. She understood these experiences implicated her as a writer, as in “Sky Pencil”: “. . .which // Brings me to the flip side of that coin of my / Begetting, the woman who’d have loved that name, / Who painted, let’s say, quite a bit differently, / Colors off spectrum, // Flowers, heads, eye sockets, and skulls, floating.” From this mother, the inquiring, intelligent, and creative child would deduce that creativity must come with a sometimes terrible price.
Although she was absorbed by a maternal legacy increasingly equated with the creative drive, her technical finesse in this poem particularly, written in Sapphics, illustrates how Sarah’s paternal legacy was of equal importance to her development: “‘That’s not the real / Name,’ he says. ‘Aphids’ // I reply ‘It has aphids. They’re killing it.’ / ‘How will you find a cure,’ he says, ‘when you don’t / Know the real name?’” By targeting the limitations of this language used to define and codify the natural world, Sarah takes aim at herself too, since her fascination with the terms she scorns has her putting them in the poem. This inclusion ultimately validates and exonerates her own ambivalence, and forms a kind of acknowledgement of and tribute to a dual inheritance. Her legacy lies in such contrasts, although she struggled to come to terms with her creativity being traceable to the drives inherited from a literal marriage of polar opposites, analogous with the bi-polar disorder from which her mother suffered.
Linguistically and tonally, all her poetry has an extraordinary richness. Both volumes reviewed here are “of equal and abiding value”; one hears in the first the echoes preceding the sounds themselves in the second, with that book’s perhaps more sensational provenance (it was published posthumously). Sarah departed just as she neared the peak of her powers. Read, admired, and loved in her lifetime, she should have been read more while she lived.
Shortly before she died, and referring to her step-mother, she applied her analytical mind to her personal circumstances, asking: “So, do I go with Harriet and life, or my mother and death?” She couldn’t always shine that compassion she displayed to others on herself, but a poem like “For the Fog Horn When There is No Fog,” from Longing Distance shows moving wisdom about pain and humanity:
For everything that tries to counsel vigilance—
The surly sullen bell, before the going,
The warning that reiterates across
The water: there might be fog someday
(They will be lost), there might be fog
And even squall, and you’ll have nothing
But remembrance, and you will have to learn
To be grateful.
The following poem’s eloquence and elegance further attests to both her promise and her achievement, and to our great loss:
Cassetta Frame (Italy, circa 1600)
Robert Lehmann Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art
I wonder what his hands were like—skin,
Thumbprint’s orbits, half moon of the nail—
The artisan who plied bough and alloy, chisel,
Stone, for the sake of circumscription:
Poplar, walnut, ebony, pear, niello,
Crystal, lapis. The words abscond from wood
And bloom in trees: Pioppo tremulo;
Forma di pera. I confess to find
Myself astonished by outskirts of things:
Hem and shirr, ice storm, sea coast, shadow, fringe,
To find myself forsworn to the mixture,
Poplar, walnut, ebony, pear,
Niello, crystal, lapis. Lapse! No life
But in the rim; no word but on the lips.
The materials used were typed out on a small card beneath the frame on display and are considered by this author to be a found poem.
(This essay is adapted from an earlier version, which appeared in The Dark Horse, issue 21, for Winter 2007/2008.)[/private]