- Self Bearing Witness
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
80 Pages; Print, $11.99
There are indeed three poems in Hannah Sullivan's new book. They are long and go down like a smoothie in an airport. Healthy-ish but there's ice cream in there. The first, about doing drugs and gettin' laid, is called "You, Very Young in New York" and is about fifteen pages. The second and third are each about thirty pages; their titles are "Repeat Until Time" and "The Sandpit after Rain." They're about 1) the death of Sullivan's father and 2) the two-week-late and C-section birth of her child. Hugh Kenner and Joan Didion references, as well as gestures to Tinder and reflexology tell you what you need to know about the poet. Do you like The New Yorker but skip the poems and the fiction? You might enjoy this book. Sullivan, a Harvard grad now teaching at Oxford, has also written an academic book about revision and the modernists.
Because the poems are so long, Sullivan works quasi-narratively. What does that mean for her? The poems gain movement out of section breaks. Rather than use these short, usually page-long sections to dose the reader with a series of fragile lyric moments, Sullivan charts low-key emotional changes in her narrator. These are slight emotions, and Sullivan is good about alternating their provenance. The emotions are generally presented to the reader through four millennial languages: the feminist body, Western new age "yoga" mysticism (and all its kin), grumpy acquiescence to the possibility of freedom through acceptance of the market, and the referential language of the academic. Each detail that leads to a slight emotional shift—the discovery of a new cocktail, whispers from a Tinder date, or reading
Henry James—suddenly coalesce as the key moments leading to the ego transition that bursts through the end of each poem. Here, she is replacing bereavement cards for the death of her father with congratulations for her new baby in the final poem:
Look at the mantelpiece with its tents.My life is at a distance from my life.Like the Telegraph announcements column,Not always as interesting as the weather,and certainlyLacking the true frisson of pleasureThat the elderly take in the dying,The jilted in the newly engaged.
This is one of the better stanzas in the book. The foregrounded engagement with Heraclitus in an earlier section ("Repeat Until Time" is subtitled "The Heraclitus Poem") earns her a concentrated, personal maxim of change: "My life is at a distance from my life." The three poems are in chronological order and the effect is additive. Slow change suddenly total. The self bearing witness. The astonishing appearance of some concrete fact in James comes to mind (there's a section on him in the second poem), or how Zweig uncovers the years of tension leading to someone handing someone [End Page 28] else a napkin. Mannered pre-war Europe in NPR America.
Instead of a tourist playing chess or reading novels, we see Sullivan on the internet. From "You, Very Young in New York" :
On Yelp someone has written, 'This cakesmells so goodIf I ever have to go on a respirator (*knockon wood)
I hope they use this cake case as myrespirator.'(*knock on wood*)…The bakery is in Astoria, on Broadway and28th.On Street View you look at strangers' faces,at the averted gaze
Of men in sportswear smoking in front ofF*MOUS BRANDS,At takeout bikes, nail salons, Turkish icecreamstands,
And a grocery store with an unlit sign, 'HotCoffee,'
Notice the slight difference between this, the bored internet time of Sullivan's twenties when she dreams of all the stores she will visit, and what she does following acupuncture sessions to induce birth in her late thirties. From "The Sandpit After Rain":
I get a discount on the final session,'It wasn't going to work, as I said…'The date must be wrong, miscalculated.Soon it will be the year of the sheep.And what...