“Three Poems” – Hannah Sullivan

Learning to Read #19


Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have eroded my attention span to a few minutes at best, so I’ve always been more of a fan of short poems than long poems. I’ve never really thought about what the cut off is, or how the change in length manifests itself in the poem; I’ve just been put off a little by those long poems that feel like a marathon for the reader to get through. Evenly paced, repetitive, and so very long…..

So I was interested to work my way through this book. Three poems across 71 pages, which definitely puts them into the long poem category for me. I wanted to see whether the poems felt like genuine long poems, or more like a collection of short poems with a single theme. I wanted to immerse myself in each one, and to savour the experience.

So the book starts with “You, Very Young in New York”. As the title suggests, the poem is a chapter from life in a big city, for a twenty something professional. There are some bold images in here –  “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” or “CTRL + N is jammed in the spreadsheet of your mind, / Nothing seems real or right, so you just press send” – but what I really enjoyed was the sense of exploring a character and the feeling of pacing. The structure of the poem gives you slow days and quick weeks, in the way that life is at that age. The underlying mood, of innocence and an almost desperate optimism, again feels just right for the subject. The past is presented in snapshots, the present is erratic and fleeting, and the future is never really mentioned. Yeah, I can relate to that.

The second poem is “Repeat until Time”. “Days may be where we live, but mornings are eternity / They wake us and every day waking is absurdity / All the things you just did yesterday to do over again, eternally.” This is subtitled as The Heraclitus Poem – we do the same things over and over, but nothing ever remains the same. If I’m honest, this poem struck me more as a collection of themed poems. I like them, but the movement between characters and times feels a bit brutal for them to truly become a single poem. From 2.4 on the eve of the First World War, through the trees of 2.1 – “The horse chestnut gets on tediously with it’s leaves / provides spiked toys, diets middle aged in winter” – to the compact word play of 3.2 and the A Bomb test in 4.4. Great images, strong words. Maybe I’m just missing the point of the numbering system…

Finally we have “The Sandpit after Rain”. Two hospital stories, interwoven, birth and death. “Think of a hospital ward at night; / The phone squirming on someone’s bedside table, / The doctors descending like robbers on the bed, / The youngest running from a dream he had just begun…” That, in my opinion, is a great way to open. The stories here, memories picked out in intricate detail, weave through one another, and the sense of this poem as a single narrative is acute. Even as it talks of nectarines and yoga, you are always kept close to the theme. And it really works, it’s a really strong, vivid poem. They really are stories, told in full, compared and contrasted.

So all in all, I was glad I stuck with these three poems. A voice for the future, for sure.

You can learn a little more about Hannah Sullivan here and there is a performance here.

You can buy the book here with a review too.


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