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The Best Book of 2007 that I Didn’t Read Until the Week Before Last
One of the problems with these calendar-year lists (not to mention grant and prize deadlines) is that it tends to give books published in the autumn or winter of the year rather short shrift. When asked about our end-of-year picks, I was still holding out hope that this book would have arrived, because I had a feeling in my heart of hearts that it was the one I wanted to choose. But I certainly couldn’t choose it without reading it through. Yes, I had seen plenty of the poems around in journals, and even a handful of them in process. It was a book I was excited to get my hands as soon as I learned it was coming out. But then it became something more urgent. For it is not just a terrific second book of poems, fulfilling the promise of a knock-out first book that had both nimbleness of formal execution and wildness of emotional landscape—it is also, bar a posthumous collection from manuscripts, a last book of poems. Maybe it is better to talk about it in January, that month of the two-faced god, a time when beginnings can look like endings, and endings like beginnings.
Finally the book arrived. It is Sarah Hannah’s Inflorescence. And it is as good as I’d hoped—better. I’m not sure how to explain the mix of emotions I felt in reading it, largely at one sitting. Sarah Hannah took her own life, as the rather quaint phrase goes, at the age of 40 this summer, a couple of weeks before I was supposed to meet her for the first time. We had been in sporadic contact since I had e-mailed her a fan letter some years ago after having read her terrific mushroom poem, “Destroying Angel,” on Poetry Daily. The poem had a love of sounds and figurative language and rhythm that combined the energies of the best formal and free verse. We exchanged books, and I was bowled over by many of the poems in Longing Distance—clearly “Destroying Angel” wasn’t a fluke. Many, though not all, of her poems are in forms, but the form seems barely able to contain the energy. I was excited about the cross-fertilizations, the fluency across those borders, something American poetry needs more of.
The book flap of Inflorescence describes the book as a “fierce, often witty memoir-in-verse” in which “Sarah Hannah confronts her role as caretaker of her dying, mentally ill mother.” I think this description (aside from “fierce” and “witty”) does the book a disservice, perhaps trying to tie it into a trend for memoir as a genre, “true confessions.” Who wants to read a memoir in verse? I don’t. I want to read poems, which may or may not be “real” life transformed into art. The factual clue is helpful if you want to read this as narrative (and many now no doubt will), but likewise unnecessary. The poems have lives of their own, and while the poems are arranged in a chronological order, I did not feel I was reading a “programmatic” volume.
Hannah’s formal dexterity gives her enough distance to handle the albumin of raw subject matter without denaturing it, the chime of sounds often having the childlike lilt and horror of nursery rhymes, as “Night Nurse,” which begins:
Don’t talk to me of Paris,
I have duties.
Don’t talk to me of loss;
I bury pills in applesauce.
Put it away with the dust pan and broom
In the smeared closet.
Deny me, all my implements—
This bed of sharps, this wound clock ticking,
This chamber pot and sickroom.
Forget us, every one, tomorrow,
And slide the morning in
Like a fresh dose, a clean spoon.
The bleakness is alleviated by the aural richness—”ticking” chiming with “sickroom”, “sickroom” resonating with “broom,” the slant rhyme of “in”/”spoon” and assonance of “room”/”spoon.” How are we to pronounce “wound”? With a clock, one would rhyme it with “found,” but clearly it is also a trauma. And the bed of sharps! That final image—cold, clear, round, metallic in the mouth, could make a cameo in Larkin’s masterpiece “Aubade.”
Hannah is as at ease in garden variety free verse as in rarer cultivars such as Sapphics or accentual alliterative verse (one poem is titled, “Yes, Fiddlehead Ferns are Even Older than the Anglo Saxon Form,” which it goes on to illustrate and embody.) She can be funny, and playful, but looks on things with a cold eye: she isn’t afraid of sentiment, but always turns aside at the brink of the sentimental, resisting it in a flat phrase that has, for once, earned its flatness. As she concludes one poem,
. . . All of it’s just play,
Of course—nods and jabs from them, as if you needed
A refresher on tautology: the dead are dead;
Flowers are pretty.
This book is literally an anthology, that is, a collection of flowers, and in it the poet is concerned with naming, with taxonomy, and with the binomial nature of the world. She is appropriately always alive to the roots of words and their multivalences. About “Winged Eunymous (Euonymous alatus)”:
And then the tree gone ghost, felled sometime by someone
After us, a most beautiful and unusual shade,
“Shade” has at least three “shades” of meaning here—a shade of color, the shade of a tree, and shade as in the shades of the dead. Now that is a syllable earning its real estate!
I realize I have written nearly all this of her in the present tense. The book is so vibrant, so vivid, so quick, I cannot do otherwise.
The book opens with this definition of “Inforescence,” from Webster’s Collegiate, Tenth edition:
Inforescence. From Latin, in + florescere to begin to bloom. 1 a (1): the mode of development and arrangement of flowers on an axis (2): a floral axis with its appendages; also: a flower cluster 2. the budding and unfolding of blossoms: FLOWERING