Longing Distance, by Sarah Hannah.
I had just ordered this collection, Sarah Hannah’s first, when I learned that Ms. Hannah had died, apparently by her own hand. That fact unfortunately colored my experience of her book, making it seem perhaps darker than it really is.
There’s nothing wrong with the more somber registers, of course; Sylvia Plath made enduring poetry from them, and there is more than a passing resemblance between Plath and Hannah. Both were masters of formal music and metaphor and the deeper figurations that encode that uncanny resonance which can lift the hair on a reader’s neck. Hannah in this book occasionally feels too “Plathian,” in fact—not so much in subject matter but in her tone of barely contained mania. Hannah seems to take an almost innocent pleasure in words, and so never uses them—the way Plath sometimes does—as emotional truncheons; maybe that’s why my favorites among her poems are the ones that revel in vocabulary and are musically expansive.
Here’s an example:
APOLOGY FOR SLEEPING LATE
You’ve done it again—slept
Yourself to obsolescence, slept
Yourself to Rotterdam on that slow
Velveted train, that impossibly expensive
Disorient Express, not express at all, circuitous,
Digressing inexplicably to Flanders,
Past phalanx and loggia, paroxysm and
Quiescence; you’ve quaffed a pint of absinthe
Handed you by lackeys, washed it down with capers;
Night-sweated through our skivvies into Dordrecht
Where train transmogrified
To streetcar bearing signs for Rice-a-Roni,
And you thought yourself in Frisco, which meant
You gained three hours, so you slept on as streetcar
Flattened to canoe and skimmed through waters Delftly.
Tomorrow you will try anew.
Armed with rectitude, regret, alarmed
And freshly brewed, you will arise, atone,
Untorque, shut bedroom door and strap yourself
To straight-backed chairs of wood from noble trees.
No guarantee. It’s not a trifle
To secure the pallid temple from the soak
Of narcotic tides, the throng of weeds encroaching
On the border. Which is all by way of saying you’ll
Probably do it again—sleep through post and telephone,
And although there’s not
A milkman to be missed, you will sleep
Through the milk’s drinkability. In your defense,
You’ve been busy in the route; as you retrace the round,
It deepens, makes its layers known—profound, Pleistocene.
The things you’ve done in dreams—a life! Low Country.
Hannah’s second and final collection, Inflorescence, is on my “read soon” shelf, but I tend to procrastinate when I’m about to read an author’s last available book, so I can’t swear I’ll be reading it before summer’s out.
As for Longing Distance, Linda Gregerson blurbs: “Sarah Hannah is a physiologist of sight, devoutest scribe to the almost-seen, the intimated world, even, or especially, as that world is about to be lost.”