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Three Poems by Hannah Sullivan – review

Hannah Sullivan’s debut collection of poems is intimate, experimental and rich in delicious description

Hannah Sullivan is an ambidextrous writer. An associate professor of English at New College, Oxford, she recently published a book called The Work of Revision, in which she argued that the idea of revising as a necessary part of the creative process only began with early 20th-century modernism. Her alluring debut collection Three Poems (who knows how extensively reworked?) travels light, illuminated yet never shackled by scholarship, and investigates the way life does – and does not – revise itself. It is as though she were holding this Polish proverb up to the light: “Everything changes and nothing changes.” She writes freshly about everything, including sameness. She is a sensual conjurer of atmospheres – writing almost as a poet-restaurateur. On a single page: cloves, rainstorm, peanut oil, ozone, brandy, frost, freezing blood and peaches “sitting with their bruises” – each with its own tang. New York resembles a delicatessen – the food more precise than the people eating. Sullivan’s poems are as intense as Edward Hopper’s paintings (although more crowded).

There is intimacy in this collection – sex, giving birth, death. Could one come any closer to a writer than through these subjects? Yet much remains mysterious. Again – as in a Hopper painting – the characters border on characterlessness. In You, Very Young in New York, is “you” a substitute for “I” – her younger self? Or is she addressing someone else? The poem is a workout for the reader. I could not help wondering: what is the backstory to the backstory? It reads as though it wants to become a novel or as though it once was one. And how about the woman with “one arm raised” in a New York street? Is she about to hail a cab or saluting her passing life?

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