A Review of Sarah Hannah's Longing Distance
by P.B. Rippey at Slope Magazine, http://slope.org/archive/issue22/rippey.html
The poems in Longing Distance, Sarah Hannah's debut book, are those of a poet
in the throes of a canny search for self. Whether Hannah’s focusing on myth, art, sex, or comets, the "round
and constant sound" of a city market, or (yes) green chard, her examination of "the air behind the
air" makes for fiercely original poetry. Nothing is too mundane to offer the possibility of self-discovery.
Even the depths of a linen closet reveal oblivion ("You could not ignore the space / At the back, the
absolute black / In the bowels of the shelves, beyond the patch / And blanch of gauze, the catch of clots
— / That unflagging question (past cure)…").
She frisks synonyms for
human content. In the clever poem "You Furze, Me Gorse" (furze and gorse being the only true synonyms in
the English language per Tennyson, Hannah informs us), the poet swiftly personifies her subjects, then challenges
the difference —distance — if any — between them. "Raise the lamps high," she orders her
subjects, "let us look at ourselves." Her concluding lines are both questioning and familiar ("Furze,
Gorse. Which cuts worse? / The claws that grab and cling, purpling the skin, / Or the sudden spike that
stabs and runs?").
Sarah Hannah is interested in "raising the lamps," turning over her
subconscious like one might a stone and illuminating the scurrying bits beneath, probing the distance "between
where you are / And where you were / The avoirdupois difference/between the emblem / And the thing that made
it." Her poems depict a private sense of self at large in the natural world, the cosmos, the subconscious
and pitted against an "unasked-for inheritance, / A fluke in DNA." She's driven "past text to
precipice," as she searches for meaning and, ultimately, "a source, a proprietor at bottom."
Stylistically she is bold, unafraid to marry lyric to narrative, to tweak a villanelle's imposed
structure in order to better address her subjects. She is a mad physiologist, and as we peer through her glittering
magnifying glass, we are captivated. Hannah poses questions of self and purpose via the Horsehead Nebula,
Lethe's dank prison, a star-nosed mole ("Sometimes you think / It has nothing to do whatsoever / With
your self proper, the proper self / You've pulled, propelled, and pronounced / Out of the earth; it gets
in the way / [Dark loam tunnel]").
The author is not without her sober conclusions —
she's well aware that mortality is inevitable. Nowhere is Hannah more ready to throw up her hands than the
poem "The Comet is Worn Out by the Sun" ("…this comet has quit, / Has carried your dross
in its limp, dusty tail, / Hybrid of friction and angst, on a course cursed / From inception. No sense clinging
to it; / The answer is annihilation. You first."). But self-annihilation is too obvious for Sarah Hannah.
The voice in Longing Distance is wry, but hopeful; clever, but concerned, as the poet explores
a distance that is deeply felt, yet literally out of reach.
In Memoriam: Sarah Hannah by Eva Salzman at Contemporary Poetry Review, http://www.cprw.com/Misc/hannah.htm
May 2007, the talented and vibrant poet Sarah Hannah died tragically young,
leaving behind a small but impressive oeuvre, her bereft family and friends (including this author), and many devoted
students. As a person and a writer, Sarah was complex and exceptional: erudite and down-to-earth, strong and fragile,
scathing and compassionate, her profound humanity undiminished by a caustic brilliance. She had a wicked sense of
humor, but also great generosity of spirit. To understand her personality’s
exhilarating—and difficult—marriage of contradictions is to begin to
understand her writing too. Having received her B.A. from Wesleyan University and Ph.D. from Columbia University, Sarah taught
at Emerson College in Boston. Her first book Longing Distance (Tupelo Press, 2003), a semi-finalist for the Yale
Younger Poets Prize, received widespread acclaim from leading poets, for its formal dexterity, its verbal play and emotional
potency. Her second volume, Inflorescence (Tupelo Press, 2007), published posthumously, confirmed the promise of
Longing Distance established
her formalist credentials, although I suspect Sarah herself would have squirmed uncomfortably at a categorization implying
some dry, toilsome, Casaubon-like endeavor, or a practice borne solely of ideology and therefore at odds with her sensuous
love of language and what she would have seen as the writer’s instinctive urge to understand how sound, rhythm, music,
and a “precise manipulation of syntax, rhyme and structure” (to borrow her own phrase) distils meaning in poetry.
Adherence to tradition can arise out of a sense of obligation, a fondness for linguistic
exercises, or as a reactionary gesture. Alternatively, form can be understood not merely as an intellectual construct, but
as the inevitable outcome of an organic process, starting with the basic components of rhythms and sounds, which ultimately
progress to those forms because they most profoundly express otherwise inexpressible depths. Sarah’s engagement with
literature was as much visceral as intellectual.
These matters were often the subject of our conversations, right from our first meeting, when
she was my student at Wesleyan Writers’ Conference. Knowing I’m a sonnet
junkie too, she brought me one of hers. She was the kind of student who makes you forget your next appointment, although
that teacher-student relationship was almost instantly supplanted by a deep kinship on many levels, and an enduring
friendship. “You Furze, Me Gorse” impressed me with its deft technique, its use of figurative language,
its sly asides and the way she incorporated into her writing a certain self-conscious reflection on language itself,
which was not at odds with the poem but, rather, contributed to its tenor: “Furze, Gorse,
of equal and abiding value / But for the speed of each word off the lips: / The warm and cornucopic cup of U / Hanging
on by the very fingertips / Of the lazy Z . . . .” The poem bears her distinctive hallmark of lyricism cut
with a sharp edge. The slangy diction of the title is set against the sonnet form’s measured tone, almost doubling
as a line itself and so adding an extra dimension to the poem, as any good title should. The witty take on “You Tarzan, me Jane” swiftly disposes of an entire misguided view on gender
relations and announces the central theme, timed nicely to emerge at the turn into the sestet: “Raise the lamps
high, let us look at ourselves; / Once a tender union, now turned fierce.” Sarah often multilayered her references
with a finely tuned self-awareness, as with this title, which allowed her to comment on the very process in which
she was engaged and to offer a kaleidoscopic view of any one image or idea. I often
think that process is discernable, even transparent, in the best poetry, clarified and not usurped by product.
“The Linen Closet,” also from Longing Distance, and a signatory
poem of hers —“Oh, the linen closet, imperial / Ladder of shelves”—is imperial in its demeanor, its
stock-taking: “gold towels glowing / With repose, night creams pearled, in pots / Their risen oils yellowed at the
rims, / Tubed salves, perfumed proteins. // Tall and narrow, narrow and deep, / The linen closet of worry and care!”
The closet houses a museum of bottles and jars jumbled together, the significance of their contents similarly confused:
the cures and even the items of comfort implying the pain they’re meant to alleviate. The ladder of shelves
stretches upwards, a majestic structure housing an apothecary of life and death, the poet’s inner fears distilled
into “tinctures”: “. . . But no matter the potion // You could not ignore the space / At the back,
the absolute black / In the bowels of the shelves, beyond the patch / And blanch of gauze, the catch of clots—
/ That unflagging question (past cure) // No tonic or robe could appease, / No meter or prodding inspection / Could
probe . . . .”
A sort of archetype for her unconscious, this linen closet is drawn from a child’s
skewed sense of perspective; as with a Christmas tree from the past, it is recalled as infinitely taller than in reality.
Merging, the child and adult views are drawn inexorably towards the finality of that terrible darkness at the back: “.
. . you could not quite make it out, / And you would not forget it.” Drawn in by a language rich in assonance and alliteration,
the reader sees through the writer’s eyes—and feels too—the fascinating grandeur of her own fear.
In “Anaesthesia Green,” which begins: “At the forked vein’s crux, / The largest on the back
of your hand, / The doctor points his needle,” we accompany the poet on a journey into unconsciousness: “Count
backwards from a hundred. / You’re going in. // To the sleep bath, the sulfur pail.” In this poem too her language
is at its most terrifyingly seductive:
You are peeling back leaves
In the darkened
You have cooled to lichen, almost
Silver, outspread in the eaves of the bark
Like small arthritic hands.
You comb through
the ionic ferns,
lying like animals.
Crassula, sedum, sempervivum,
Thick as limbs.
second book Inflorescence—with
its cover featuring a painting by her mother, Renee Rothbein—Sarah’s most urgent and deepest preoccupations become
starker, shedding light on many poems in the first. Architectural tropes, such as the one in “The Linen Closet” recur regularly throughout this book in poems like “The
Hutch,” “The Safe House,” “Read the House,” and, one of my favorites, “Eternity, That
Dumbwaiter,” which ends:
Age of sickness,
age of pause.
And so it waits
as dour burly men
Heave in the load. It buckles
With the box; it stalls; it will not go,
and then it rallies, then it’s off—
Resumes its loop
through the stories.
calling from another floor.
of her poems also loop back to a re-imagined childhood idyll, evoked by place or, in the poem “At Last, Fire Seen as a Psychotic Break,” by a home which has
long since burned down. This event was itself irresistibly symbolic of a state of
mind with which she was all too familiar: “You have to evacuate the family, but no one / Wants to go. And when they
are dead, / And you are contemplating / The sticks, the wheezing ashes, / The iron pots melted to pools on the lawn, // The
authorities will say it was structural.” The startlingly bleak imagery—“iron pots melted to pools”—is
characteristic in its inventiveness, its merciless rendering of a scene of imagined destruction, its revelations about the
inner self, and its homage to Sylvia Plath.
Although she wrote a monograph about her famous precursor, Sarah’s deeply rooted artistic
and intellectual affinity with Sylvia Plath can’t be reduced to biographical terms only, however congruent their emotional
landscapes and use of figurative language. Given more time, she might have gone on to write, for example, about W. B. Yeats,
T. S. Eliot, or Homer as well, these being just a few of the poets in her personal pantheon.
“‘Something Else Hauls Me Through Air’: Sound and Structure in Four Late Poems by Sylvia Plath,”
is a scholarly analysis of that poet’s formal development. She writes of “Fever 103”: “Tone
is central to the poem’s effectiveness both on the page and in the ear . . . One of the poem’s great
successes lies in the voice of its speaker, who mercilessly combines . . . high and colloquial language, and serious
and mocking tones . . . In the second line, the terror of hell is instantly deflated and lampooned in the image
of Cerberus.” This commentary is an apt description of her own handling of common vernacular set against an
elevated tone: her use of form is perhaps a riskier usage than the confessional these days since in some American
circles a whiff of traditionalism is practically a hanging offense.
Even the simple sentence can serve as “a hypnotic and expressive device in
a poem,” she remarks of the poem “Little Fugue,” describing how embedded even in Plath’s
free verse are the formal precepts of poetry. With her range and fluency, Sarah was equally at ease writing free
7. Get rid of the wicker furniture. It was uncomfortable anyway.
8. Bend at the knees again, raise your hands slowly from your
wide—wider, up above your head, and repeat in a tone
that steadily ascends:
I am not a dark lord, I am a Queen.
(“First Singing Lesson at Forty,” Inflorescence)
her erudition—or, rather, because of it—her approach to literature and culture more generally wasn’t precious, elitist, or hierarchical—neither in her life nor her writing, which were for her inextricable.
Throughout Inflorescence the security of place and home is inextricably
tied to her love-hate relationship with her mother, her sole career for years—if this is the right term to describe
a mother who was in and out of mental institutions. So it wasn’t quite a reversal of roles when finally Sarah cared
for her during her mother’s final illness, the period that provides the backdrop for her second book, described as a
“memoir in verse” (a description A. E. Stallings rightly objects to, because it diminishes Hanna’s stylistic
accomplishments). One of Sarah’s most powerful poems, “Azarel (Angel
of Death),” strides forward with savage exuberance and an inventiveness which packs a devastating punch, right from
the opening line “Death the lawyer adjudicates between us.” Ostensibly about her mother, the poem’s last
stanza begins “Death the lover. / You loved him many years,” and concludes:
Whored him, married and divorced him;
Coaxed, cuckolded, and cozened him;
You high-stakes rolled, you bet the house
And won, but now, my dear,
He’s really come.
Although the book’s ostensible unifying device is a taxonomy of flora, its real theme is her mother’s
mental illness, an illness that formed the narrative of Sarah’s childhood. The tone throughout, informed by the confessional
mode, remains that of a poet who, while passionate about a natural world especially connected with her mother, is also indebted
to her father, Nathan Goldstein, a painter whose oeuvre, unlike her mother’s, is in the classicist mold. Sarah poignantly
and wittily explores this rich inheritance of opposites in the poem “Sky Pencil,” from Inflorescence:
“So we’re of one mind that there are two names for / Every real thing—in Latin, Genus, species— /
More, if we can count the common ones from lore / Many impartial // Parties call this poem’s title tree ‘Japanese
/ Holly’ but you should know right now: we aren’t here / At all concerned with neutrality.” Her trip to
London, the city of her mother’s birth—“Oh my Greenwich Mean. Zero Longitude!”—was one chapter in a lifelong quest to understand a mother who was both nemesis and inspiration, and to reconcile
the ensuing opposing forces within her. She understood these experiences implicated her as a writer, as in “Sky Pencil”:
“. . .which // Brings me to the flip side of that coin of my / Begetting, the woman who’d have loved that name,
/ Who painted, let’s say, quite a bit differently, / Colors off spectrum, // Flowers, heads, eye sockets, and skulls,
floating.” From this mother, the inquiring, intelligent, and creative child would deduce that creativity must come
with a sometimes terrible price.
Although she was absorbed by a maternal legacy increasingly equated with the creative drive, her technical
finesse in this poem particularly, written in Sapphics, illustrates how Sarah’s paternal legacy was of equal
importance to her development: “‘That’s not the real / Name,’ he says. ‘Aphids’
// I reply ‘It has aphids. They’re killing it.’ / ‘How will you find a cure,’ he says,
‘when you don’t / Know the real name?’” By targeting the limitations of this language used
to define and codify the natural world, Sarah takes aim at herself too, since her fascination with the terms she
scorns has her putting them in the poem. This inclusion ultimately validates and exonerates her own ambivalence,
and forms a kind of acknowledgement of and tribute to a dual inheritance. Her legacy lies in such contrasts, although she
struggled to come to terms with her creativity being traceable to the drives inherited from a literal marriage of polar opposites,
analogous with the bi-polar disorder from which her mother suffered.
Linguistically and tonally, all her poetry has an extraordinary richness. Both volumes reviewed
here are “of equal and abiding value”; one hears in the first the echoes preceding the sounds themselves in the
second, with that book’s perhaps more sensational provenance (it was published posthumously). Sarah departed just as
she neared the peak of her powers. Read, admired, and loved in her lifetime, she should have been read more while she lived.
Shortly before she died, and referring
to her step-mother, she applied her analytical mind to her personal circumstances, asking: “So, do I go with Harriet
and life, or my mother and death?” She couldn’t always shine that compassion she displayed to others on herself,
but a poem like “For the Fog Horn When There is No Fog,” from Longing Distance shows moving wisdom about
pain and humanity:
that tries to counsel vigilance—
The surly sullen bell, before the going,
The warning that
there might be fog someday
(They will be lost), there might be fog
And even squall, and you’ll have nothing
and you will have to learn
To be grateful.
The following poem’s eloquence and elegance further attests to both her promise
and her achievement, and to our great loss:
Cassetta Frame (Italy, circa 1600)
Lehmann Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art
what his hands were like—skin,
Thumbprint’s orbits, half moon of the nail—
The artisan who plied bough and alloy, chisel,
Stone, for the sake of circumscription:
Poplar, walnut, ebony, pear, niello,
Crystal, lapis. The words abscond
And bloom in trees: Pioppo tremulo;
Forma di pera. I confess to find
Myself astonished by outskirts of things:
Hem and shirr, ice storm, sea coast, shadow, fringe,
To find myself forsworn to the mixture,
Poplar, walnut, ebony, pear,
Niello, crystal, lapis. Lapse!
But in the rim; no word but on the lips.
The materials used were typed out on a small card beneath the frame on display and
are considered by this author to be a found poem. Editor's Note: This essay is adapted from an earlier version, which appeared in The Dark Horse (issue 21, for Winter 2007/2008).
40; teacher, poet known for incisiveness, fervence by
Bryan Marquard at Boston.com News
Boston.com News, http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2007/05/31/sarah_hannah_40_teacher_poet_known_for_incisiveness_fervence/?page=full
Memory is "a ruthless contraption," Sarah Hannah wrote in "Alembic," a poem that,
as the title suggests, distills recollections and captures the challenge of retrieving and refining lingering murmurs
from the past.
You lived somewhere
for very long. But the avenues by which you could recall it Have been closed for
new construction. At some point your mind chose a few for you, A lucky few
among the millions.
"She had an
emotional intensity that wasn't sentimental or self-pitying," said the writer Annie Dillard, one of Dr. Hannah's
teachers at Wesleyan University.
Equally fervent about
the Monkees and Metallica, she thrilled to the sights and sounds of amphibians and insects along the Charles River near
Waban, where she grew up. Dr. Hannah, who had taught writing at Emerson College and had been awaiting publication of
her second volume of poetry, took her life May 23 in Brookline, where she had moved a few weeks ago, her family
said. She was 40 and had lived in Cambridge.
each rigorously revised on sheaves of pink paper, became performance pieces at readings.
"When she read her poetry, she really read her poetry, in part just because of her spectacular presence,"
said Kate Bernheimer, a friend and classmate at Newton South High School and Wesleyan. "In a conversation it was
there, too -- this charge. There was no halfway with her when she read her poetry; it was all or nothing. It was not dramatic
in any false sense; the poetry was just direct. The language was direct from her to you. Everyone would sit up a little
straighter. You couldn't just lounge or laugh as if it was just cool. There was none of that ironic laughter you hear sometimes
"She would talk to the crowd
and make you feel like she was talking to you as an individual," said Maura Kelly, who became friends with Dr. Hannah
when the two were toddlers. "And she would set the scene and tell you some of her personal story and how she came to
craft this poem."
As a child in Waban, a place
that would figure in some of her poetry, Dr. Hannah developed her love of reading and sense of wonder in nature.
"We were walking along the Charles River," said her father, Nathan
Goldstein of Ashland. "It was a starry night and she looked up -- I think she had to be 4 then -- and she announced
that she was going to be an astronomer."
cautioned that she could end up with a sore neck from gazing upward, "and she said: 'No, I won't have a problem. I'm
going to lie on the grass.' So she already had that wry sense of humor. There was always something a little adult about
Dr. Hannah's parents divorced while she was growing up. Her mother, Renee Rothbein, who had also struggled with
depression, died in 2001. The cover of "Inflorescence," Dr. Hannah's new book of poetry, will feature one of
"It's an abstraction of
flowers -- not really flowers, but a burst of color and a suggestion of flowers," said Dr. Hannah's stepmother,
Harriet Fishman of Ashland. "The texture is a golden surface, and within it are faint images of she and her
mother. And the poems are kind of a closure related to her mother, who was a fine painter."
Tupelo Press of Dorset, Vt., has moved up publication of "Inflorescence"
from November to September.
"Pelham Health Services,
12 Pleasant Street," a poem in the new book, begins:
How this obscure road winds me sinister, Gas lamps flicker, insinuant in series. Come
here, they hiss, linger at this fire.
school, when she and Bernheimer were wearing matching pink miniskirts to Go-Gos concerts, Dr. Hannah was already
writing prose and poetry. She mixed stately influences, such as the poetry of Amy Lowell, with the decidedly
mainstream, including traveling with Kelly to New Jersey for a convention of Monkees fans.
Tracking down band members at reunion shows, "she actually
was kissed by three of the four Monkees," said Dr. Hannah's husband, Bob O'Hagan of Cambridge.
Graduating from Newton South in 1984, she went to Wesleyan, where she studied
poetry with Dillard.
"Sarah Hannah was really,
really smart and intense," Dillard said. "She made it into a poetry class of mine for which I turned away almost
200 students and took 13. She got an A."
she was here, she was clearly a dazzling student among students," said Anne Greene, director of the writing programs
at Wesleyan. "I think all of us remembered Sarah vividly when she left, and part of that was the intensity that she
had, a real interest in her work, a love of literature."
A guitarist, Dr. Hannah played in the heavy metal band Dead Grotty at Wesleyan and other bands in New York City,
where she moved in the late 1980s. She had met O'Hagan in college, and the two collaborated on songs. "Usually she
was the words, and I was the music," O'Hagan said. They married in 1995.
The poet, who had always written under her first and middle names, officially changed her name to Sarah Hannah in
In New York she attended Columbia University,
graduating with a master's of fine arts in creative writing and a doctorate in literature. Some of her graduate writings
focused on Sylvia Plath, whose own suicide has resonated among poets.
"She wrote about Plath's relentless formal bent, and her painstaking revision process," said Bernheimer,
who teaches fiction at the University of Alabama.
Hannah, whose work has appeared in such literary journals as AGNI, Parnassus, and The Southern Review,
was a semifinalist for the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 2002. Family members said she was just as proud to have
been named poet laureate of the Newton community group Friends of Hemlock Gorge Reservation.
"She was incredibly smart and incisive," her husband said. "She
could just sort of see into things and see connections, especially relating nature to human experience.
"And she really had a great sense of humor. She was just beautiful,
but could be silly and undistinguished, not afraid to make a fool of herself at any given moment."
"I think from the very beginning she was a spectacular writer and
thinker, a real intellectual," Bernheimer said. "She's just one of those people who are full of empathy
and grace, passionate about people."
to her husband, father, and stepmother, Dr. Hannah leaves a stepsister, Jessica Fishman of Portland, Ore.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. today in the Ashland
home of her father and stepmother.