Sarah Hannah, Longing
Distance. Tupelo Press, 2004. 61 pp. $16.95.
Reviewed by P.B. Rippey
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]").
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.
P.B. Rippey’s poems have
appeared in Zyzzyva, Solo, Pool, and other journals.