Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems is a book that does exactly what it says on the tin. Made up of three long poems, the works contained within this debut collection have been described by Sullivan – a British academic – as “poem-essays.” Sullivan’s previous book, The Work of Revision, was a study on the relation of technology to the modernists’ methods of revision. It happens to be one of the best books ever written on the so-called “craft” of writing, though it is unlikely to find the audience that normally seek out such books as it replaces the how-to/self-help hybrid common to such texts with a rigorous material analysis. Sullivan’s poems are befitting of an academic – dense in language and rife with formal play and intertextual allusions – but the personal and playful paths the poems tread make them accessible to the casual reader of poems.

The book opens with “You, Very Young in New York.” Written in the second person – threading the needle between the personal and universal – the poem seems almost destined to be slotted alongside the likes of Girls or Frances Ha in the pantheon of stories dedicated to Millennials in New York. While that trope has grown tired – being almost always lily white and upper-class – Sullivan avoids many of the pitfalls the glut of lesser works fall prey to. The opening stanza sets the tone: “Rosy used to say that New York was a fairground./ ‘You will know when it’s time, when the fair is over.’/ But nothing seems to happen. You stand around.” The final line is enjambed, burying the rhyme – which isolated here reads as too obvious – in a litany of nothings faced by the young people in the poem.

Formal shifts occur regularly in the poem, as Sullivan moves from the neat trio of lines that make up stanzas on the first page to more haphazard constructions. The poem takes the “you” through the gauntlet of parties, landmarks and awkward sexual encounters that the reader will recognize as clichés of the genre. But something else is at work here, too. Sullivan is attentive to just how boring much of this is, this life lived in the fantasy NYC of the mind. She clutters the poem with paperwork and vacant stares out of soul-killing office windows. The drudgery of 21st century middle-class labor is the perspective from which the city is observed, There are references to David Bowie and Henry James, but the visions of New York they represent seems far away from the one the speaker describes. When the poem muses, a beige melancholy creeps in: “You should be addressing inefficiencies in online processes,/ Mastering multichannel, getting serious about small business.” While the poem successfully subverts the glamour of being “very young in New York,” it never quite delivers something totally new on that theme.

Thankfully, the other two poems in the collection are more interesting. “The Sandpit After Rain,” the final poem in the collection, is a meditation on time. The poem is divided between two great themes: the birth of a child and the death of a parent. The themes trade places throughout the poem, neither of them gaining supremacy, but rather being enhanced by the meditation on the other. Sullivan writes, here, of the six-month period in her life marked at its beginning by the death of her father from an extended illness and the birth of her first child. “Things happened in the wrong order,” the poem goes.

There is some bleakness, some despair to the poem – at one point the speaker asks, “Who wants to be born?” – but Sullivan’s gentle wit tempers the darkness. Of the first hours spent with her newborn son, Sullivan notes wryly, “Neither of us was at our best, that first night.” A passage of exhortation near the poem’s end recalls Whitman in its simple praise: “So we remember the courage of street cleaners,/ Because of the hopelessness of their work.” The streets never stay clean. The living never stay alive. But there is something to be said for doing the work that both require. Indeed, labor is again a concern in this poem, as it is in the first. “There is no necessary season for things/ and birth and death happen on adjacent wards,” Sullivan writes before observing that “both are labor, halting and starting.”

While the final poem is certainly concerned with temporality, this theme is better developed in the best of the three poems: “Repeat Until Time.” Subtitled, “The Heraclitus Poem,” the work takes as its departure point the words of the ancient philosopher regarding stepping into rivers twice. Here, Sullivan’s eye ranges wide. Rivers, of course, recur, and she described the people and plants and animals at their edges. She describes the changing of seasons. The poem begins pastoral, but quickly shifts in form and content. “Failed form is hectic with loveliness and compels us longer,” Sullivan writes. Sections are numbered in a way that recalls the rigorous logic of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, signaling variations on a theme, or the introduction of new themes.

One section of the poem is dedicated to a photo (which occasionally goes around via some nostalgia account on Twitter) of a dozen or more seemingly identical black cats all trying out for the titular role in the 1961 film The Black Cat. Sullivan describes the group, taken as a whole, as “alien,” as repetitions on a theme, but looking more closely, the differences in the animals begin to clarify. “Repetition is inexact, eternal return is falsehood,” she writes.

Elsewhere, the poem takes us to young people in a city, again – this time, San Francisco. And there is almost a miniature version of the first poem in the collection. It is enhanced however, by the propulsion of “Repeat Until Time,” its rapacious movement toward something the reader cannot quite see. The gaze of the poem shifts with each new section, revealing new images, new places. We meet, again, Henry James. – this time, on the precipice of World War I. About half-way through, the poem condenses dramatically to aphorism: “There is not much saying something new in a new form,” concludes the four line stanza that makes up section 3.2.

Sullivan then moves to a bit of poetic literary criticism. Kenner, Larkin and Shelley are conjured and dissected on the subjects of love and rhyming (which Sullivan continues to play with here, as she does in the whole collection). But then she snaps shut the lid of literature and leaves the poem at last to study the basics: physics. “To begin with, everything was nothing/ And there was nothing to speak of and no begin with” – and from this non-beginning, Sullivan takes us to a non-ending: the Trinity Tests that inaugurated the nuclear age.

Earlier in the poem, Sullivan put forward a thesis – “It is hard to say if there is progress in history” – and here, at the end, she backs it up. Yet she refuses to mythologize this moment, and notes that in the moment when the test was successful, Oppenheimer did not have the words of the Bhagavad Gita on his lips, but merely, “It worked,” and then, “Now we’re all motherfucking sons of bitches.” That is the penultimate line of Sullivan’s transcendent poem. It ends, “[And repeat.].”

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