Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Poet's Voice: Sarah Hannah

Sarah Hannah’s Inflorescence is a gorgeous poetry collection. For the cover art, Tupelo Press, known for its exquisite book designs, wisely used “Garden,” a painting by the poet’s mother, Renee Rothbein. Set against a background of rich shades of gold is a cluster of multi-colored flowers. These flowers begin at the left side of the cover and wrap around onto the back cover. A series of thumbnail family photos runs down the right side of the front cover. This fusion of painting and photos prepares the reader for the book’s interweaving of poems about strange herbs and wildflowers with those about a mother’s mental and physical decline.

While the braiding of the double strands always yields delightful surprises, there’s logic and symmetry at work in this perfectly structured collection. The groundwork is laid in the first two poems, “The Garden As She Left It” and “Common Creeping Thyme (Serpillum à serpendo).” The first poem shows a garden missing its gardener. The second has that gardener, a mother, in the hospital. Rather than receive the grim news the interns would impart, the mother shouts the names of all the herbs she can recall.

Each flower and herb is given two names—its common one and its botanical one. Hannah’s fascination with doubleness and language is reflected in the mixture of elegant formal diction with homespun phrasings. Quotations from Shakespeare blend happily with colloquialisms. “The Hutch” borrows lines from Hamlet while “Threepence, Great Britain, 1943” describes the lesson of thrift as one “that I must learn and learn darn quick.” “Common Creeping Thyme” begins with “If only it were just a lousy herb . . .” and several stanzas later mixes traditional and contemporary in “If love’s / Time’s fool, I’m full-on shmuck, lured rushing back / Two state lines on a crappy bus . . .” Similarly, “Haruspicy” likens the old world reading of entrails—the “scatter of bird bones and guts on a beach”—to the modern practice of searching for signs in “CAT scan, X ray, MRI.” And when those signs are found, “It doesn’t look good, quoth the white-coated seer.”

Duality is reiterated in Hannah’s facility with both traditional and contemporary forms. She gives us the old formal world of sapphics in “Sky Pencil (Ilex crenata)” and also offers hip contemporary rule breakers such as the double-columned “Yes, Fiddlehead Ferns Are Even Older Than the Anglo Saxon Form” and the line-numbered “First Singing Lesson Ever, at Forty.”

With her wonderful ear for the music of language, Hannah gives us the loveliness of “graceful vase of milky green,” “questions . . whorled in new leaf,” and “turquoise beads among the curling spaces, / Deepening to wine.” She performs pyrotechnics with rhyming devices, as in “Tread-softly (Cnidoscolus stimulosus)”: “The hooks go in, the rash is swift, and / There’s no poultice, only spur and spurned. / Even the milk sap burns. I’ve the urge to turn // And quit, but there’s simply no one else to do it; / No one could or would—tread softly, that is—" Again and again, the poet’s words strike the ear as well as the brain and the heart.

Sarah Hannah’s voice is distinctive and compelling. We do not doubt her when she promises in the penultimate poem “to remain, / To hide and cackle in the great dark, / Fiercely inextricable.”

Sample Poems from Inflorescence:

Blessed Thistle (Cnicus benedictus)

Let’s go ahead and bless these double crosses,
These leaves about to stick us in a hundred places;

It’s purported to protect from evil, plague, and harm,
And, according to the Bard, “it is the only thing for a qualm.”

“Get you some of this and lay it to your heart,” while
I run around and say some kind of benediction, try to smile.

Or maybe I’ll grind it, make an herbal tea called Mother’s Milk
For sale in California, or simply tear apart a thorny stalk,

Run it through my hand, draw it cross my wrist,
And make some sign, above the bed, to hold you fast—

Some auspicious symbol made of thorny English dross and blood
(To you, a dram of anything from England must be good)—

To scare away what makes you cry for help,
What makes you call out Mum! and keep

You a bit longer, breathing here with me.

An Elegy for Bells

Do you remember the sound of the old phone ringing?
A real bell in it—the rotary phone
On the upright table
Between your mother’s room and yours.
It had weight, it had recurrence–

Molecules shifting, sound propagating
Through the house, off the yellowed walls
And the iron railing. Do you remember
The ring and its aftermath, a quartertone
Higher? There are two sides to everything:

The ring and its ghost, the one
Calling and the one called.
With a strange gray receiver
At your chin you have called the house
And heard that ring—smaller,

But no less palpable; you have heard it ring
Some forty times and wondered
If she were dead or merely sleeping;
You have pictured her lying there
Letting it ring, now and then

Shouting back at it; you have pictured her there
On the edge of unconsciousness,
Gently stirred by the sound, chasing after it:
A trail of pale blue circles
In her thickening dream. You have stood

In your room, your one bag packed
(She has asked that you leave and not return)
And waited silently for it: from the next town,
The unlikely deliverance—
Your father, the police, or at least

The psychiatrist. You have ventured out
In the bald hall light only to find
A certain deadness, sometimes,
In the earpiece: the cord cut,
A crop of multicolored wires blooming

On the rug. You have taken tea in other houses,
Heard the ring, and declared it an annoyance;
After a few years of this it rang less often,
And today, in different rooms, in a lightweight
Flip-top shell, it barely rings at all;

Gone, the resonance,
The tick of modern digital tones
Completely formless, forgettable.
You miss the thunder.
There are two sides to everything:

The pain in it ringing,
And in it ringing no longer.

See also John Deming's review at Coldfront Magazine.

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