Irregular Pieces of Concrete
Was It For This by Hannah Sullivan. Faber & Faber, 107 pages.
A childhood photo of Hannah Sullivan graces the cover of Was It for This, her second collection of poems, after the manner of classic rap albums. I don’t think the parallel is totally fanciful. Like Biggie’s Ready to Die, or Nas’ Illmatic, say, Sullivan’s book is full of virtuoso displays of technique. Like them, it is anchored in a sense of place—in this case West London. Like them, it is also shot through with the melancholy of “making it”—a certain kind of survivor’s guilt, though, of course, the specificities of what is survived differ profoundly.
Sullivan, who won the TS Eliot prize for her first collection Three Poems, once again offers up three longish poems. The first, ‘Tenants’, is an elegy for those who died in the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, woven with Sullivan’s experience living nearby and caring for her newborn son, “Cocooned, minutely logging feeds”, and suddenly confronted with this horror. The second, ‘Was It for This’, is a longer, autobiographical poem that shifts between prose and verse, concerned with the nature of home and home-ownership. It roves from the West London suburbs further west, across the USA, and then returns, becoming, like the first, an elegy, for her father, and for her sense of the lost past in general. The final poem, ‘Happy Birthday’, tracks the morning of the poet’s 41st birthday in real time, posing the question of what fills a life. Together, the three poems make a triptych on the theme of transience.
Sullivan has perhaps the keenest eye for detail in contemporary poetry. Everything is noted down, and more often than not clarified by comparison to something surprising and apt. London clay looks like “scone dough”; the scabs on a homeless man resemble “rum and raisin” ice cream; a fatty salmon looks “like psoriasis”; the wood grain of an airing cupboard, “like marmite”; a penis “fails to rise” and the experience of its handler is like that of a frustrated “pastry chef”; roses “crisp up like a pinched pair of teabags stuck to a spoon”. Maybe the most elaborate comparison comes in ‘Happy Birthday’:
The osteoporotic spine
all particles, frayed ribbon,
skin stubs, moving in the
light that, falling from the west
(where home was, where my son
would wait soon in the going-
home room with his coat on)
was weirdly dark and definite,
like where your fork pulls at
the slouchy bag of a pre-made
swirled in vinegar corn-fed
poached-egg, and the ochre yolk
is slashed across the English
muffin, cooling hollandaise
and fine sac, couldn’t quite
say scrotal, of the albumen.
It’s not that everything Sullivan sees is like food, but it often is. Meanwhile actual food tends to become human flesh. Lots of these similes point us towards the way that we, our works, and our loves, like food, can be classified as perishables. People in these poems eat a good amount of suggestive ice cream. You can see, in this segment of what I think is the best of the three poems, the skill and subtlety with which Sullivan threads our coming apart together. Little grace notes, like the pun on “son/sun” following the mention of the daylight falling in the west, abound. They all add up to a sense you’re in the hands of a master, but also that pretty soon you will fall out of those hands into nothingness.
Bodily frailty and the temporary “cooling” comforts of bourgeois living insistently rub up against each other in Sullivan’s work. This closeness between death and the ordinary details of living helps go some way to dignify Sullivan’s noticing. Both the most exemplary and sometimes the most frustratingly banal parts, of her book enlist poetry in a struggle to hold on to the particular without being forced to raise it up into a symbol of anything in particular. In her deft handling of memory and its dissolution, the specificity of what Sullivan has her eye on becomes graspable as specificity itself—like “that vase” in Philip Larkin’s ‘Home is so Sad’—a specificity that empties itself into death, but draws its poignancy from that fact.
The long, central poem, ‘Was It for This’, which might just as well have been titled ‘Home is So Sad’, ends, after about fifty pages of mostly prose, with a little verse ekphrastic riff on that cover photograph. Sullivan treats it not as a portrait, a character study, or symbol, but as particulars to attend to:
At first the almost colourless
fine hair cut in a helmet
(Caramac) and brick and grouting
the galaxies of whitewash
(painter’s in?) and next door’s
twitchy pleated nets
It was all bland, harmonious
and given to us
a ravishing for nothingness.
That final collapse of the vast number of details that the poem furnishes into this summative nothingness is both the point and a way of dodging the point. What matters, ultimately, is not so much the details—some of which even Sullivan can’t make interesting over the poem’s length—nor the fact that they are in the service of the large abstraction of loss, but the way the poem makes artful use of the tension between these poles.
Perhaps we are meant to be a little suspicious of the rhymes here, for example, between harmonious, us, and nothingness. Each one is a bit of a stretch, a reminder that whatever closure you seek is less a matter of fact than of projection. The chiming end announces its own failure, but helps bring us closer to the seeker after closure, the person who is driven to hold things in mind.
The food figures, notable once more in Sullivan’s Caramac hair, I think, have an anti-Proustian element. The light the remembered delicacy casts on the present is time never to be regained. The most pointed version of this comes where Sullivan finds her adult tongue “too strong” for a sherbet flying saucer that she eats in secret while in bed. It seems fitting for the author of a poem about Heraclitus (‘Repeat until Time’ in Three Poems) to point out that you can’t eat the same madeleine twice.
‘Was It for This’ is a poem, then, like much of Sullivan’s other work, that is formally bounded by the rhythms of the individual life. There are influences you might draw out from modern and contemporary life-writing—Didion, Ernaux, Ginzburg, Cusk. The latter’s essay ‘Making House’ seems to be quite close to the title poem, though Cusk would be incapable of the kind of anxiety or guilt Sullivan lets creep in when she is discussing the privileges of home ownership, and the faultline running through British politics, the housing crisis.
It is to Sullivan’s credit, I think, that she begins the collection with a poem that brings out what is most potentially troublesome in her poetic interests. It’s all very well to see the spine beneath the albumen, to remind the reader there is beauty in the ordinary and fugitive. But this doesn’t make us equally vulnerable. In ‘Tenants’, the closeness between bourgeois comfort and death actually keeps the two things farther apart. The question of who burns to death, their concerns ignored by their tenant management organisation, and who doesn’t is structured in a way that neither the individual life, nor the resonant moment, can really help us see.
That doesn’t mean that Sullivan has no “right” to write about it. Indeed, ‘Tenants’ is scrupulous about both foregrounding Sullivan’s position and staying with the voices of survivors. She makes great use of the Grenfell inquiry material, and does a pretty good job of demonstrating the brittleness of the official language. But the most powerful moment is really just Sullivan confronted with the fact of the tower itself:
A blackened shell or husk, the papers said,
A blackened skeleton. A mausoleum.
What I saw was still changing daily
The texture crinkled, corrugated, lacy
Sometimes close worked and intricate,
Like the feathery boa round the window panes,
But also stubbled, coppery, distressed,
fine hessian hairs on just ripe blackberries.
And all the widows that you saw in Greece
all the mascara shades the drugstore has
from very black to blackest black black pearl
…………………………………………….new death is onyx.
So many of these transformations contain a kind of deliberate inaptness to the theme of what happened at Grenfell, even as they are, from what I saw there at the same time, accurate. Take the word ‘distressed’: Sullivan seems to be using it in the sense you use for jeans—a fake damage or roughness, the same as being stubbled, perhaps. But the tower is literally distressed as in damaged. Here, the metaphorical process breaks down, reveals the inadequacy of even Sullivan’s remarkable descriptive powers. To compare the tower of a deprived estate to things you see on your Greek holiday is yet another reminder of the blinkers of one’s own perspective. Sullivan brings us wonderfully and tragically to the limits of what can be done in the lyric poem.
But there are moments when Sullivan seems to be overtaken by her general interest in the specific. While touching individually, memories of residents, “of pickling limes and aubergine”, of buying “oil/ to put into her hair”, as an effect in the poem, agglomerate into a kind of general elegy that actually dispenses with the specific things we need to understand. We don’t know who these moments belong to, and their pathos ends up extending beyond Grenfell and its victims in ways that lose hold of them, and of the particular obscenity of what happened. We move from the absolutely particular to the universal abstraction of death, and in lines like “you’ll see the vacancy it always was, / the eagerness with which all things disperse”, Sullivan comes a little close to saying that we are all but tenants in the great rental market of life. The poem ends with an image of inequality: “sprinklers revolving in the garden squares”, but the connection really foregrounds the poet’s discrete noticing of it, the checking of privilege.
Something about the capaciousness of the poems themselves, about their willingness to assume a life’s loose shape, seems to me to presume a standpoint that obscures the “issues” Sullivan grapples with. For all that her poems treat the subjects of housing and social murder, these things disappear into the same stream of noticing. Was It for This tries to get outside its own autobiographical frame by bringing the outside, politics, history, etc in, but it somehow fits in too seamlessly. There’s a moment in ‘Was It for This’ where Sullivan remembers a day in school shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall:
A girl in my class brought some of the pieces into school and the teacher carefully picked them one by one, like duck eggs out of the plastic Tesco bag. They were small and disappointing, irregular bits of concrete, some plastered and painted. It looked as if the wall had simply slumped to rubble.
Sullivan is pointedly making the “end of history”, the collapse of communism, a touchstone for her long lyric essay about the nature of home, and the way that property ownership shapes a life. We live after the triumph of capitalism, and landlordism, over what Sullivan calls the “post war consensus”. This shapes our sense of home as castle and investment; it is also what results in the chronic underinvestment in public housing that contributes to things like the Grenfell disaster. Sullivan points this out. But in her loving attention on the wall purely as “irregular bits of concrete”, which Sullivan transforms again into a delicious comestible, a duck egg, she seems to be too at home in her homesickness; the gesture vindicates the poet’s descriptive powers, her personal view, rather than troubles it.
This is a poetry for living in the rubble that all lives become eventually. It is at its best contemplating the rubble’s dappled beauty. It doesn’t really matter, politically or poetically, that Sullivan’s way of writing won’t tell us how we ended up with the particular kinds of rubble we have now. It’s a far more compelling and admirable book than many ponderously political but drabber works. But over the course of the collection, you might begin to notice a strain in Sullivan’s manner, a dissatisfaction, that perhaps she could have dwelled on a little longer.
Hugh Foley’s poetry and criticism have appeared in Poetry Review, The White Review, Poetry London, PN Review, and The Rialto, among other places. He is the author of an academic work on American poetry (Lyric and Liberalism in the Age of American Empire), and several study guides for children. He writes a Substack newsletter, Useless Concentration (hughfoley.substack.com).
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