Where the Two Circles Overlap

by Ben Leubner

Hannah Sullivan, Was It For This
Faber, 112pp, ISBN 9780571362271, £12.99

Hannah Sullivan’s second book, Was It For This, consists of three long poems, as did her first book, Three Poems. Here as there, Dante is invoked in no uncertain terms. Was It For This is very much in the tradition of poems about midlife crises, a tradition that began with Dante. The volume finds Sullivan experiencing any number of sensations that come with being in the middle of life’s journey: confusion, comfort, anxiety, desire, and so on. The book’s title poem and its longest is a lyrical memoir that recounts the poet’s life in a series of dense vignettes, its placement in the middle of the book evoking Lowell’s ‘91 Revere Street’ and Bishop’s ‘In the Village,’ which were similarly placed in Life Studies and Questions of Travel, respectively. ‘Happy Birthday,’ the poem that closes the book, is a meditation on the poet’s 41st birthday, in January of the year the pandemic began, a year that turned the entire world into a selva oscura. But both of these poems have to be read in the context of the volume’s first, ‘Tenants,’ which is Sullivan’s attempt to come to terms with the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire in June of 2017, which took place only a mile away from where the poet was then living.

‘Tenants’ is 17 pages long. The remaining 81 pages of Was It For This are not about the fire, but it haunts them nevertheless, drifting through them like sooty flakes of ash that occasionally alight on a word or phrase or allusion. In ‘Tenants’ itself, Sullivan grapples with how ‘to think of an event, a thing that happened,’ with how to square one’s own day-to-day, lived reality in its overwhelming banality with proximal catastrophe. It isn’t so much survivor’s guilt as bystander’s guilt, compounded for the poet by the uncomfortable fact that any attempt to write about what one has witnessed and been profoundly affected by cannot easily be separated from the potential exploitation of it, or at least the perception thereof. Sullivan walks this tightrope uncomfortably, acknowledging her own complicity and obliviousness while at the same time tacitly insisting on her right to attempt to come to terms with tragedy through writing, and to do it well. She writes, ‘We watched a video of a beehive being cleaned out in spring / . . . a man was hacking jaggedly, / Scraping with a blunt and shiny metal tool, / Ripping at rotten comb, the cells perforated, sunken.’ It is a chilling metaphor for the tower post-fire, the violence inherent in both the image and what it’s a metaphor for contrasted with the cozy act of sitting with one’s partner and watching a documentary.

The poet is going about her life in the late spring of 2017, a new mother, trying to retract her existence into something smaller, simpler than what it was before: ‘I was absconding from the life that I had had, / Committed to being small, nutlike, enshelled. / My phone was turned to silent so that calls just flashed.’ She is not enshelled in the manner of the bees, or in the manner of the tower’s tenants; hers is a voluntary attempt to ‘be less.’ Still, her concerns are not blithe and light and stereotypically trivial. Newly in therapy, she is agitatedly thinking of herself as committed, shelled, a nut. She has been experiencing postpartum depression. Things are somehow wrong all around, even when they’re right. Not long before the first day of summer, though, she is shaken from the stupor of her own concerns by the fire’s abrupt overshadowing of them. She recounts the night of the fire from her own perspective:

Halfway through a heatwave, soon the solstice.
The milk sweats, dawn at 5, bad sleep again,
The cloistered smell—old water, dying flowers—
Then , an email from America.
This fire in Kensington, are you OK?

Despite having woken in the middle of the night only a mile away from the inferno, she doesn’t find out about it until the next morning, via a transatlantic text. The helicopters she’d heard when she woke after midnight might have been out there for any number of reasons; why bother to find out? Dazed and fatigued, she simply went back to bed, ensconced in a life that consisted of being ‘cocooned, minutely logging feeds, / Self-made servant of my selfish genes.’ Her initial experience is one of completely understandable neglect, but it’s a neglect that nevertheless comes to haunt her in the days and months to come.

For at the heart of the Grenfell Tower fire itself lay neglect on a colossal scale, plain and simple. Plenty of people in a position to do something about it knew that the tower’s cladding was a flammable nightmare just waiting to happen, and yet nothing was done; the neglect persisted. But Sullivan, of course, didn’t design the cladding; she wasn’t on the estates council; there was no possibility of her being an active agent on this stage beforehand. Her problem is how to reconcile living a life so far removed from something she couldn’t possibly have done anything about with the fact of being geographically proximal to and more broadly complicit in it regardless. ‘In the burned-out tower dawn happens in an instant,’ she writes, ‘Like dye fluorescing through a leaf’s venation.’ The fire itself similarly fluoresces through the pages of her book, unshakeable in its permeation of its pages.

‘Most images of the fire,’ wrote Sam Knight in late 2017, ‘show Grenfell Tower standing in isolation, seemingly visible across the city, but, in fact, the streetscape around the tower is closely packed with townhouses, low-rise apartment blocks, and, in early summer, the spreading canopy of trees.’ He notes how in this neighbourhood of London, North Kensington — a kind of meeting point between Clarissa Dalloway’s Westminster and Leah Hanwell’s NW — 'immaculate Georgian squares rub up alongside housing projects.’ There is a remarkable ‘physical proximity of rich and poor.’ Not too long ago, according to Zadie Smith, this proximity made for exhilarating points of contact between people from markedly different backgrounds that spanned class, race, ethnicity, and nationality. But the ‘new England,’ says Smith, especially post-Brexit, is marked more by fear and a wilful obliviousness and a desire for strict demarcations and separation than it is by a willingness to risk making connections. ‘The gap between us,’ she says of the wealthy and the poor, ‘has become too large’ for regular, safe, and healthy exchange. Of course, however, Smith herself began life on one side of that gap only to now find herself on the other, proving that the chasm isn’t absolute, and so indicating that there might even be more ways than one to bridge it, one of which might be empathetic interrogation of and imaginative confrontation with it in the immediate wake of an event that makes the scope of the abyss all too clear indeed. This is what Sullivan is attempting in ‘Tenants.’ Her attempts to empathise with the victims and survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire are not unconscionably presumptuous attempts to identify with them from a position of ultimately uncomprehending privilege. Sullivan knows that she runs that risk, but she also knows that the people in question are, or in 72 cases, were her neighbours, to ignore which fact for the sake of staying in one’s own lane she refuses to do, feeling perhaps that this would consitute the more truly unconscionable act.

Was It For This concludes with the observation that nothing happens as a result of anything other than ‘each instant’s disregard, / being self-contained, / for what might follow.’ The fierce indifference of each moment to the next gives the lie to any sense of a wholly predictable causality. One moment the poet might be at home, calling her ‘sons and husband down, / slipping the just-done peas / from sieve to bowl’ in preparation for dinner. And the next moment might find the sons coming down, the husband coming down, and a family sitting at table together for a meal. And so on. Dishes, TV, sleep. But for another family, a similar instant, the kitchen rich with ‘the smell of lamb and cumin,’ might be followed by horrors unspeakable, by flames and smoke moving with a bestial ferocity. How to comport oneself in the face of such disregard, especially when one feels acutely the extent to which for all its metaphysical lack of favoritism, it is nevertheless and undeniably profoundly shaped by something like socio-economic circumstance? The poet, stifled, struggles for words.

When death interrupts Clarissa Dalloway’s party in the form of news of Septimus Warren Smith’s suicide, Woolf writes of her heroine’s reaction to the news: ‘Always her body went through it first, when she was told, suddenly, of an accident; her dress flamed, her body burnt.’ Is this evidence of Clarissa’s capacity for empathy, something that marks her as different from the unfeeling socialites around her? Or does it point to something else, a more morose desire to live vicariously through others’ extreme fright and pain, perhaps? Clarissa remains comfortably enshelled in her own life; there is something sham about her seemingly profound identification with the shell-shocked Septimus. But there is something profound about it, too. So with Sullivan as she goes through it: ‘To hear the short cough petulant the hosepipe made, being trodden on, / Staccato of the skull against the stairs, the water jets, / The slop of firemen wrestling the carcass down, the heaving dog.’ Or, ‘The man who planned to tie his daughter to his chest, / Step into air, flip up, / Go lying on his back to break her fall.’ Or simply, to come back to Dante, ‘To see the length and breadth and depth of hell.’ In the Venn diagram of, on the one hand, macabre indulgence and, on the other, a steadfast and responsible refusal to look away, a commitment to connection, these lines and many others in ‘Tenants’ occupy the space where the two circles unsettlingly overlap.

The 50-page memoir in verse and prose fragments, ‘Was It For This,’ takes its title from Wordsworth’s Prelude, early lines from which serve as the epigraph to Sullivan’s poem: ‘Was it for this / That one, the fairest of all rivers, loved / To blend his murmurs with my nurse’s song?’ The question here is how to reconcile the large with the small, the cosmic with the granular; how to understand one’s own small life’s involvement in and dependence on much larger, swirling forces; how, in particular, to adjust oneself to the egoistic sense that, as Larkin put it, all of this ‘was all the time merging with a unique endeavor / To bring to bloom the million-petaled flower / Of being here.’ Can the individual life be simultaneously sacred and insignificant? Sullivan seems to feel this way about her own, and to be uncomfortable with this feeling.

When I first saw the title of her second book, though, it wasn’t Wordsworth who crossed my mind but Yeats, who asks in ‘September 1913,’ ‘Was it for this the wild geese spread / The grey wing upon every tide; / For this that all the blood was shed, / For this Edward Fitzgerald died . . . ?’ Where Wordsworth is philosophical in his posing of the question, puzzled quantitatively by the investment of the grand in the minute, Yeats is all political when he asks it, puzzled qualitatively by the sacrifice of the great for the perpetuation of the corrupt and the mediocre. Sullivan asks the question both ways, in both her title poem and in ‘Happy Birthday,’ even as the fire keeps coming to mind. Early in ‘Was It For This,’ for instance, she recalls the King’s Cross fire of 1987 that killed 31 people. Or she recalls how, when she was living in San Francisco, ‘landlords were prepared to burn down their own buildings’ to speed up the process of gentrification, making the act a selling point for would-be middle-class buyers. ‘Developers would create huge value in the Mission. But, of course, I would be a tenant too and didn’t want to be incinerated in my bed.’ As the Grenfell Tower fire thus haunts her through both prose and verse, spreading from one poem to the next, Wordsworth’s intonation shades more to Yeats’s, bemusement to an anger and despair that colours everything.

The poet, in full-blown midlife crisis, finds herself ‘wondering if this was it . . . Suddenly, I’d done all the things; all the life events had happened. And, without anything left to do, the things I’d already done disarranged themselves and became strung out and structureless.’ This is not pure privilege speaking; it’s the voice of a woman who, despite being born in 1979, has still been told all her life in a hundred thousand different ways that the goals are to get married and have children, and maybe to get a degree and a good job, too.

All of this done, what comes next? Was it for this, a prolonged, goalless middle age shading into senseless senescence, that one hewed so diligently to expectation? One morning, the poet practices with a ‘bubble gun’ she has bought for her children, ‘pushing dribbling hopeless sac / shapes out, dead embryos / that managed, all the same, / to right themselves to spheres’ before, ‘five seconds in, they self-unskinned / and lost their radiance, / re-rendered air.’ She’s starting to feel this way about life, that mean misshapenness is the rule, not the exception, and that form is a fragile, temporary, and delusional aestheticisation of paralysis, injustice, and unreason. While in ‘You, Very Young in New York’ Sullivan playfully berated and scathingly ironized even as she nostalgically longed for the inexcusabilities of New York’s well-to-do hipster culture, she now wants nothing to do with any of it: ‘An upcycled bookcase . . . a memoir translated from Iranian on an E Ink reader not made by Amazon . . . High hoppy beer in the fridge from local microbreweries . . . Coenzymated vitamin supplements . . . Instagram photos of slim books in white covers, skewed, beside worn Birkenstocks. // It could all go fuck itself.’

She knows that she has wasted her life, to echo James Wright’s famous poem, ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.’ Of course, she hasn’t, and she knows she hasn’t, but she also knows, definitively, that she has. And that she has largely enjoyed it in the process:

Sometimes I liked being dizzied
to my knees like this by surplus
screen shit, random querying:
NO-REPLY Appt reminder
Hope you have a lovely day
the almost blithe transcendent
brain dysfunction of the total
lack of focusing . . .

But in her youth it was one thing, an excusable indulgence prolonged only slightly past the point of justification: ‘A little wedge of time / I’d spent on nothing much, / New Year after New Year / finding me playing pinball / or sitting, high, in a Mission / dive bar . . .’ But what happens when an indulgence calcifies into an intractable inevitability even in the face of steps — marriage, motherhood, a professorship at Oxford — taken to prevent precisely this? When you’re young and reckless, you can always promise to change soon. But after you’ve changed and yet are somehow still the same, still throwing life away, still prone to pathetic inertness, still regularly eclipsed in your hope by the feeling that it’s all shapeless and trending toward further breakdown and disintegration, then what? When the flakes and residue and ashes from the fire are resting weightlessly on your hands, how devote yourself any further to the enterprise? It is at this point that the poet takes up her pen, begins to write, to frame a tercet, to start the deception all over again:

To think of an event, a thing that happened,
To understand how vague it was,
How confused, uneventful, out of time.