by Sarah Hannah
Wave Books 2006
Reviewed by John Deming
“The outraged exodus of birds”
It’s easy to understand that matter cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be rearranged. Let’s claim for argument’s sake that the same can be said of the massless abstract consciousness that each human possesses. Is death as “end of all things” a logical fallacy, even if brain-level awareness is relegated to silence and space? I don’t mean “afterlife”; I mean that if time on earth is an abstraction relative to the rest of the universe, perhaps to have lived at all is to live eternally.
It would be simpler to talk of Sarah Hannah’s troubling second book in relation to an Elie Wiesel quote, part of which has become an easy cliché: that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. The rest of the statement is: “The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. The opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Life and death are not opposites, Sarah Hannah concurs in Inflorescence; they are entwined. To die in one stratum is to be born into another more abstracted stratum.
Inflorescence chronicles in piercing detail the sickness and death of the poet’s mother; our first person narrator tends constantly to her mother over the book’s first two sections, in part because of what feels like unswerving devotion, and in part because her mother seems to have no one else. “Westwood Lodge 1980-1990” pictures her mother in a mental hospital following a suicide attempt:
One day I arrive early, to your delight; I’m the only one,
After all, who comes. I’ve packed your acid-free
Papers and watercolors, though you didn’t ask. Forgive me,
You say, I’ll paint planets. Best thing I could have done.
These lines reveal a sense of accord between mother and daughter; they both seem drawn to the modernist notion that a person can make their own reality (“I’ll paint planets”). Years pass, and the narrator devotes herself to her mother as her mother slowly dies from a malignant brain tumor.
The beauty of this book starts in the imaginative distance that the poet, and perhaps her mother, keep from a conventional fear of death. “Common Creeping Thyme (Serpillum á Serpendo)” seems at first a trite play on the sonic fluke of “time” and “thyme.” It becomes disturbing rather quickly; the poet proposes her mother name every herb in her garden as a means of distraction as the doctor provides diagnosis:
His baby’s breath, annunciates: “Metasta—”
Rosemary! You holler, Rosemary! as your arthritic hand
Smacks down in triumph on the piled white sheets—
But what separates this book from other versified accounts of cancer deaths—and there are many—is the poet’s insistence that her mother wants to die, and not because she is old or ill; she has always wanted to die, and has in fact attempted suicide numerous times:
“Sized,” he concludes, then speaks slowly to my face.
“It doesn’t look good.” I turn to you, repeat
The clause. You beam. You’ve always wanted
A brain tumor, some definitive (read: physical)
Disease people will breathe above a whisper,
Some Bette Davis blight that brings Claude Rains
To your side, or better, your ex-husband from
His wife, and I’d go along with you laughing,
Waving Hi! to all who scurry past;
It is heartbreaking to imagine a woman who has willed her own death for a long time, romanticized it as a means of enacting self-against-the-world pathos, and taken pleasure in the effect that it will have on her ex-husband and others. This is compounded by the fact that the daughter feels included in the equation (“I’d go along with you laughing”). But how can devoted-daughter be an equal partner if she’s not actively dying? This presents a considerable amount of pressure. The relationship between the poet and her mother ought to be considered among the most complex in contemporary poetry.
However much her mother wills death (“We watched and watched the screen after the test / Was through. Oh yes! you almost shouted…”), make no mistake; it doesn’t come without severe physical pain. Earlier, her mother’s “arthritic hands” struck the sheets in triumph when she learned she would die. More difficult is the climax of this struggle at the end of the second section; the book’s almost perfect title poem depicts the death of the poet’s mother:
We’re worn through, paced out like this second-hand
Persian rug beneath the rented hospital bed
And commode (no longer any use). Your fists
Strike the sheets. There’s nothing I can do.
Yet however intimate a relationship the poet forms with death over the course of Inflorescence, she is still amazed by life. “Alembic” opens the book’s second section: “From three hundred thousand spawn, five minnows. / That one brilliant salmon who flew out of the stream.” In two lines, Hannah offers the infinite complications central to the abstract notion of “life”: to be alive at all is a lucky and amazing thing. At the same time, the hundreds of thousands of spawn who didn’t make the cut offer the inherent cruelty and capriciousness of living and dying.
And both the poet and her mother are enamored of flowers and herbs; they tend carefully to living things that can’t feel physical or emotional pain. The word inflorescence is defined before the start of the book; it means both mode of development and axis upon which flowers bloom and it means “the budding and unfolding of blossoms: FLOWERING.” In a sense, her mother’s slow death might be likened to a flowering; she is slowly being born into something else, into death, however mysterious or abstract.
The book’s final section maps the years after the poet’s mother has died. Something hard still grips our narrator, though she wavers between elements of hope about the world around her (“The dull glass absenting from my eyes, // The oil veil lifting from the world.”) to moments of despair. She is still deeply haunted by her mother; the specter of their apparent partnership during the mother’s death is still very much with the poet, who begins to contemplate her own death:
And finally, I promise to remain,
To hide and cackle in the great dark,
Again, death is little more than rebirth into another strata; here the poet pledges to be “fiercely inextricable,” to “hide and cackle.” Or, her mother cackles from beyond the grave. What the poet experiences with her mother in Inflorescence is incredibly profound, as is the poet’s grasp on the complexities and contradictions implicit in the concepts of living and dying.
A friend said to me a few months back it would be impossible to review Sarah Hannah’s new book without mentioning her tragic suicide in May 2007; to an extent I think that has to be true (the book was scheduled to come out in November 2007, but the publishers bumped it up to September after Hannah’s death). Nevertheless it would be careless to prowl this book in an attempt to find some sense of reason relative to that tragedy. This book is as much about rebirth and the blazing immediacy of life as it is about death: again, that birth and death are not opposites, but a form of coalescence; after all, anything that lives will eventually die; the fact of death is required for the fact of life, and vice versa; if one is to impose the book on a poet’s personal life, it could as easily be seen as a personal rebirth after a family tragedy, especially considering the book’s conclusion.
The final poem in Inflorescence is titled “The Hutch,” and illustrates this principle perfectly. A wooden hutch that has been “slumbering for decades / in a moldy basement” wakes suddenly “to a new house”; we can probably imagine that this hutch belonged to the poet’s mother, though this isn’t stated explicitly in the poem. An empty panel in the back is opened for the first time in decades:
Deep: the scent of the wood itself—
Walnut, lost thirty, forty years,
Returned, a certain desperate stir,
Felling, the outraged exodus of birds.
These, the final lines of the book, are doubly complex. We’re taken all the way back to the felling of the tree from which the hutch was made. Any birds that were then impelled to explode from the tree were “outraged” but were moving on. You could stack the metaphors here, but birds flying simultaneously from a tree as a mark of “outraged exodus” provides a gorgeous lyric moment, a moment of flight that one can reform how s/he sees fit. All of this flux of life and death can of course be perceived as an empowered attempt on the part of the poet to rationalize the grisly nature of her mother’s demise. But however you mean to square it, it can never be said that this poet possessed a shred of indifference. These poems are calculated with precision, with elegiac grace, and with a probe into the deepest questions of living life as a human being who lives and cares for other human beings; in short, this an immensely important book.