There’s a bit of both Frederick Seidel and T.S. Eliot in the press of her sentences, the crisp progress of her rhyming couplets. They capture the city in what seems to be the early aughts:
Once a year you go in a cab to the Bohemian Beer Garden
And eat pink, flayed kielbasa, penile and artery-hardening,
While elderly men dance to a band in blue embroidered hose,
Holding their elbows rigidly, like waxed Pinocchios.
Your friends wear flannel and McDonald’s name badges,
They talk about Ben Bernanke and Isabel Marant wedges.
Sullivan lives in London and teaches English at Oxford. She studied classics at Cambridge before living in the United States for a decade. Her frame of reference is effortlessly wide.
She is a poet who will rhyme the Shelley poem “Epipsychidion” with “a little inhuman,” and the Killers’ song “Mr. Brightside” with “PowerPoint slides.”
Her narrator eats a leftover whoopie pie (her only meal of the day) and, curious, Googles the bakery. In a line that catches you up short, she writes:
On Yelp someone has written, “This case of cakes smells so good
If I ever have to go on a respirator (*knock on wood*)
I hope they use this cake case as my respirator.”
There is a good deal of sex in “You, Very Young in New York.” Her narrator notes, during an encounter with an ex, “Trying out the bad banana taste of Durex on your tongue.” There is estrangement and loss. “Your mother asks / To be your friend again,” she writes, “but the request just hangs in the sidebar.”
The small, pointed brushes that artists use are known as “brights”; Sullivan seems to own one hundred thousand of them. Sometimes she dips them into mascara, other times into blood. Another poem in this collection, titled “Repeat Until Time: The Heraclitus Poem,” includes these lines:
What will survive of us?
Larkin thought the answer might be “love,”
But couldn’t prove it.
The narrator has her own ideas:
Short chains of carbon in the dust,
This is the practical answer.
Old laptops, pacemakers, leg pins.
DNA fibers revealing death’s cause.
Emails we sent and drafts we didn’t send.
The things we said and those we should’ve.
The second and third poems in this book shift in locale between San Francisco and London, among other places. A lot of time is spent in airports, where there is “The pop of a Krispy Kreme sign and the tan embonpoint / Of Scotch bottles after customs to caress.” You can live on little things like this.
The book’s devastating final poem, “The Sandpit After Rain,” is in large part about giving birth. It’s a poem about regret, from the perspective of a woman who feels she has “done everything / She shouldn’t do, / Everything unmotherly and queer, / Taboo, / Frantically googling: / taboo pregnancy what not to do.”