Out of Time in “Was It for This” – Chicago Review of Books

When disaster strikes, we’re confronted with our own mortality, however close we are to the loss. The pandemic, for one, uprooted and interrogated our sense of normalcy—what our daily lives meant to us, our relationships, our age, our sense of time. We realized that the structures we’d always depended on were quicksand. That whatever held them up was as weak and susceptible as a body.

Was It for This is the new poetry collection from Hannah Sullivan, whose last collection, Three Poems, won the T. S. Eliot Prize. She artfully explores space, time, and loss, planting us concretely in settings from her childhood and adulthood while exploring the abstracts of aging. She attempts to define what makes time, time, eventually yielding to its nothingness, its inherent ungraspable qualities.

The first of the three sections, “Tenants,” describes the Grenfell Tower fire in North Kensington in 2017, which killed seventy-two people and started in someone’s refrigerator. Sullivan begins with an acknowledgment of how insignificant time and place can seem when a tragedy occurs:

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

What do space and place mean when you’re one of millions in a city, who happens to be inside the building that burns? What is time when you don’t know if you’ll get out? Or when you have to simply sit and wait?

Sullivan tries to make meaning out of something that doesn’t seem to have any, save unnecessary devastation. In the TV footage, she sees someone who looks like her, “just waving at a window.” But in Sullivan’s witnessing and retelling, we find connection and compassion.

The second section, “Was It for This,” is a prose-poem hybrid beginning in the 1980s when the author was growing up in London. She recounts her childhood recognition that a house was a “duality,” both a living thing with many visible flaws as well as something that was supposed to be a momentous investment. Sullivan again compares the tangible to the conceptual.

As children, we also learn how to be secretive, how to lie. We see how these secrets play into social and familial roles. For one, Sullivan doesn’t learn until her forties, during the pandemic, how her grandfather actually died:

“Did he die of emphysema? More with, my mother said later,
invoking a new rhetoric. It wasn’t until last winter – the stuffy,
stuck days of the last lockdown – that she told me he had killed

In the 2000s, Sullivan lived in Boston, New York, and San Francisco, going to school, being young, and eventually starting a life with her husband. She recalls one weekend brunch in New York watching Wimbledon and drinking bottomless mimosas, and “it was because we didn’t think it was the last time that we ate brunch in a sports bar on Bleecker Street” that she began to mourn the loss of time, or youth. The next morning, she snapped out of it, but she “had seen the other side” and “knew it was all effort and show.”

Later and closer to now, when visiting the physical places of her childhood, Sullivan acknowledges a sort of personal crisis:

“I started wondering if this was it, the still centre of
my life, the point, the marrow: me. Suddenly, I’d done all the
things; all the life events had happened. . . . Now the only life event left
was dying.”

She “wanted all of it again to do again.”

In growing up, we do wake to the transience and impermanence of moments, another awareness that can feel like a lie—life is not forever and we get one stab at it. And perhaps it sits heavier on us as we age.

“Happy Birthday,” the third and final poem, hits similar themes with an emerging pandemic in the background. It is a new year—2020—and Sullivan is turning forty-one on the third of January. She notes famous people who died at forty-one, like Jane Austen and Alan Turing. Shakespeare “feared his powers were spent, his poems all done” at forty-one.

While she laments her age, the pandemic intensifies, out of sight. Disasters are easier to ignore when they’re far away, when you can’t see the burning building from your street.

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Meanwhile, Sullivan googles menopause and considers what it means to lose the body’s “use value,” realizing that “all the things I’d always been / surprised to have been given, / to do with sex, were being removed, / or had been while I slept.”

She compares this process and the “creep of disgust” she feels to a peacock “lugging round his broken tail, stray feathers at odd angles.”

Was It for This is full of wisdom, intimacy, and unexpected metaphors like this one. Sullivan’s perspective is warm and flawlessly recounted, yet the despair comes through from a forty-something woman who has lived, has regrets, and wants more time.

When space is always changing, and time clouds more than it soothes, what we have are memories and moments. The present usually doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. At one point, Sullivan comments on this phenomenon as if a tragedy:

“why should time only
in taking things, in
handing down, make
what they were all along
flare to brilliance.”

We see that brilliance only with our heads turned. And yet in writing and giving her memories, Sullivan establishes a boundless piece of work that reminds us of stillness.

Was It for This
By Hannah Sullivan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published January 24, 2023

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