Parataxis and Beyond in Hannah Sullivan

Reading some of the more eyecatching poetry collections recently, I’ve been struck by the change of consciousness resulting from the internet age. Zapping, surfing, Googling: these have brought us a world of instant stimulus and variety, arguably combined with a lowering of our attention span.

I used to think that the result was a surge of parataxis – the use of phrases and clauses placed one after another independently, without being co-ordinated or subordinated with conjunctions. In the opening of Bleak House, Dickens uses parataxis when he describes some bad weather:

“Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better – splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foothold at street corners…” 

The jagged phrases and the absence of verbs crowd the concepts together, giving an effect of density and crowds.

Google teaches me that there is a difference between the rhetorical devices of parataxis and asyndeton. The latter is the intentional elimination of conjunctions between phrases, whether used within a sentence or independently.  Asyndeton can be seen as a subdivision of parataxis. Take this extract from the first of Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems:

“He thinks of going abroad as an attempt to live deliberately,
Imagining the well-stacked fires in iron-fenced Victorians,
The senior partner’s grace under pressure, his Emersonian
Turn of phrase, the summers spent sailing, the long reaches
Of sand loosely threaded with grass on Cape Cod beaches.”

The crowding of phrases after “Imagining” may be an example of asyndeton, but what is startling here in the flow of images is their variety. Dickens flicked from dogs to horses to foot passengers, but kept us in the same physical frame. Hannah Sullivan, on the other hand, starts with domestic fireplaces, then moves to the oldfashioned mannerisms of the senior partner, then to a period of time on a sailboat and finally the visual picture of sand on Cape Cod. Instead of portraying an external scene, Sullivan depicts the almost random movements of the mind. A lot of the resulting pleasure derives from the juxtaposition of contrasting images and shifts of perspective – from the portrait of the senior partner gracefully smiling to, finally, the broad sweep of the beaches combined with the detail of “sand loosely threaded with grass”.

It is precisely these contrasts and shifts that gives the poem its interest. A few lines above the ones quoted are the following:

“The senior partner calls from Newark, ‘Thanks, team,’ (his thin
Voice purrs, he is sipping something, ‘let’s make it a win-win,’
But in the morning, brushing his new teeth, looking out into the snow’s
Huge act of world-effacement, its lethargy, he knows:
Things are illiquid, freezing up. Light is abortive
On the greyscale Park. It’s time to short the fucking market.
In Chennai, meanwhile, a man is waiting for your analysis,
Eating his breakfast of microwaved dal and mini-idlis…”

This goes beyond rhetorical devices in that the sentence structure is conventional. But we move from hearing the senior partner’s call to the office to being inside his head as he brushes “his new teeth” – a nice touch, conveying the concept of financial success as well as pride in appearance – then to the man in India eating his breakfast.

The result is a rapid sequence of images and thoughts involving different people in radically different places, all in the space of a few lines. This time we’re not in a single person’s mind. Just like zapping, in that the zapper will flick through different channels, picking up snatches of different programmes, Hannah Sullivan flicks us across scenarios and continents as she conveys the restless activity and environment of her central character, addressed throughout as “you”.

One further point: the zapping succession of images is achieved within a sequence of loosely-rhyming couplets, each line a little longer than the classic pentameter.   

It’s clever, isn’t it? I may object that it’s too long a poem for its underlying content, but the virtuosity is undeniable. I challenge anyone to dislike a poem that ends with the following:

                                                “….and the sky over the Park
Whitens in a punched-out square, as one unlit cab follows
Another down Fifth and, through tears, you are laughing.”

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