(Book Review) What Once Was There Is the Most Beautiful Thing by Catie Hannigan

By Anete Kruusmägi

hanniganWe’ve all experienced it while reading poetry: there are certain lines that talk to us, touch us, and stay with us, while many others pass unnoticed. Catie Hannigan’s debut feels like someone shook a poetry collection in such a way that only the lines that matter stayed. The author herself describes her work as being simple and deliberate, and that’s exactly what we find here. Carefully crafted lines dig their way into our minds and stay.

an insect
in the wrist

Hannigan’s poems are short, but they don’t rush the reader, they guide her to the core of their meaning.

What Once Was There Is The Most Beautiful Thing is Catie Hannigan’s debut chapbook published from New Michigan Press. Since the author is both a poet and a visual artist, we should talk about the form of the book. It’s hand printed, just like all books once were. This time-consuming craft is now mostly forgotten and unimaginable for contemporary poets who have enough worrying to do to get the words right in their minds. Hannigan has one worry extra: she has to press the words on the paper as well.

“Slow” and “careful” are the words that come to our mind when we try to describe the process of laying metal stamps next to each to compose a text. But Hannigan doesn’t stop where people stopped before the digital age. She doesn’t just get the words on the paper; she also challenges the limits of the technique. Some of her texts are disappearing, either because of lack of ink or because of noise caused by deliberate accumulation of words. Some of her poems are adrift on the page.

In her poem “Devour,” words are double-printed with slight imperfection, creating a feeling that you’re short-sighted, that you’re losing your vision. It feels like the poem is moving on the page. Strangely, this reminds me of everyday speech, the lines in conversations that we don’t hear properly. In speech, something always gets lost. Our life is not a Hollywood movie where actors deliver messages with perfect dictation. No, life is more like the French art drama film Irreversible in which the viewer has to sharpen his ears in order to understand because the actors talk to themselves and not for the audience.

But Hanningan doesn’t stop here. She goes further with imitating speech. She doesn’t shy away from playing with form, stretching the spaces between letters in “Vibrating,” and writing in squares in “It’ll Be Okay” and “No It Wont.” The latter two give an impression of endless circles, known in mythology as ouroboros or tail-devouring snakes.

As is already hinted in the title of her chapbook, Hannigan seems to be attracted by endings, goodbyes, and goings. Her collection starts with a poem called “First Time Gone.” But again, she doesn’t stop here, she goes on and asks what happens after:

I want to know 
where the light goes
when it goes

Many authors get lost in immense and never ending trails of nostalgia, unable to see the beauty of the present moment. In Catie Hanningan’s poems, it’s not like that. The end is inevitable, irreversible. Time is a merciless river that goes only forward. Or, as she says in “Unremembering I,”

How the path
may never
lick its wounds

She wants to unremember.

I want 
to unwant
each touch

Hand in hand with this thought of endings walks the question of existence. In her texts,  existence vibrates:

Vibrating
line
of 
being

and rings like a coin:

Ringing
as a penny
dropped 
I am

In-between these existential musings, Hannigan comes down to earth to explore unwanted objects, household items in their last pages of existence. The yard sale is a recurring motif in her chapbook. In these poems, we can admire Hannigan’s skill in revealing the poetics of the everyday. Here is how she describes a sifter:

The motion 
stumbles to 
complete 
itself

Another place where things can end up is a pawn shop, which Hannigan also utilizes:

We dispose
of bad 
memories
here.

Even though Hannigan explains a lot about the world using the images of objects, seashells, or passing cows, we can also find poems where she expresses her thoughts directly.These are the witty poems that make us smile and hit us right between the eyes.  One of my favourites is called “Feelings 101,” which probably speaks to anyone who has ever taken a class of creative writing. It goes:

Show
Don’t
Tell

Who would have imagined that this well-known creative advice is something we can use outside of classroom, outside of writing?

Following her own rules Hannigan, also shares a series called Love.

“Love I”  is a poem where the words “Awe” and “Full” have been stamped on top of each so that the centre of the poem is black with words, conveying the feeling we may have when we fall in love. Sure, falling in love is a feeling of completion for many, but often it’s something to be afraid of. It’s too big and too beautiful, something to admire from afar.

“Love II” looks similar. Words are printed on top of each. Again, the centre of the poem is black with ink. But the word that repeats itself here is Awful. As they say, it’s just one step from love to hate. Here all it takes is one page.

Hannigan’s poems are perfect for anyone who is ready to put her soul out there, who is ready to listen in small quantities and doesn’t need big chunks of text to hide behind. Hannigan’s words are soothing for those who have time to investigate them one by one. No worries, small quantities don’t leave you with emptiness. A drop of verse distillates inside you like an Easter egg colour tablet in water. That’s how much power there is in her words.


Anete Kruusmägi is a writer from Estonia. She is currently doing a residency in Finland while working on two novel projects. She studied comparative literature at the University of Tartu (Estonia) and creative writing at the University of Westminster (UK). Her writing has appeared in Värske Rõhk, Melancholy HyperboleJess, and elsewhere.

2 comments

  1. Anete Kruusmagi does an admirable job of conveying what is remarkable about Catie Hannigan’s poetry. I was particularly intrigued by the jumble of “Awe” and “Full” to reveal the dualistic/overwhelming nature of romantic love. I felt my coin drop while reading this review of a very singular work of art.

    Like

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