Summary and book reviews of Inflorescence by Sarah Hannah


by Sarah Hannah

Inflorescence by Sarah Hannah X
Inflorescence by Sarah Hannah
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • Published:
    Oct 2007, 77 pages

  • Rate this book

Buy This Book

About this Book

Book Summary

Sarah Hannah follows her critically acclaimed first volume of poetry, Longing Distance, with Inflorescence, a compelling memoir-in-verse for her mother, Boston Expressionist painter Renee Rothbein, and their intense relationship in which they struggle with Rothbein’s mental illness and eventual death from cancer. Hannah’s characteristic love of traditional poetic forms, wit, and fascination with the natural world continue to manifest in this sometimes shocking story that cannot fail to move scores of readers, including anyone who has cared for the sick, dealt with mental illness, or lost someone close to them. However, Inflorescence is far more than a narrative of sickness and loss. Through rich language and use of metaphor, most often that of wildflowers, their common names and lore, Inflorescence often treats its subject matter obliquely, making the personal and particular universal. In all, Hannah’s second volume of poetry examines unflinchingly the deep and difficult love between a mother and daughter, stares death in the face, and transforms a unique story into a series of luminous, transcendent truths.

The Garden As She Left It

Locked, strung
With pollens, stirred by bees.
The cicadas burn

Their fine blue current.
At the center, two paths cross:
A ring of impatiens.

Their white petals lift to the air.
Are they waiting for the next departure—
Scrub jay, sulfur moth, the summer?

The paths lead outward
To a brick border,
A perfect circle squared.

On the gray wall of the house
A thin broom slants,
The air around it furious.

The dim figure of the woman,
The recent flutter of hands

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!


BookBrowse Review


[A] series of poems about grief, mother-daughter relationships, and the natural world that are as beautiful and varied as the botanical process that gives the collection its name. There is only one downside to Inflorescence: it is the final book written by Hannah, who committed suicide in 2007, shortly before its publication. It would be a shame if the manner of her death overshadowed the splendor of these poems; Hannah's command of form, her fluid yet controlled use of floral imagery, and her wicked sense of humor make these poems buzz with an energy that seems at odds with her early death.

Still, as Hannah writes in "An Elegy for Bells," "There are two sides to everything:/The ring and its ghost, the one/calling and the one called." In "Azrael (Angel of Death)," she conjures the subject in his many guises (lawyer, social worker, hospice nurse), but when she describes him as the lover her mother has "whored…married and divorced," the poem takes on a chillingly prescient tone: while Renee Rothbein may have died of a brain tumor, she was no stranger to suicide attempts. Indeed, Hannah writes that her mother had "always wanted/a brain tumor, some definitive (read: physical)/Disease people will breathe above a whisper". And in "Threepence, Great Britain, 1943," she creates a biography of her mother in immaculately composed tercets, revealing how Renee's "mum went funny,/Locked up and electroshocked, clamped down/On a bit to save her tongue."

Mental illness isn't the only ghostly presence in the collection, either. Section II, "In the Old House," addresses the abode pictured on the book cover, an ivy-covered cottage with three leaded windows facing out. It is a storybook house, and as in most fairy tales, it possesses a dark side. In one poem, "[t]he house does not forgive you," while in another "There is a backward world/Figured in the coldest state/of staring through the pane". "Progressive Dreaming" finds the speaker entering "the old house like a skilled burglar" and flitting through it, wraith-like, to find a dress that belonged to the woman who lived there before; the speaker knows that although the dress will fit, "it cannot be removed." Ultimately both the speaker and her mother haunt the house where they once dwelled, just as the "land plowed by tractors/Is haunted by oaks, by the circling/Protests of sparrows unnested." The urgency with which Hannah enjoins us to consider the prior history of both animate and inanimate objects (houses, trees) forces us to view the world through new eyes, to see everything around us as constantly blooming and decaying.

Hannah's wry wit, however, ensures that the poems never wallow in the despair that her subjects might suggest. "Common Creeping Thyme" places the speaker and her mother in a hospital room where they "wait and curse/While aides placate [them] with stale crackers/and CranGrape juice." She describes Westwood Lodge, a New England mental institution where her mother periodically stayed, as a "perennial/Resort…/Where Sexton strolled through noon, made moccasins,/And danced in a circle". Later in the same poem, the college-age speaker notes that "God's a white grub./He ate the lawn, but we can't afford to exterminate him". In a macabre play on "The 12 Days of Christmas," she even depicts her mother's death rattles as "two woodpeckers out of synch;/Three geese choking on crabgrass," and employs the formality of end-rhymed couplets in "Blessed Thistle" to play with Shakespearean language in a contemporary context. "The Missing Ingredient" provides the coup de grace, its accomplished use of acrostics transcending the merely clever to make a statement about a crucial aspect of depression. Hannah ends the collection with what she calls "Cantankerous Author's Notes," and these droll comments on literary allusions and references further underline that we have lost not only an extraordinary poet but also a simultaneously self-deprecating and well-read woman.

Abbreviated from "Biography-in-verse" by Marnie Colton  

Media Reviews

Harvard Review

Hannah shows a fearless desire to experiment with form as she works to preserve the truth of her mother's situation. Tercets, quatrains, cinquaines, couplets, most in unrhymed stanzas without regular meter, give the poems a formalized jaggedness.


These poems contain everything a poet—and reader—could wish for—the sensibility, even sixth-sense, of a poetic imagination equipped with the language and craft necessary to bring that imagination to brilliant fruition.

Reader Reviews

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!


Readalikes Full readalike results are for members only

If you liked Inflorescence, try these:

  • The Best of It jacket

    The Best of It

    by Kay Ryan

    Published 2011

    More about this book

    Read Reviews

    A major event in American poetry: The poet’s own selection of more than two hundred poems, offering both longtime followers and new readers a stunning retrospective of her earlier work as well as a generous selection of powerful new poems.

  • The Spare Room jacket

    The Spare Room

    by Helen Garner

    Published 2010

    More about this book

    Read Reviews

    A powerful, witty, and taut novel about a complex friendship between two women—one dying, the other called to care for her—from an internationally acclaimed and award-winning author.

Non-members are limited to two results. Become a member
Search Readalikes again
How we choose readalikes
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Speak No Evil
    Speak No Evil
    by Uzodinma Iweala
    Young Nigerian American writer Uzodinma Iweala is fast becoming known as a powerful chronicler of ...
  • Book Jacket: Winter
    by Ali Smith
    "God was dead; to begin with." This first sentence of Winter perfectly sets up the dreamy journey ...
  • Book Jacket: A Land of Permanent Goodbyes
    A Land of Permanent Goodbyes
    by Atia Abawi

    When you're a refugee, everyone has lost, at least for the time being... And the journey ...

  • Book Jacket: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
    Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
    by Mario Giordano
    Munich matron and self-described worldly sophisticate, Isolde Oberreiter, has decided to retire to a...

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Anatomy of a Miracle
    by Jonathan Miles

    A stunning novel that offers an exploration of faith, science and the meaning of life.
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Sometimes I Lie
    by Alice Feeney

    This brilliant psychological thriller asks: Is something a lie if you believe it's the truth?
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win The Balcony

The Balcony
by Jane Delury

A century-spanning novel-in-stories of a French village brimming with compassion, natural beauty, and unmistakable humanity.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

One N U G

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.