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Sarah Hannah, 40; teacher, poet known for incisiveness, fervence


Memory is "a ruthless contraption," Sarah Hannah wrote in "Alembic," a poem that, as the title suggests, distills recollections and captures the challenge of retrieving and refining lingering murmurs from the past.

You lived somewhere for very long. But the avenues by which you could recall it Have been closed for new construction. At some point your mind chose a few for you, A lucky few among the millions.

"She had an emotional intensity that wasn't sentimental or self-pitying," said the writer Annie Dillard, one of Dr. Hannah's teachers at Wesleyan University.

Equally fervent about the Monkees and Metallica, she thrilled to the sights and sounds of amphibians and insects along the Charles River near Waban, where she grew up. Dr. Hannah, who had taught writing at Emerson College and had been awaiting publication of her second volume of poetry, took her life May 23 in Brookline, where she had moved a few weeks ago, her family said. She was 40 and had lived in Cambridge.

Poems, each rigorously revised on sheaves of pink paper, became performance pieces at readings.

"When she read her poetry, she really read her poetry, in part just because of her spectacular presence," said Kate Bernheimer, a friend and classmate at Newton South High School and Wesleyan. "In a conversation it was there, too -- this charge. There was no halfway with her when she read her poetry; it was all or nothing. It was not dramatic in any false sense; the poetry was just direct. The language was direct from her to you. Everyone would sit up a little straighter. You couldn't just lounge or laugh as if it was just cool. There was none of that ironic laughter you hear sometimes at readings."

"She would talk to the crowd and make you feel like she was talking to you as an individual," said Maura Kelly, who became friends with Dr. Hannah when the two were toddlers. "And she would set the scene and tell you some of her personal story and how she came to craft this poem."

As a child in Waban, a place that would figure in some of her poetry, Dr. Hannah developed her love of reading and sense of wonder in nature.

"We were walking along the Charles River," said her father, Nathan Goldstein of Ashland. "It was a starry night and she looked up -- I think she had to be 4 then -- and she announced that she was going to be an astronomer."

He teasingly cautioned that she could end up with a sore neck from gazing upward, "and she said: 'No, I won't have a problem. I'm going to lie on the grass.' So she already had that wry sense of humor. There was always something a little adult about her."

Dr. Hannah's parents divorced while she was growing up. Her mother, Renee Rothbein, who had also struggled with depression, died in 2001. The cover of "Inflorescence," Dr. Hannah's new book of poetry, will feature one of Rothbein's paintings.

"It's an abstraction of flowers -- not really flowers, but a burst of color and a suggestion of flowers," said Dr. Hannah's stepmother, Harriet Fishman of Ashland. "The texture is a golden surface, and within it are faint images of she and her mother. And the poems are kind of a closure related to her mother, who was a fine painter."

Tupelo Press of Dorset, Vt., has moved up publication of "Inflorescence" from November to September.

"Pelham Health Services, 12 Pleasant Street," a poem in the new book, begins:

How this obscure road winds me sinister, Gas lamps flicker, insinuant in series. Come here, they hiss, linger at this fire.

In high school, when she and Bernheimer were wearing matching pink miniskirts to Go-Gos concerts, Dr. Hannah was already writing prose and poetry. She mixed stately influences, such as the poetry of Amy Lowell, with the decidedly mainstream, including traveling with Kelly to New Jersey for a convention of Monkees fans.

Tracking down band members at reunion shows, "she actually was kissed by three of the four Monkees," said Dr. Hannah's husband, Bob O'Hagan of Cambridge.

Graduating from Newton South in 1984, she went to Wesleyan, where she studied poetry with Dillard.

"Sarah Hannah was really, really smart and intense," Dillard said. "She made it into a poetry class of mine for which I turned away almost 200 students and took 13. She got an A."

"When she was here, she was clearly a dazzling student among students," said Anne Greene, director of the writing programs at Wesleyan. "I think all of us remembered Sarah vividly when she left, and part of that was the intensity that she had, a real interest in her work, a love of literature."

A guitarist, Dr. Hannah played in the heavy metal band Dead Grotty at Wesleyan and other bands in New York City, where she moved in the late 1980s. She had met O'Hagan in college, and the two collaborated on songs. "Usually she was the words, and I was the music," O'Hagan said. They married in 1995.

The poet, who had always written under her first and middle names, officially changed her name to Sarah Hannah in the mid-1990s.

In New York she attended Columbia University, graduating with a master's of fine arts in creative writing and a doctorate in literature. Some of her graduate writings focused on Sylvia Plath, whose own suicide has resonated among poets.

"She wrote about Plath's relentless formal bent, and her painstaking revision process," said Bernheimer, who teaches fiction at the University of Alabama.

Dr. Hannah, whose work has appeared in such literary journals as AGNI, Parnassus, and The Southern Review, was a semifinalist for the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 2002. Family members said she was just as proud to have been named poet laureate of the Newton community group Friends of Hemlock Gorge Reservation.

"She was incredibly smart and incisive," her husband said. "She could just sort of see into things and see connections, especially relating nature to human experience.

"And she really had a great sense of humor. She was just beautiful, but could be silly and undistinguished, not afraid to make a fool of herself at any given moment."

"I think from the very beginning she was a spectacular writer and thinker, a real intellectual," Bernheimer said. "She's just one of those people who are full of empathy and grace, passionate about people."

In addition to her husband, father, and stepmother, Dr. Hannah leaves a stepsister, Jessica Fishman of Portland, Ore.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. today in the Ashland home of her father and stepmother.