Justice for Romeo
The first horse poem I encountered was Browning’s 'How they Brought the Good news from Ghent to Aix'. Though the details of the narrative have dissipated over the years, the rhythm and intensity of the action and emotion has not. And if anything, the horror I felt at the brutal deaths of the two fallen horses caused by the ambition of humans, forgotten amongst the thrill for the rider of Roland and the clamouring relief of the townsfolk of Aix, has intensified.
I suspect that in a similar way I will carry images of Siobhan Hodge’s Justice for Romeo long after I have set the book aside. This is poetry that packs a political punch. It does so, not by overt proselytising, but by presenting imagist poetry that is enhanced by the portrayal of Romeo who is, as Hodge states in her preface, 'a symptom of all that is wrong with industrial scale equine production. He fell victim to human interests in as many ways as it was possible to fall.' Most importantly, the collection reverberates not just with a call for justice, but a call for the best of connections between horse and human.
The collection is divided into eight sections. The first of these, 'Autopsy', elevates the news we might garner from media reports from the Spring Racing Carnival to a poetic representation of the reality of the horse’s experience mediated as Hodge suggests by 'well-meaning ignorance' which she claims is 'as dangerous as malice' and, of relevance to this first section in particular, adds, 'Amongst horse people, this is often called love.'
The opening poem ironically titled 'Happy Valley Turnover', in six short verses of five lines of mostly three or four words, juxtaposes the pre-race diet 'American alfafa' and 'soybean starches' resulting in 'ulcered bellies', with details of the race, 'from stall to killing pen, now harried up the ramp'. The use of this sparse poetic form intensifies sense of distress of the horse’s journey and the emotional separateness of the racegoers.
Imported hay exchanged for spent bodies on the morning truck. Punters park elsewhere.
The sections are far reaching. Ekphrastic poems feature in the second section, 'The Orchard'. Hodge uses these to further her portrayal of human and horse interaction. In one of these, she draws on the work of George Stubbs, notable for his 18th century paintings of horses as well as the extreme methods he used, 'Each jugular drained, veins puffed with molten wax' (15) to accurately portray the equine form. In using details from two of these paintings, Whistlejacket and Horse attacked by a Lion, Hodge ‘s poetry gains authority through historical cultural perspectives and the anatomical accuracy depicted.
You will know each close layer. Every private space must be nicked and noted.
As with details in the first section of Justice for Romeo, noting the divide between the racing crowd and the damaged horses, in this poem, Hodge uses the intimacy of viewing works of art in the final lines of 'Stubb’s' to highlight the separateness of humans from the brutality of the treatment of horses.
… No crowds at the scene, but each painting rolls stolen eyes.
In another of these poems, Hodge take a more distant historical view examining the depictions on ancient Greek vases, where, metaphorically perhaps,
… the frieze plaster has peeled across one flank and buttock open-book nicked stone feels parched as meat
Historical distance does not temper the poet’s revulsion at the treatment of these ancient horses
necks bulge with indignant whispers
Judicious use of descriptors such as 'traded plaster', 'teeth poised for battle', 'chipped hooves to strike', entice we readers into the artistry, while intensifying our revulsion at the risk to horses of performing for human entertainment.
A feature which I found persuasive was the self-deprecation of a poet clearly in love with the horse. Hodge succeeds with this ploy in poetic terms as well as in, at least this reader’s, response. In the sequence 'Bone Binds', the medical epigraph provides a warning that 'the horse is a potentially lethal animal' (41).
Although the narrative relaying the narrator’s falls, in these three poems is disturbing, there is a reassuring tenderness in the portrayal of the father figure and security in his strength and their relationship. It is in the third poem 'Gina' where we encounter the poet/narrator recounting her responsibility for not accepting the horse’s lead and then finding herself dumped with
no cushion for arrogance dropped to sand and gutted trees.
The poet admits the horse cannot be blamed.
…. I made my own way home, and still can’t fault the terms for severance
We re-meet Gina in 'For Gina', along with 'Rinjani' in the final two poems of the collection. It is a powerful way to end a collection which compels us to consider a less anthropocentric attitude to the horse.In 'Rinjani' Hodge brings us the most tender of images
Your tongue, flat and soft, took my fingers … … You took my taste and turned each whisker over arm, face, neck.
Perhaps only a writer such as Siobhan Hodge whose poetry has evolved alongside her deep personal connection with horses could produce such a captivating and convincing collection. Artful use of technique, a sparse poetic style and razor-like approach in presenting historical and contemporary evidence are reasons readers will be drawn to delve into Justice for Romeo. Siobhan Hodge has taken our hand, left the smallest print and reminded us that we need to relate to the equine species on its own terms.
Taking my hand you left the smallest print, but I may touch on your terms only.
Siobhan Hodge, Justice for Romeo. Melbourne: Cordite Books, 2018. ISBN:9780648056805