Jennifer Mackenzie reviews Cow

Susan Hawthorne, Cow. North Melbourne, Vic.: Spinifex Press, 2011. ISBN 9781876756888.

 

Edgeless origami in an unfolding universe’

 

Jennifer Mackenzie

In Susan Hawthorne’s Cow, the main protagonist is a cow named Queenie, who is a wanderer in space and time, a witness to and participant in times of horror and bliss. Queenie is no peripheral cow, but a being at the very centre of the world, and of language itself:

Queenie is no fool she’s been around for a while

since the beginning of time

who spilt the milky star road?

who set the galaxies spinning? (49)

Structurally, Cow employs what is described in the first long sequence what the poet says as “edgeless origami in an unfolding universe” (7), handling metamorphosis, time shifts, tragedy and wry commentary with breathtaking ease. It is through the perceptive gaze and the knockabout humour of our guide that the poetry takes us to the mythical worlds of Greece, India and elsewhere without any sense of awkwardness or “scene-setting”. This is achieved most essentially through the voice of Queenie, the subversive and sometimes wary voice of nature itself, a voice enriched by the poet’s facility with the languages of Sanskrit and Ancient Greek.

At the beginning of the book, the farm child poet forms an almost transformative, totemic identification with the beast of wonder. After being frightened of the cow when small:

I have doubled in age and am learning

the internal properties of cow

stand your ground calls my father

as the biggest cow of the herd

breaks away and runs straight at me …
 

I have found my cow inside

I have learnt the internal property

that she will give way if you stand your ground

stand your ground I say to myself

even the internal cow is impressed (2)

The cow becomes a way of seeing, of entering the creative universe, or as Hawthorne says, “the cow is at the limits of my thinking” (3). As a bellwether of fear and oppression, the cow can inhabit a fecund world of feminine paradise:

the poet says we roamed arcadia

spread out over the hills

and across the plain

wherever food was plentiful

we travelled with our daughters

close by our side

the bullocks we sent off after a time

their existence more solitary (57)

or she can be both a prisoner of and an escapee from colonialism:

cows came to Australia

with convicts

but there was no emancipations for good behaviour

from five cows have come millions
 

Indian cows the Zebu roam

the colony at Cape Town

like convicts

they escaped went bush

by the time they were found seven years later

their numbers had increased ten-fold
 

what happened to these five cows

in the seven years they went missing?

what is the untold story of these runaway cows

these fugitives from empire? (5)

One of the highlights of the collection, also on the theme of rebellion, is what cows and calves say, in which a violent storm is suggestive of the intimacy, restrictiveness and callow behaviour of family members:

thunder bolting at high speed

rolls across the corral

shaking it from roof to roof …
 

through our mother’s breast a wave

in oscillation we rebellious youngsters

troublemakers unteachable bodytappers

make our own worlds achieving

well beyond what was imagined

Cleis whispers in that teenage tone

look what I’ve done (26)

As the wandering Queenie enters and reveals poignant scenes of history and myth, she takes her time to reveal her/the poet’s vision to the poet herself:

she took her time reaching my garden

a poet’s paradise at the end of the road

she had thought the market was tasty (13)

but once in train, this shape-shifting meditation on myth, history and language which Cow becomes has some memorable passages. Poems where etymology is embedded in image and voice are particularly strong. The passages involving Sita, the heroine of the Ramayana, are fine examples. What Sita says employs the meaning of the name Sita, the furrow or line of a ploughshare, (“the result of a cow and a plough”, 32) to connect with her voice and the very earth she inhabits and embodies:

history is one thing

you won’t find me there

you need to dig for me

you need to burrow

underground

follow the motherlode

the seams of soil and rock

bedrock and magma

burrow until you reach the centre (32)

Here, the tread of the cow reveals the beauty of myth, but in a fine narrative twist in what Queenie says about Sita, Sita is given a voice contrary to the standard mythical chauvinism, with her compliant self transformed into somebody who is enjoying life in Ravana’s compound:

… she stays on

at the mountain resort

with its beach views elephants peacocks

temples evening dancing

and good intelligent conversation (23)

after which she makes the most of her Rama-enforced exile:

she starts a school for the study of language

people come from lands all around

they tell stories

recite day-long epic poems

play music

dance and paint

finally life is good (25)

The “origami” technique of metamorphosis works well in such pieces as what she says about shadows, where an illuminated shadow of a painted cow itself shines with “the glittering lights/of Deepavali” (33), a festival connected to the Ramayana, and in what she says about Ereshkigal, who:

changed the world when she picked dirt

from under her fingernail like a

fletcher

plucking feathers to balance the arrow (38)

In the ever-expanding world of cow and journey, the cow becomes a maker of language and a maker of place. The wandering cow in what Io says introduces a deft piece of etymology:

until I arrived at the sea

at the crossing now named for me

Bosphoros cow bearer

I swam those black waters

reached the far shore (40)

As in what the linguist says and what the linguist says about Queenie, the traveller cow/ the poetic sensor, this bearer of sensibility and tragedy, this giver of language, of feminist interpretation, inscribes an etymology entwined with the earth and with nature:

I dig for language uprooting words

from the trail of historical

syntax across continents

down through tap roots

the shapes of letter and words

frizzing on the edge of a root (78)

and:

she was dancing over India

and out fell the languages

thousands of them written

in hundreds of alphabets (79)

 

Cow works best when the connection between nature, etymology and travel, between perception and rebellion, is apparent in the poetry itself. On occasion the language, particularly in the latter part of the book, is underworked, as if relying on the originality of the overall concept to get it through. But this is a minor criticism of what is a deeply original and entertaining work.

 
 

Jennifer Mackenzie is the author of Borobudur (Transit Lounge, 2009) which was republished in Indonesia as Borobudur and Other Poems (Lontar, 2012). Borobudur was highly commended in the Australian Arts in Asia Awards, and has been presented at festivals and conferences at venues in the Asian region and in Australia. One of Jennifer’s current projects is called New Energy, a series of poems about China’s western deserts.

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