Mary Cresswell reviews Curio by Kristin Hannaford

Kristin Hannaford, Curio. North Hobart, Tasmania: Walleah Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-877010-51-4

 

Mary Cresswell

 

This delightful book is a vivid celebration of nineteenth-century science – its passion for investigation, acquisition, collection and display – illustrated by the lives of Jane Catharine Tost and her daughter Ada Jane Rohu, whose taxidermy and curio business operated from 1860 until 1923.

Jane, her husband and four children, arrived in Hobart in 1856:

three months ’tween decks

and I cannot wait to enter

 

that cathedral of wild southern light

where the animals who have inhabited

 

my dreams, strange creatures –

devils and tigers, spotted cats

(12)

Two years later, a thylacine prepared by Jane Tost was photographed – the first record of one being photographed. Over the years, Tost & Coates (later Tost & Rohu) prepared a range of animals: birds, reptiles, marsupials, squirrels, snakes, a shipload of African mammals brought back to Australia by a big-game expedition. By 1872, they were based in Sydney; Ada Jane Rohu had joined her mother in the business. Taxidermy means “arranging skin”, and the word itself was invented in and for the nineteenth century, a word needed in the frenzy to pillage and preserve the forms of life Europeans were finding all over the world.

And a frenzy it was. This was the time of “cabinets” displaying helter skelter the loot of empire, and of museums comprising room after room of display cases, things upon things with little if any information about them.

Thylacinus cynocephalus was a mouthful,

too difficult to articulate, …

 

Better to mount its robust tail

erect and purposeful, a mouth full

of poultry and to consider its still,

taxidermied potential.

(15)

Imperial greed for curiosities had no limit, and the collectors’ sense of humanity was a far cry (we hope) from our own. Tost & Rohu – a taxidermy firm! not a cemetery, not an undertaker, not a church – was approached about a specimen sarcophagus containing the remains of a New Caledonian chief and another time about the remains of a man unearthed at Gunnedah. We don’t know where either man ended up, but in this book Hannaford’s lyrical lament for the New Caledonian and a chant for the Australian honour them belatedly, years after their shameful treatment:

into the cold dark like a stone

carried clear and dripping

from a river, heavy and weighted

with the tarnish of plunder,

a Gunn-e-darr man, rising,

carrying his country as witness

to patternings of shame

no craniometer can measure.

(23)

Various of the poems are made up of groupings, but two main series stand out. “An Arrangement of Skins” contains eight poems inspired by biography and historical record, from the Ballarat Goldfields back in the day to a possum-hunter in the Tasmanian bush in 1972. At the very beginning, there is Jane and her cabinet-maker husband, new and young immigrants in 1860:

A warmth of breath holding beneath

 

woody scents of fresh resin, under folds

of hand stitched possum rug; seventy-two pelts.

It begins with an arrangement of fur, sinew, and skin.

(40)

 

Twenty years later, in Sydney, the daughter:

Ada turns the rug and surveys

seventy-two squares of skin…

Geometric designs wave, cross hatch, and circle

her eye as she considers cloaking the fur

on a mannequin for display.

(47)

The methods and materials of taxidermy are varied, and strange indeed to the ignorant, though there are a couple of poems which list the tools of the trade and some of their uses.

Both Jane Tost (in England) and Ada Rohu (with her mother) studied with the best and were seen at the time as top in their craft. In 1862, Jane applied to the Australian Museum in Sydney for work preparing exhibits (her profession was “Naturalist” on her immigration papers). She was hired, the first woman professional in any Australian museum, and received equal pay for equal work. (Full marks to the Australian Museum for this – well done, and are you giving equal pay for equal work today? I hope so.)

The philosophy of taxidermy – the mind-set behind the craft and some of the considerations which come from studying it – is shown in a series of six poems, “To a Taxidermist”. Unlike most of the other poems in the book, which combine description with Hannaford’s take on a nineteenth-century situation, these poems have a direct and contemporary feel, a face pointing only at us.

Here are the first few lines of all six poems, in order.

 

I

You who celebrate the dead and within death

revel in the enchantment of skin-folds. You

who stuff, arrange and preserve the essential rapture

of our new animal selves, cast in fur or feathers.

(24)

II

You who catalogue the catalogue of the undead,

the precision flensing instrument of death that strips

all from a creature but its name. …

(25)

 III

You who understand the elasticity of skin as fabric,

who comprehend and curate the potential

of installation – the exterior world inside –

apply arsenical soaps, tincture of camphor,

to reveal the definitive articulation of a species.

(26)

IV

You who change profession according to the

seasons of a pelt. …

(27)

V

You who belong to a long line of corpse-keepers,

embalmers, feline and ibis stuffers, mountain-top

sacrifice makers, hide takers and tanners, saint

venerators, salt rubbers, armature and mannequin

shapers.  …

(28)

VI

You who sculpt the anatomies of concealment,

a feather artfully placed, careful surgical seaming

on the underside of torsos. …

This poem concludes:

                                                Salvage is sleight of hand,

a too-late cautionary narrative of sorts, a tool-kit

to repair those we have damaged, a melancholic

chimera of sentient creatures who bark, squawk, roar,

and chatter in our corridors, on our continents.

(29)

 After reading this series of poems, I saw the entire book on a new level. Try reading these quotes as an address “To a Historian” – “To a Preacher” – “To a Poet”. Taxidermy isn’t such a daft subject-matter for poetry after all, when you are reminded what metaphor lets us do. But to what degree do we want to compare our poems to museum specimens? At the time, the strange creatures that Jane Tost and Ada Rohu assembled were more than loot; they were intended to encourage a sense of awe and wonder in people far away from the Antipodes, and doubtless they did just that. Now many of them are only a reminder of our own flaws. Are the awe and wonder gone forever, or can we go somewhere else to find them?

Hannaford keeps her own poems distinct from her historical notes which link the poems (catalogue entries for the 1893 Chicago Exhibition, newspaper snippets, lists of equipment, biographical notes), keeping the poetry in roman type and the rest in italic. The typographic convention also highlights the difference between the dry descriptive passages and the individuality of the poems themselves.

She has a scrupulous concern with her subject matter, its present shape as well as its origins. Some so-called historical material now popular presents the past as it might possibly have been, given a bit of retroactive tinkering – a technique I find at best a way of avoiding research, at worst a way of avoiding our own responsibility for preserving the facts of our history, a failure both ways. Fortunately, this is not Hannaford’s way.

There are eight pages of bibliographic material used in citations, as references, or as source material. This includes book and thesis material, newspaper citations, web sites listed in connection with specific poems. There is also a list of general reference materials. All in all, it’s a fascinating collection.

 

Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on New Zealand’s Kapiti Coast. She is a retired science editor. Her collection of ghazals and glosas, Fish Stories, will be published by Canterbury University Press in 2015.

See also: http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/cresswellmary.html

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