Susan Pyke reviews Lupa and Lamb by Susan Hawthorne

Susan Hawthorne, Lupa and Lamb. Melbourne: Spinifex, 2014.  ISBN: 9781742199245

 

Ewes lying down with she-wolves

Susan Pyke

 

Lupa and Lamb, Susan Hawthorne’s latest pithy collection of poetry, continues her work to break down the separations between humans and nonhumans, with the lyrical savvy that marks her previous collection, Cow. In Lupa and Lamb Hawthorne’s exploration of different possibilities in human/nonhuman relations is hosted by Curatrix, the Director of the Musæum Matricum. Curatrix leads readers through a matriarchal past, brought alive by the wolfish Diana and the lamb-like Agnese, into a party of all time attended by a host of baying baa-barian re-sisters.

Hawthorne’s epigraph from Monique Wittig indicates, not unexpectedly, the deeply political intent of this work. When memory fails, Wittig exhorts, invent your way beyond slavery. The past created by Curatrix involves fragments from antiquity to the current day; a heady mix of the imaginary and the artifact. Like the tourists Hawthorne depicts, chuckling at the power of matriarchy emerging in the peripheries of male curation, readers of this collection may have “eyes already able to see the disjunction” formed through stories made out of a past that will not be silenced (98).

The tone of this text is optimistic. “One by one, change comes” (98). This hope is helped along by the fine dashes of humour that spice this serious book. In “Diana laughs”, the funny bone  of both reader and protagonist is tickled by the idea of being “reborn” and it is good that this sense of fun tingles all the way to the ending of this work, for as Diana puts it, “we laugh at our pain / we laugh to stay sane” (“Baubo”, 145). The music of tender laughter in this text helps readers and its speakers to cope with the cruelties of the past and prepare for the change that is needed.

In the first section of this collection, “Inside Lupa”, readers are introduced to the playful Curatrix who navigates readers through the intellectual adventure of these poems. Readers are encouraged to range like a she-wolf and graze like an ewe, from present “mother tongues” (xii), all the way back to La Donna Lupa Paleolitica, a wolf-woman of an age that “deserves respect” (“wolf pack”, 127).  As the narrative of this work unfolds it becomes evident that feminist intent cannot be separated from an ethical requirement to release nonhumans from oppression.

Hawthorne begins her work with an intimate female perspective. After the speaker in “descent” reads with joy the “dark thighs” of her addressee’s “caves” (3), the political importance of the embodied cave is made explicit. In the following poem, “Canis” the promise is given that there will be no shouting from the “pals” that wrote in Grecian didacticism and wrote out women (4). In appreciating the grounded wisdom of the cave, Lupa and Lamb offers a theistic inversion to the religion of rhetorical progress.  Yet Hawthorne’s project is no dreamy return to the lap of the goddess. Readers must fossick with Curatrix through the “ruins of memory” (18) to find contemporary ways of living that might improve the existence of all living things. As readers turn, with Curatrix, to the titular “story stones”, abandoned under duress, opportunities for genuine progression open (18). There is no dead-end essentialism in the living insurgence of this text.

Readers are threaded into Hawthorne’s deft weaving towards party time, well aware of the dangers that come with rebellion. As the lamb draws closer to the wolf, Diana to Agnese, the wrongs done through the consumption of the other are unveiled as integral to the harm of oppression. The she-wolf, the Lupa, refuses to eat meat, Diana will not bring down a “comprehensible sentence” that involves killing “for dinner / or for poetry” (“Sulpicia’s grammar lesson”, 41). This ethical shift is followed through in the next poem when wolverine Diana takes the option to “refuse”, re-fuse into a new mode of human / nonhuman relations, saying firmly, “just because I like it / doesn’t mean I should eat it” (“xyz says Diana”, 42).

It is not just the consumption of flesh that Hawthorne questions through Diana. In the next poem, cleverly titled “Diana shears Livia’s flock”, Diana takes her “sharp” shears and draws a reluctant sheep close; “it’s a trust thing / she has to relax” (46). Readers will be alert to the subtle brutality in the “has to”; already there have been stories of physical and sexual harms perpetrated against women (“Sabine women”, 24-25 and “Australia and Italy, lupa girls” 82-83). These traumas are everywhere, every day, from the past of public brutalities to a close-to-present “Australia: sheep town”, where the only “charges of rape” faced by rich boys come through hushed women-talk (86). The crime has no formal record, it is effaced, but it re-emerges, set in stone, through this poem. The need to consider abusive harm done to one human body by another politicises the have-to of shearing. This all-female space, with its suggestion of reciprocity, seems safe, yet there is an inflection of invasion that no amount of anointing, ritual washing and dressing can heal. The “trust thing” is one-way. It cannot be accepted at face value. The needs of humanity are being put before the needs of other creatures, a dissonance made evident in the jarring request for trust.

Readers navigate from this challenging space into the next poem where its “clip” made from the shearing becomes a making of wool, performed by virgin sylphs. These weavers “ease and comb / sing the wool” (48). Readers are taken aback, taken back to the earlier “virgin” wool-making that creates the “sacrosantitas”, the “unviolable” (28). Diana’s shearing enters the realm of the sacred, smeared with a description of these weavings as “prayers of power”. In response to this trouble, the fibres “sing themselves” in a bittersweet harmony that renders its own song for change (27).

After readers experience this meditational moment, the “precative noted later in the margins as a prayer, a supplication, an entreaty” (60), the collection shifts into its second movement, “Inside Lamb”. Diana steps back, Agnese steps up and the party draws closer, seemingly contained within the hierarchy suggested in the shearing. “Livia’s party” is empress-hosted, there is a celestial host of “angels” that are gathering and a growing sense of fear within the flock as it begins to form (54). The chilling poem, “come to kill us”, repeats its title three times in the body of the verses. There is a cherishing of life in this atmosphere of sacrifice (58-59). It is vital that the re-sisters, weighted with the heavy matter of their stories, will survive. The readers, with the speakers, will not let them sink to obscurity, “we have not forgotten you” (59). Reviving the mythic past, these women refuse to be fleeced of their stories. They will weave all the killing and the hurt into an armor that fits all kinds of shapes, in a fabric that does not come with its own set of harms.

The battle is tense. Oppressive theism is gaining ascendency as Curatrix takes her readers closer to the post-antiquity of Grecian patriarchy, but there is no quelling the “barbarian/baa-baa” (55), the black sheep (60-61), the lamb that is prayed upon for its “throwback” oddities, its “cross bred” nature (60). Hawthorne’s words join those of past re-sisters, with riotous links reanimated through Curatrix, creating an irresistible invitation for readers to join les barbes, to be la barbe (60). Reading a text such as this is an irrevocable political act.

At this point readers enter the third section, “Lambda”, that follows wolfish change and the hope of the lamb. This final shift is a call to action. Lambda is described as the eleventh letter of the Greek alphabet, the “cold dark matter model … of the universe” and as the “parameter lambda associated with dark energy” (161). It is the eleventh hour in this material cave lined with hardened layers of the past.

This section opens with a fable. A sheep flees into the woods after being warned of a shearing by a horse that the sheep has pitied for its slavish cartage. In the poem that follows, “Lost text: PIE: the sheep and the women”, a “head ewe” negotiates with a woman, perhaps one who is also positioned as a lead, an agent of hierarchy, to speak for others who are silent. It is agreed that shearing will take place only on the equinox and that horses will no longer drag carts. The “woman nods” as the ewe “blares” her demands. A deal is struck. The ewe tells the woman, “I don’t mind sharing” for with the shearing comes shelter, food and protection (120). The trade shows the benefits that come with co-habitation, but it does not occlude the difficulties in responding to unspoken needs and wants. Readers are left to consider the impact of domestication on humans, on the ovine and on the canine.

In this ambivalent space the imagery of “they call women monsters” expands to include a broader range of species, a long list of “harpies” that include tales of scales and tails and gills and spikes and fur and fire-filled bellies. The monster that is woman includes “Medusa Gorgon Leviathan / Dragon Griffen Grendal / Echnidna Hydra Striga / Lamia Charybdis Scylla / Amphsibaena Sphinx” (108). In this posthuman context “Livia’s party” appears all too monstrously human. The “I” that is Curatrix seems to be in the thrall of language, “gathering stories” from those who speak with human tongues and write with human hands (109, “minder of the lost texts: Angelic: Curatrix”). Influence and power is crowned with all manner of hats as the partygoers head for the “Musaeum Matricum” (111-14, “Livia’s connections”, 110-11, then “Musaeum Matricum” 112-13). However, once readers arrive with the other guests at “tarantella”, it transpires that “Livia’s outdone herself” (115). The individual is outshone by quinces, pomegranates and old fashioned goddesses; the “pageantry” of a procession of women as the party moves into full swing (115). In the delightfully entitled poem “you can teach an old god new tricks”, the women “reassert” themselves with a co-affective good will. The “animal hides” they wear are their own “naked” selves (117). The next poem makes apparent the nonhuman element in this viscous corporeality, the party includes the “many breasted”, the “rabble of banshees” who, as they enter both “howl and call”. There is a “vibration in the air rarely felt these past / six thousand years” (119). All who will rise up and reassert are welcome.

This is not to say the party rolls on without the “fear” that “can kill” (116). This collecting of knowledge is tested into action by invading men who would crash and burn this joyous gathering. Their efforts are blown away by the explosive St Barbara, who dismisses them to do their own work. Freed from deathly fear by the explosive force of banding together, the women /  goddesses / monsters “growl”, they hold their “wolfish head / ears alert for sound / nose scanning scent” (“Lost text: Lupine: La Donna Lupa Paleolitica”, 130), using the full range of their senses to sing the stories that stretch through time and consciousness towards a divine resistance.

As with a good party, as with a good riot, this good book ends with a call for follow-through. The “tomb of the forgotten women” has been opened and the silence is replaced with a chant that “we have millennia ahead” (134).  Like Demeter and Santa Dimitri who take on “not just Olympus / but the whole theistic edifice” (“Demeter and Santa Dimitri”, 136), the collection reaches its ecocritical conclusion by focusing on replacing the “ambrosia / and breath of immortal fire” with “the gentle art of collecting seed” (139). This shift is necessary, as the poem “future unbuilt” makes clear. Only “the unbuilt and the uncultivated / could keep this planet alive” (141). The party-goers respond, moving from destructive fear to creative resistance. They, like this collection, form a “universal declaration not just of human rights / but the rights of the planet and all / who live here” (“Eleonara d’Arborea”, 142). The work, this party of wild lore / wild law, is complete and the “bus” for change is ready for departure. Ecofeminist readers will be well readied to get on board.

 

Susan Pyke teaches at the University of Melbourne with the School of Culture and Communications and the Office for Environmental Programs. She writes in the shared fields of creative writing, literary criticism and ecocriticism. Her most recent critical essays can be found in Southerly, the Australasian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology and The Human Place in the Natural World: Essays on Creation and Creatureliness (Fordham University Press). Her monograph The Haunted Moor is under development with punctum press.

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