REVIEW: 'Cow' by Susan Hawthorne
Cow by Susan Hawthorne (Spinifex 2011), 166 pages, trade paperback
What an extraordinary book of poetry this is! It’s all about cows! Or is it?
In the second poem of the book, Queenie, a cow who could be called the protagonist or main character, tells us:
these are stories about cows
who have lost their histories.
To me these poems are also about women and goddesses whose histories we have lost.
In her "acknowledgements" prefacing the poetry, Susan Hawthorne, an Australian, explains that she wrote most of the poems while studying in India, and that they are influenced by many poetic traditions, including Greek lyric poetry and the multi-vocal approach of Tamil poetry, including the Tamil Sangam tradition of love poetry, often written in women’s voices. The Tamil influences appear most obviously in Cows in the multitude of "voices" and the poem titles, such as "what Queenie says," "what Fatima says about Queenie," "what Queenie says about Meena," and so forth.
I found the structure and style of the book fascinating. In addition to the multi-vocal approach, Hawthorne divides the book into "strings." (I Googled "cows+strings" and found that 3 associations are: a term used by producers for a group of cows; natural gut strings used for tennis rackets; and spherical cow theory, which is part of physics string theory.) The first voice of "string one" is "the philosophy cow." We then enter "Queenie’s dillie bag" in which Queenie and an assortment of other "cows" talk about themselves, each other, and various subjects. "String two" opens with "what the philosophers say," comments from Diotoma and Gargi. What follows is a section called , "Queenie’s tongue," where we delve into different aspects and meanings of tongue(s). String three opens with a beautiful lyric poem, "what the lovers say" and then, many voices tell about "Queenie’s loves." The fourth and final string is "what Queenie says about the philosophy cow."
Interwoven with the cow talk are mythological allusions and references to today’s feminist/women’s issues. The cows/goddesses/women speak in contemporary colloquial English. For example, here are two excerpts from a poem entitled, "what Queenie says about Sita." The poem, related to the Indian epic, Ramayana, begins:
Sita is no slouch just a woman
in the tumult of emotion
she tries to help her man get a life
get out and about
she says why not follow that deer dear
she needs time alone
but it’s always hard for women
to find solitude
Sita is no different
Later in the poem is this:
Ravana too doesn’t get it
what is it with these men?
can’t they tell the difference
between great conversation and desire for sex?
(in the case of Ravena)
or great love lust and passion
but no wish to give up on
for housework sitting pretty
and emotional deserts?
(in the case of Rama)
The goddesses referenced in the poems include (but are not limited to) Al-lat, Demeter, Persephone, Kalypso, Lakshmi, Sarasvati, Ereshkigal, Durga, Leto, Mahadevi, Meena, Bhudevi, Baubo, Hecate (in this book aka Ekaterina), Trivia, Hera, Hathor and Artemis. Historical women alluded to include Io, Guinevere, Simone Weil, Diotima, Gertrude Stein, and Sappho, along with several of her companions and lovers and her daughter, Cleis. Hawthorne also alludes to the work of Socrates, Robin Morgan, Monique Wittig, and others.
She also draws on her knowledge of Sanskrit and other languages. Before the poetry begins, she gives the multilingual etymologies of "Cow," and "Queen." When she uses terms in a variety of languages that may not be known to most readers, she places the words' definitions and often derivations in the margins of the poems. Other information about mythological and other allusions are included in the extensive Notes at the end of the book, which begin with a pronunciation explanation.
Many of the poems seem at first glance to be about commonplace subjects, but upon full reading have mythical, mystical, and metaphysical meaning. For example, in the poem, "what she says about the anatomy of a cow pat" in string two, what can be taken for a down-to-earth description of cow dung in various parts of the world includes mythological allusions here and there and ultimately becomes what could be described as mystical.
The poetry is written in a variety of forms. For instance in string three the poem "what the pedant says," is what I would call, being pedantic, pantoum-like,or perhaps what is called an "imperfect pantoum" (or it may be a form with which I am—don’t tell—unfamiliar). Like a pantoum, the stanzas of "what the pedant says," are linked by a pattern of repeating lines. However, the lines that repeat aren't the same numerically as in a proper pantoum and the stanzas are 8 lines rather than 4 lines. In any event, the repetition for me was very effective, even ritualistic. String two opens with the increasingly lyrical and sensuous, "what the lovers say." Many of the poems in the section that follows, "Queenie's loves," also have these qualities and are written in a variety of interesting forms. For example, in "what she sings to her maiden aunt," the concluding line of each 3-line stanza is a slightly varied refrain, and "what we sing in one voice" is a beautiful villanelle, with echos of Dylan Thomas’s "Do Not Go Gentle..." but with very different intent and focus.
This is Susan Hawthorne’s 6th book of poetry. She has also published one novel, two books of non-fiction, and been editor or co-editor of several anthologies. She is the publisher of Spinifex Press in Melbourne, and an adjunct professor in the writing program at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia.
Cow is a multilayered, innovative book. Even the cover design is unusual. Both the front and back covers are covered with a cow photo-montage, with the only type on the front cover being the name of the publisher, integrated in such a way as to make it part of the montage. The title of the book and the name of the author appear only on the bright pink spine. The photo montage is a collaboration between Hawthorne, who supplied the cow photos, and the cover designer, Deb Snibson. Cover to cover, Cow is simultaneously a wonderful work of scholarship, of craft—and of art.