Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Review: Susan Hawthorne's Latest Poetry Book

Lupa and Lamb by Susan Hawthorne, Spinifex Press 2014, trade paperback, 176 pages. Also available as an e-book.

Engaging both the intellect and the emotions, Susan Hawthorne’s Lupa and Lamb is a scholarly, feminist, spiritual book that is also at times erotic and humorous. The poetry collection has prose here and there and a novelistic feel. It has a cast of characters and plot, in which Curatrix, director of the (fictional?) Musaeum Matricum, and the poet Sulpicia guide travelers Diana and Agnese first through mythic archives about wolves (in a section titled, “Lupa”) and sheep (in a section titled “Lamb”), and then to a party (in a section titled “Lambda.”)
The book’s opens with an epigraph, a well-known quote translated from Monique Wittig’s from Les Guérillères, which I excerpt here:
“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that….You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember….You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”

Hawthorne is an adjunct professor in the writing program at James Cook University in Australia and author of 11 previous books including 6 of poetry, the most recent of which, Cow (shortlisted for the 2012 Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize and finalist in the 2012 Audre Lorde Lesbian Poetry Prize), we reviewed here. She writes poetry in the imagist style—free verse with clear images. One result is that even the most scholarly material in this book is presented through contemporary speech patterns and words (sometimes even slang).

Lupa and Lamb is esoteric yet accessible, especially to Goddessians and feminists; many of the topics and characters in the book will be familiar to those knowledgeable about mythology and women’s history. For those without this background, or who are not fluent in as many languages as Hawthorne, the book includes other features. These include a list and explanation of the “main characters”; a Preface by Curatrix (whom I suspect of being an alter ego of Hawthorne’s); notes in the margins translating various words in non-English languages (both contemporary and ancient); and, at the back of the book, a page explaining date abbreviations (BP, aC, CE, BE), “Background Notes by Curatrix” with additional information about many of the poems, and a 6-page bibliography. (To see the complete table of contents, visit Spinifex Press.)

The poems, including their titles, are printed in lower case except for proper nouns (with the exception of a few words in all caps) and little punctuation. The first poem in the book, “descent,” has a blend (typical of the poems in this book) of the ancient with the contemporary, the present with the past. It begins:
“the call
that hollow sound of Cumaea
I was here before
thousands of years ago”
and continues in the 3rd stanza:
“the journey looming
flight into the unknown
descent into
the dark thighs of your cave”

After referring to Medusa (who is explained in the first of Curatrix notes in the back of the book), the poem ends with:
“I flail at vanishing memory
bruised rise from darkness
almost miss the plane”

As in many good poems, Hawthorne’s images and words often have multiple meanings. When I first read this poem I asked myself: is the “plane” an airplane? a plane of existence? both? To me, the “descent” itself could mean the descent of a plane, descent into the past, descent into trance or some other form of deep consciousness. 

Mentions of Goddesses and human women abound in these poems and include a number of references to Psappha (aka Sappho). There are connections between poems. For example, the poem “canis,” which begins with a reference to “the constellation of the dog,” and contains references to Artemis, Artemisia, and, through a reference to Holofernes, the biblical Judith, ends with
“but I prefer cushions
open fires roiling seas

and love”

 The next poem, “throw me to the wolves,” begins:
“love is sneaky creeps up from behind
surprises you at an intersection
shouts boo in the piazza”
This poem includes a reference to Venus.

I have three pages of notes about other poems in this book that I intended to share with you. But obviously I have to limit myself (otherwise I spoil the fun for you). So here are just a few more of them:

Still in the Lupa section, the poem, “Curatrix, tour of the lost texts,” contains a reference to “Marija"—Gimbutas, I assume from the context. This is followed by “Lost text: dog three bones has,” which reminds me of the Tarot Moon card.“Subine women” begins with a swipe at Wikipedia. “diary of a vestal virgin,” dated 15 BCE, tells of the lives of vestal virgins and, through a Curatrix note in the back, relates their clothing tradition to that of Roman Catholic cardinals and popes. Eight “Sulpicia,” poems, dated 21-7 BCE, are written in today’s colloquial—sometimes slangy—English.

In the “Lamb” section, the poem “come to kill us,” about the martyrdom of Saints Cecilia and Agnes with reference to the Pope who “wears the pallium,” relates back to  “diary of a vestal virgin. “Joan and the Johns,” written in colloquial English, is about Popes with those names. A Curatrix note explains that “Lost text: Estruscan: ativu andatinacna,” has been “re-membered from fragments found in an Etruscan necropolis” and describes a ritual. Part of the 4th stanza reads:
“calling the ancestors to heel
she draws signs
from entrails”
I take “heel” to be a pun on “heal.” It is one of a number of puns and other plays on words in this book.

 “crimes of women” begins:
“each day there is more bad news
today it is Anastasia
they say she walks like a man”
Creatrix’s note on this poem refers to Mary Daly’s term “untouchable caste.”

The poem “Tuscany: Il Giardino del Tarocchi,” is inspired by Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden in Italy. 

The last three poems of the “Lamb” section are about Malta. In the first of these, “Malta: hypogeum,” what seems to be an ancient narrator describes a temple. The 6th stanza reads:
“on the walls ochre spirals
statuettes among the skeletons
my figure lying
head upon hand
body at rest”

The last of the three poems, “Malta: Curatrix” describes the well known ancient Goddess sculpture:
“back in the Musaeum Curatrix
holds up the small body
of a sleeping woman runs her hand
over the round lift of the hip”

The last part of the book, “Lambda,” takes place mostly at or near the present time and is the most colloquial and at times most audacious section. Some of its poems are: “six thousand years,” about songs found on the “web”; “they call women monsters,” based on a quote by Robin Morgan and ending in the 7th stanza with names of several female creatures that some may consider monsters; “minder of the lost texts: Angelic: Curatrix,” dated 2014 CE, about preparations for Livia’s party (the character Livia is based on a Roman Empress, 58 BCE-29 CE.); “Livia’s connections,” which mentions Diana, Agnese, Ceres, Demeter, the Vatican and “this new guy Francesco”; “Musaeum Matricum,” where we find women on their way to the party; “hats,” in which we discover what they are wearing on their heads; “tarantella” describing the party scene in which  “our favorite goddesses appear as plants,” and dancing goddesses include Diana, Venus, Ceres, Hecate, Aphrodite, Demeter, Cybele, and others; "you can teach an old god new tricks," which seems to me to be a play on words (god spelled backwards is dog). Also, “performance poem by Curatrix: slut but but,” which is given in the book in English and Italian. A Curatrix note at the end of  the poem hints that its full English translation can be found on You Tube. After trying several different ways to search for it, I found it (with Hawthorne reading) and placed it at the end of this review. The poem “Hildegard” refers to her abbesses and to Empress Pulchiria, Santa Teresa, “kd"(lang, I assume) and Saint Julian (of Norwich, I assume), and thematically refers back to “diary of a vestal virgin." The Lambda section contains the two longest poems in the book, both of about 4 pages, “wolf pack,” which includes wolf-like surnames of well-known women and a description of a “Marxist lesbian” party at Vassar; and “Demeter and Santa Dimitra," which begins:
“some have dual citizenship
saints and goddesses
demons and goddesses
witches and goddesses”

This poem is preceded by “tomb of the forgotten women,” which describes the chanting of the first names of both human women and goddesses. A few poems later, “Baubo” leads a ritual, accompanied by Demeter, Medusa, La Befana, and Perchta. 

The last poem in the book, “the calculus of lambda” explores the mathematics of the Greek letter. Curatrix’s note relates it to physics and cosmology, and writes that “in the Greek counting system it signifies the number 30.” What she doesn’t tell us (after all, she wants to leave some work to us) is that this Greek letter is a symbol widely used in the lesbian/gay community, and that the number 30 is used by journalists to indicate to editors, printers, and proofreaders where the story ends. 

Though some people may read this book for its scholarship, some purely for its poetry, and still others just out of curiosity, I have no doubt that many will read it with great enjoyment.

Susan Hawthorne reads full English version of "performance poem by Curatrix: slut but but" beginning at about 2:12 on this video:



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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.