Heather Taylor Johnson reviews Cow by Susan Hawthorne
by Susan Hawthorne
Reviewed by HEATHER TAYLOR JOHNSON
Let us begin with the cover: Cow could be framed and hung on a wall. It’s intricate and delicate depictions of cows set amid tapestries of bright and pale pinks, purples and blues attempt to prepare us for what’s inside – namely beautiful and intricate weavings of bovine tales – but one can never be prepared for something so encompassing, so bold and sensuous as this.
With ancient Greek and Sanskrit traditions as inspiration, Susan Hawthorne indulges in the cow. The cow is at once mother of the calf and mother of the Milky Way. This gives Hawthorne a lot to work with and, owing to an obvious large amount of research and an apparent immersion into the cultures’ spirituality, she delivers a most comprehensive and emotive ode to the gentle and stoic beast we, in the Western world, too often think of as commodities.
There are four ‘strings’ (or sections) to the book: ‘the philosophy cow’, ‘what the philosophers say’, ‘what the lovers say’ and ‘what Queenie says about the philosophy cow’. Some of the strings are further subdivided into the likes of ‘Queenie’s dilly bag’, ‘Queenie’s tongue’ and ‘Queenie’s loves’. Each segment balances out the last so succinctly and sets us up for the next so unassumingly that, as a whole, the structure is continual; it tells a story. Stirred by the Tamil Sangam tradition of akam, we are ultimately faced with a series of poetic monologues with titles like ‘what cows and calves say’, ‘what Sita says’, ‘what Io says,’ ‘what she says about tongues’, ‘what the linguist says’ , and so on. By circumnavigating the world and fusing the many names and places, and their stories, into one cow-philosophy, Hawthorne gives us an amalgamated mythology, and it comes off so clearly. There is love and there is language. There is longing and sensation. There is domesticity, history, land, and body. Each of these certainties flow beautifully not from one to the other, but from one into the other. One should not attempt this collection over a long period of random readings, as can be done with most books of poetry, but rather as one would attempt a novel: continuously.
In presenting her readers with a highly logical structure to an extremely wide-ranging collection of the history of the cow, Hawthorn thus gives us a history of the world:
I’m grazing near a human encampment
time has rolled in
on a day the length of all time
I give birth to the folding universe
my milk flows away through the night sky
galaxies spin and twirl form and unform
as the dance of creation and decreation proceeds
small creatures have come to look at me
they watch the white liquid spill on the ground
it flows like a river forming stars
my calf the size of the earth drinks and grows
stumps and stumbles testing new-found legs
kicks and kicks and the earth wobbles
in that kick she has found power.
The above is taken from the poem ‘what Queenie says’ and it not only exemplifies the importance of creation stories to Hawthorne’s work, but it also sets us up for a feminist perspective (‘in that kick she has found power’). I can’t imagine reading Hawthorne from anything other than a feminist perspective after my introduction to her in 2005 with The Butterfly Effect. That collection opened my eyes to academia in poetry, as Hawthorne successfully made excessive use of footnotes so that her research would not be swept away in a cursory reading. I still count the book among my favourites but Cow has mastered something that Butterfly could not. In Cow Hawthorne has taken the academic feminist out of the spotlight and put her in a less focused glow. In doing so I feel the academic feminist is now much stronger in the work because she can be found in the roots of the poetry, in the unseen foundations of the verse.
In ‘what Queenie says about the Catalogue of Cows’, for instance, one feels the intensity of sister-power:
this is how it begins
the poet says we roamed arcadia
spread out over the hills
and across the plains
wherever feed was plentiful
we travelled with our daughters
close by our side
the bullocks we sent off after a time
their existence more solitary
we were oracles
our pronouncements not to be messed with
our names were listed
Nicothoe Aellopus Ocypete
Harpys and Ocypus
Propontis Echinades Storphades
we were the turning ones
you can see it in our tracks across the land
Unlike in Butterfly, any notes on references to names, places and stories are found in the back of the book, rather than in footnotes at the bottom of each page. This takes away any urge to interrupt the reading of a poem to make full sense of the poem. For the above, the
notes section points out that ‘these names are listed in Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women’. So we’re learning something here about feminist folklore (the academic shines through) but what makes this poetry feel less forced as both academic and feminist is that the significant women of antiquity are not human; they are cows. In this Hawthorne has traversed the realm of the cerebral and captured something much more fleshy, albeit magical. The mother-cow as mother-earth as every-fabled-female-deity gives this spiritual journey complete grounding. If I am confused at any given point I think cow and female and I am back on track, because in this colourful world Susan Hawthorne has created, cow and female are everything.
Not only does she draw from Sanskrit and Greek mythology, but there are references to Australia, America, Spain and Lithuania, to name but a few. All traditions fit surprisingly organically into the totality of the story of the cow; however the abruptness of the sound of the German language caught me off guard in every use. Fortunately I don’t doubt Hawthorne’s need to include anything German (I wondered if she, herself, was German). It did, after all, give her a chance to address the Holocaust in the ‘history of the cow / history of the universe’ context, and even that connection is unsoiled: think genocide, think beef. My point is that Hawthorne shows no fear in her spiritual depiction of the cow as universal and essential. Yes, they are in Germany as well as in India as well as in Greece. They are on land as well as in water (Australia’s own dugong) as well as in the heavens. And, through her use of personification, they are us. I for one will never look at a cow the same (what more could the poet ask for?) Cow is so monumental in so many ways I’d be shocked if it doesn’t win at least one major poetry award for 2011.