Cow by Susan Hawthorne. Spinifex Press. 2011
I have doubled in age and am learning
the internal properties of cow
stand your ground calls my father
as the biggest cow of the herd
breaks away and runs straight at me
I wave my arms about wave my stick at the end of my arm
she is still running
I jump and scream and wave
two metres before I am history
……………………she veers sideways and returns to the herd
I have found my cow inside
I have learnt the internal property …
– ‘string one – the philosophy cow – what the poet says’
‘Beckon, flag, gesture, signal’. I looked up ‘wave’ in my thesaurus to help think about this opening stance of Susan Hawthorne’s poetry collection, Cow. I then looked it up in The Macquarie Dictionary and scanned down to the etymology (which I often skip over). [Middle English; Old English wafian, related to Icelandic vāfa swing.] The nuances are pleasing and affirm my feeling for this word, there is a sense of greeting, but also a sense of alert, and a positioning that conveys and interprets meaning while balancing a number of possibilities (and how about that ‘swing’?) This collection encourages you do such things, it offers an extraordinary place to pause and move and engage, and with invitation after invitation to listen, I was guided into and held within Cow as the herd stampeded around me. It’s a confident place, a place to think.
I keep wondering how to describe Cow, because it is such an unusual creature. I’ve been living with Cow, its grassy breath, sweet dung and low low, everything Cow, for some time now. Sensual and intellectual, it has made me reconsider words. I have circled and mouthed individual words, traced metaphors, savored etymologies, and been encouraged as a reader and writer.
I’ve also written all over my copy of Cow. I may dog-ear the page of a book sometimes but I rarely mark a page. I have absolutely scored this book. Cow makes me want to be inside it, to participate in it beyond reading – somehow, somehow. I’ve sometimes wanted art to be life, and this is one of those times. The enjoyment of art is of course life, and this is just one opposition (art/life) that is part of our dominant discourse that does not always make sense. Cow is one of those books that challenges such discourses.
I’ve read Cow in planes and trains, in beds and baths, inside and outside, out loud and silently, I’ve lost and then found it, and I’ve read it to a friend in her kitchen as she cooked and as her children played outside.
With Cow I’ve circled language and also swum into its breaking waves. And imagined myself, Europa.
It came to me what this unusual Cow creature might be, in an exotic and also a mundane way, what it might be, at least for now. On the foothills of a volcano in the mist and drizzle I was reading (as a tourist) about the cowgirls and cowboys who wrangled herds of cattle in the foothills, and I thought, Cow is about representation.
how the words on the page
are to be read
– ‘string two – what the philosophers say – Diotima’
The structure of the collection is foregrounded, its patterns clearly marked in the contents. ‘Etymologies’ is an elegant entrance, like a foreword, or a list of characters in a play. Cow asks us to think of it in many ways, through multiple voices, and threads and strings, creating a sense of unity without upholding the concept as a solution. There are ways rather than a way.
The collection is strung with four strings, yes, like a musical instrument. But mainly, Cow just sings. These strings are named ‘the philosophy cow’, ‘what the philosophers say’, ‘what the lovers say’ and ‘what queenie says about the philosophy cow’. It is at once a circle, a progression, and a chord, but the collection as a whole has the ease of strumming, and is the seamless extemporization of an expert (I wanted to write mistress, but etymology got me, the feminine of the word master defeated by its history and nuance.)
In string one, ‘the philosophy cow,’ we listen to Queenie, Fatima, Meena, the prophet, the mayor, Sita, the cows and calves, Demeter, Persephone, Kuvalaya, Sita, Elektra, Lakshmi, Sarasvati, Ereshkigal, Io, Hathor, Guinevere, Durga, Savitri, the mythmakers and the Cow and Tiger. I struggle to find a collective noun to describe the effect. Is this a choir, an army, or a parliament that we are listening to? Many voiced, this collection harmonises numerous traditions.
To quote from such a measured creation is uncomfortable, to pull any of the threads, and one of the big challenges of this review. But I will try. Perhaps I can feel more comfortable by imagining I’m showing you a detail of Queenie’s (our main character) dilly bag.
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
– ‘string one – Queenie’s dilly bag – what Queenie says’
And so we are introduced to Queenie. She has a certain notoriety and glamour, but mainly, she is sage. We listen to her throughout the collection, and anyone who is anyone is talking about her. She’s so transcendent, so simply everything.
I recognised Sappho’s honouring of her friends and lovers very quickly in Cow (my recognition only from English translations) and Hawthorne’s use of this tradition gives strength and pleasure to the collection. The direct reference is quite audacious and Hawthorne handles it skillfully.
In string two, ‘what the philosophers say,’ we listen to Diotima and Gargi, and to Queenie.
when I’m in full flight my intellect
swings I explore
not static existence
but moments of between-ness
This section is expansive but also sustained. At times I wanted to call Cow a female Odyssey, but this analogy is inadequate. It is not that sort of journey. It feels like Cow always slightly eludes description though it is also quite, quite present. It is because Cow is explicitly about making and speaking outside the dominant discourses, but also from inside and between them.
what really matters is that everything is packed
the time for doing and speaking all the things undone
– ‘string two – what the philosophers say – Queenie’s aubade
String three is ‘what the lovers say.’
how to contain
only poems are
How to contain? Cow convinces me only poetry is strong enough, as there are no other discourses adequate. And there is so, so much to offer. Queenie speaks of her loves, the fugue of history, nomadic life, wolves, gopi, and other voices join so the conversations swell and everyone is given time and space (a happy back and forth). Durhitri, Rasha, Mura speak, and there is talk of raga, a maiden aunt, sixty-four dakinis, one voice, akam, kolam, dancers, the shore temple, and the word paksha. We hear Anaktoria, Sappho, Atthis, Gongyla, we learn of sedentary life, listen to Madhukari, Radha, an Indian heifer, talk of priya, love, inversion, and sisters.
‘What Queenie says about the philosophy cow’ begins string four, which is followed by Queenie’s song for us.
I read this collection as a revolutionary work moving from Wittgenstein’s elegant but silencing impasse on the limits of language to Wittig’s iconoclastic language of bodies.
I recommend you lie in bed and read it to your lover, or pleasure yourself with it, mouth it, tongue it, and maybe as I did, circle its words and metaphors, anotate, indulge in marginalia, dally in thesauri and etymologies and listen and be encouraged to sing along.
I keep thinking about this collection, as I now notice Cow everywhere, it is the kind of work that stays, or returns. That is a high recommendation. I keep thinking new things, noticing new things, remembering things because of Cow. Cow rises in my mind unbidden. That is a rare thing in a reading life. As I write, the sweet smell of Cow ascends in my body’s memory.
– Sarah St Vincent Welch
Cow is available from http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=215/
Sarah St Vincent Welch grew up swimming in Middle Harbour and now loves walking on Mt Majura. She teaches creative writing in the community. She co-edited The Pearly Griffin – the story of the old Griffin Centre with Lizz Murphy, and two short story anthologies – The Circulatory System and Time Pieces with Craig Cormick. She also co-edited FIRST: Surrender with Francesca Rendle-Short in 2007 (a student anthology at the University of Canberra). Her short fiction (or long poetry), has been anthologised, and published in independent magazines. Her chapbook Open will be published by Rochford Street Press in 2014. She blogs about reading and writing and time and space at sarahtvincentwelch.com
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