Lupa and Lamb by Susan Hawthorne, Spinifex Press 2014, was launched by Jennifer Strauss on 24 August at the ACMI as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival
One of Susan Hawthorne’s defining characteristics has always been courage, a spirit of adventure.After all, it takes a brave, some might even say foolhardy, person to persist as a feminist publisher well past the heady days of the 70s and 80s into and through the years of lost ardour, the voices saying it was all done and dusted, so we could shut down the Women’s Studies Departments and just get a life.
Perhaps as a publisher, even though the Spinifex press list is remarkably diverse, you might risk summing her up as having the courage of conviction declared in the final words of “performance poem by Curatrix: slut but but”:
and I say
you got it boy
you got it girl
sono una femminista
now fuck off
This is, however, not nearly enough to convey the poet’s complex sense of female experience. That has been there in all the different themes and modes of her previous collections, but the waters have never been so deep as those into which Hawthorne plunges us in Lupa and Lamb, a collection that brings into triumphant coalescence qualities demonstrated in differing ways in preceding volumes.
In Lupa and Lamb she takes full advantage of the expertise already developed in working in different genres, plunders poetic booty from her academic studies of mythology, psychology and language, and draws wonderfully inventive inspiration from Rome, the city to which she came in 2013 as a BR Whiting Library Resident.
Out of Ancient Rome, Hawthorne draws a set of five female figures to provide a structural framework for her ambitious project. They are figures mythical, historical and fictional; each multi-faceted; each involving a certain amount of word-play; each drawing in her wake a train of associated female figures that transcend time’s limits.
Lupa is the she-wolf, wolf-woman, wild predator who – in the founding myth of Rome — finds and nurtures Romulus and Remus, the abandoned twin boys born to Rhea Silvia, the vestal virgin raped by the god Mars. Associated with Lupa is the figure of the goddess variously named Diana/Artemis, the goddess of the forest, of wild animals – but also of the hounds that hunt them.
The Lamb is Agnese (from Latin agnus). As a Christian symbol of innocence, she morphs into Saint Agnes, virgin saint and martyr and patron saint of virgins and all rape victims, rape being a recurrent motif in the sequence. Notable in the train of the Lamb are Saints Cecilia and Barbara.
Then comes Sulpicia, the artist, the only woman poet of ancient Rome whose work has survived. Her six love poems are translated here by Hawthorne and re-interpreted as definitively lesbian under the aegis of Curatrix, the fictional creator/ curator of the Musæum Matricum (the Museum of the Mother).
Curatrix, as a healing (curing) retriever of women’s lost past, also assists in the “discovery” of a seventh poem by Sulpicia. There is enormous pleasure to be gained from the inventiveness that Hawthorne has practiced in this and in her creation of the other “lost” texts dotted throughout the sequence. Anyone who has ever struggled with partially preserved texts in a dead language must be highly entertained by the manipulation of lacunae in Hawthorne’s cheerfully impertinent but very convincing imitations of these dusty scholarly fragments.
Curatrix’s Musæum Matricum functions as one of the two locales at which a continuum in women’s history and experience is asserted:
Curatrix has everything here
rooms filled with our treasures
hidden for so long in the dark corners
of their neutered museums
winged ones wolves lions horses
even flying cows with shining mouths
I remember no fear in the lion’s den
and there are no gilded cages
among them new works with names attached
cow heads by Georgia O’Keeffe Frida Kahlo stands
among butterflies Suzanne Bellamy’s porcelain women
discuss astronomy with the old ones
The other such site is provided by the fifth structural figure, the Empress Livia, wife of the Emperor Augustus and a powerful figure in Roman society. Here she is the party giver, staging the event that brings together the widest single assemblage of female figures in the sequence. Livia’s connections are good, so good that they even extend and a wangled invitation to tea at the Vatican with “this new guy Francisco”. The women, aware of old scores with the Church, hesitate until Curatrix casts a deciding vote:
Curatrix says let’s drink their coffee
teas wine eat the cakes and pastries
but remember even this pope forgets
women are the poorest of the poor
– Livia’s connections
The party, with its sociability, is an important affirmation of the often-denied togetherness, the friendliness, of women. It is full of celebration and laughter, although the laughter has multiple functions. In “craft” we see laughter as subversive. For the women excluded from “the high arts/ the public world/the official histories”:
craft saved us
………..we spun and sewed
………..wove patterns on fabric
………..cooked and healed
………..drew on pots
………..sang and told old wives’ tales
………..to our daughters
………..we were ignored
………..we were inventive
………..and we laughed
Female laughter as subversive? Recently, the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey listed among his requisites for women’s modesty that they should not laugh in public. There has been a tendency to treat this foray into sexual politics as simply absurd or bizarre. On the contrary, it constitutes a surprisingly open revelation of an abiding masculine fear that the feminine refuses to pay sufficient respect to masculine solemnity and authority.
There is, however, another story to laughter, which we hear in “Baubo”. The party-goers join in a ritual of laughter:
laughter ricochets around the circle
infecting each one of us
Baubo makes Demeter laugh again
Medusa laughs her head off
La Befana is running around
with her other half Perchta
handing out honeyed figs and dates
their broomsticks are for
sweeping the sky
not sweeping floors
we laugh at our pain
we laugh to stay sane
The sense of the duality of things is strong throughout. The other face of celebration of love and laughter is commemoration of violence and terror. People and divinities are not one-dimensional; so it is with roles in “Demeter and Santa Dimitra”, a poem that allows the introduction of Hawthorne’s ecological concerns, with the rape of Demeter’s daughter identified with the rape of nature by modern technological agriculture:
some have dual citizenship
saints and goddesses
demons and goddesses
witches and goddesses
witches and saints
the line all a-blur
And so it is that the most important duality of the sequence is not that between Lupa and Lamb but the one within each of them, so that they come closer and closer to each other as the sequence unwinds.
Lupa is, as already indicated, both predator and nurturer, hunted and hunter: Agnese is not pure victim. As Saint Agnes, she proves miraculously impenetrable when sentenced to a brothel as a punishment for choosing celibacy. As the Agnese of “salone” (the poem that introduces Sulpicia) we find her laying claim to a new life as artist, “traipsing the boards singing her heart out”. And here she brings to mind those new writers whose books fed the emerging women’s movement– books like The Women’s Room, The Good Mother, The Colour Purple, Woman on the Edge of Time. Too often dismissed as “whingeing”, these certainly contained complaint, but they were complaints that led to action, to challenges, to ideas of female passivity and marginality, of a woman’s dependence for significance on her relationship to dominant men –father, lover, husband, son.
In “Wolf Pack”, Lupa and Lamb finally take their stand together against a male attempt to gate-crash Livia’s party, but in one of Hawthorne’s frequent verbal surprises, the wolf pack is not the male would-be invaders, but the wolf-women guests. “wolves have come in a pack/ leading them is Guadalupe”:
with full pageantry comes Virginia Woolf
dressed in an Ethiopian jalaba
instead of standing to attention
she relines in a wicker chair smoking
declaiming the end of war
Christa Wolf bursts in bringing with her a trainload of workers
who carry banners with the word
PROLETARIAT written in red
Anna Wulf too has a banner
WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE
but it’s torn and dragging along the ground
increasingly shredded with each step
And so the list grows: hags and fairies, La Donna Lupa Paleolitica, Vassar students, Marxist lesbians, Medea, all in a hubbub of conversation until:
there’s a noise at the gate voices of a different timbre
a group of men is shouting their weapons visible
Diana Hippolyta Minerva and a crush of Amazons
bar their way they bear no arms
but there’s that no-nonsense stance
then the martyrs step forward
you don’t scare us any more
put down your weapons
Instead of submission, the men receive lectures from Agnese and Saint Barbara to the effect that it’s time for them to fix the economy whose values they have corrupted. Despite a few recidivists who think that rape would teach these uppity women, the men
. . . break off into groups
begin to talk
they’ve a bit of ground to cover
so let’s leave them at their own party
they can send us an emissary when they are ready
This is of course not the end but only one imagined way into an unsung and uncalculated future glimpsed in the poems of the remaining twenty or so pages.
I have offered one kind of reading of this richly complex, witty, painful, learned, playful extravaganza. Other readers may well have other accounts to give, see different poems as central. Be one of those other readers and go figure the challenge of the last poem of all, “the calculus of lambda”.
For my part, I’m pleased and honoured to launch into our troubled word Susan Hawthorne’s Lupa and Lamb and congratulate both author and press on a fine achievement.
Jennifer Strauss’s numerous publications include four collections of poetry, critical studies of Gwen Harwood and Judith Wright, editorship of The Oxford Book of Australian Love Poems and the Collected Verse of Mary Gilmore and co-editorship of The Oxford Literary History of Australia. At Monash University she taught courses in Medieval and Australian Literature and women’s writing.
Lupa and Lamb is available from http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=268/
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