The shock of recognition: Jennifer Compton launches ‘The Sacking of the Muses’ by Susan Hawthorne

The Sacking of the Muses by Susan Hawthorne,  Spinifex Press 2019 was launched by Jennifer Compton at Readings Bookshop, Carlton on Wednesday 30 October 2019

Some graceful words to begin with. This country, upon which we stand, was never ceded. (We know that, don’t we?)

Great honour etc etc to be asked by Susan (and all at Spinifex). (Graceful and honoured nod in Spinifex’s general direction. Susan. Renate. Pauline. And all who sail in her.)

A welcome to all and so glad to see so many gathered here in spite of the withering heat/bitter chill/ school day tomorrow/flu pandemic/train drivers’ strike/suspicious parcel on Swanston Street/ rampant nutters of all persuasions/simple disinclination to be in a room with other people.
(Strike out what is not applicable).

And this lovely venue, this bookshop, this temple (and all who sail in her) in which I have had so many enlightening and enlivening great moments. In this space I have been tempted, and I fell. I have been repulsed, and I have been comforted. I have licked boots. And I have proffered my own boots for licking. And so many of you here tonight are also wearing boots. Aren’t you?
That was the preamble from which I spring into the guts of it.

(Just wing it, the husband said. Just wing it. Damn you, husband!)

I usually speak ex tempore. But this book – The Sacking of The Muses – put me into a total panic. A complete blue funk. I don’t like to feel stupid (and usually I feel like quite the smartest thing in shoe leather) but this book, in the first instance, made me feel stupid. And I don’t like that feeling. So many names, I had never heard of, so many people I had never heard of, strolling through. Google google google. Who are these people? (I had heard of Sappho. Of course. A little bliss chick who even in translation lights my fire.)

(Just an aside here – fair dos – ‘The Sacking of the Muses’ sequence is a jaunty riff upon these terrible times we live in. The poet displays a fair heft of chutzpah to display jaunt about these times. And all the poems about Sappho are bliss. ‘Sappho’s Butterfly’. Of course.)

But I don’t like to feel stupid and I felt stupid as I tackled the first section – ‘Temper of the dance’. I googled Herod to see how he had related in the time line to King Kaṃsa. (Forgive pronunciation, I am stupid. I lack knowledge.) And of course. King Herod was right about the time of the birth of Christ. (I knew that.)

I tried to cry off, with Susan, and she said she would cite ‘personal reasons’ which sounds like cancer. And I don’t have cancer. (Well not that I know of. Yet.) (If you never go to a doctor you never find out you have cancer and I am down with that.)

And not wanting to let anyone down. But not wanting to look a fool. And not wanting to make a fool of the book because I am ignorant of so much and like to travel well-worn, familiar paths. So I faced up to my inadequacies and difficulties and went at it like a cow at a gate that separates her from her calf …

… when I came to read the book from go to whoa (and not on random shuffle in the lazy, modern style) when I sat to read this book from go to whoa I got the big shock of insight. The great lesson, the old old lesson, took hold. These people are people, just like us. Their stories are our stories. In my lifetime I have seen these stories unfold. And such thrilling stories, heaving with drama, with human purposes, and with the interventions and caprices of the gods. Big stuff.

The poem Pūtanā on page 6 delivered to me the shock of recognition which was my key to this book.

Pūtanā contemplates the unthinkable
to feed this child instead of killing him

and then –

her eyes moving/from compassion to fear
fear to/overwhelming love

The birth of a child, the decision to nurture. The let-down reflex. Every one of us has been a part of this enaction. And then at the end of the poem when Pūtanā – “is killed in her moment of love/by a baby/her milk/her life/sucked from her/by Kṛṣṇa.”

The way poetry can, the way poetry does, deliver us from our own experience into a general trope of humanness. I can’t explain to you how this poem, these few lines, felt so true to me in a metaphorical but also literal way about how I experienced giving birth to children. But they did. These lines were my in.

This text seems to me performative. Which starts to make sense to me because the kickoff poem, ‘Temper of the dance’ (such an apt glance of a phrase) is about a performance, a dance – Nangiar Koothu – which is performed by women. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I like the idea of a form of theatre performed by women. I was raised in the tradition of women being allowed on stage to act, play musical instruments (and to write plays etc etc) only recently. As history goes. It does something to you to be raised in that sort of story. So this book was opening up my eyes in so many ways. And in very pleasant and lyrical ways. Not a wrenching ripping open, but with a kindly and almost motherly unveiling.

I must quickly touch upon the exciting and new to me concept of śleṣa. Here is the note given at the bottom of the poem on page 37.

Śleṣa (shlesha) in Sanskrit poetry is a way
of saying two different sentences whose
meaning can be completely distinct.
The word śleṣa means embrace.

And here in the foreword an explication.

“Śleṣa has been called ‘extreme poetry’ because it enables the poet to express two different sentences with different meanings using what appears to be the same words.” And – “Śleṣa has also been called unnatural. Yigil Bronner in his book on śleṣa notes that not only has it been called unnatural but also ‘an extravagant display that necessarily comes at the expense of plot and is therefore ‘decadent’, ‘tortuous’, ‘disgusting’, and even ‘indecent’ and criminal’”.

Here let me read you the poem called ‘ Śleṣa ‘.

Śleṣa (embrace)

a way of writing two meanings at once
a way of reading with flexibility
a train going in two directions

śleṣa comes naturally to lesbians
our codes read this way and that
are you on the upper bunk going east
or the lower bunk going west?

like an MC Escher drawing
one hand draws the other
one hand makes love
the other answers

we embrace our double lives
like actors and their alter egos
some say śleṣa is unnatural
I’ve heard the same said about us

A friend reminded me, when I confided to her my difficulties, that I do not have to review the book, I have to launch it. And so I do. I do launch this book. I launch The Sacking of the Muses by Susan Hawthorne. And thank you Susan, because this very personal struggle I have been having seems to have ignited a new …. fire … complexity … within me.

 – Jennifer Compton 


Jennifer Compton was born in New Zealand quite a long time ago and now lives in Melbourne. She is a poet and playwright who also writes prose. Her stage play, The Goose in the Bottle, was short listed for the Lysicrates prize in 2017, and her verse novella Mr Clean & The Junkie was long listed for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards in 2015. She is a contributor to the recent spoken word anthology Solid Air put out by UQP.

The Sacking of the Muses is available from Bookstore/book/id=322/


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