A review of Lupa and Lamb by Susan Hawthorne published in 2014 by Spinifex Press in Northern Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Susan Hawthorne is a polymath—linguist, poet, script writer, aerialist, ecologist, publisher, and scholar. She has worked in a circus, as a professor, as an editor for Penguin Books, and as a publisher with her own independent press. Fluent in English, Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, and conversational Italian in various dialects, Hawthorne is also knowledgeable in the history and art of each of those cultures. She possesses at least a working knowledge in languages such as Linear A, proto-Indo-European, French, and the Angelic tongues, and is quite capable of making use of Old English, Etruscan, Kartelian, Akkadian, Vedic, Prankrit, Sardinian, and other languages.
Hawthorne peppers her poems with references to calculus and physics, demonstrating yet two more arcane languages in which she is conversant. She has published on biodiversity and erotica, and has books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. This diverse expertise and learnedness provide the vocabulary and content of Hawthorne’s poetry, which is no less than an attempt to rescue and resuscitate Woman in all her power and glory, to restore the lost culture of women ignored or obliterated by previous scholars. In Lupa and Lamb, Hawthorne ably incorporates almost all areas of her skills and knowledge, except, perhaps, her work as an aerialist.
A book of poems, scripts, fragmentary artifacts, myth, and myth-making, Lupa and Lamb has characters which blend together through time and “fold in and out of one another’s stories,” from pre-historic archetypes to contemporary travelers in Rome, as described in the Main characters page that precedes the body of the book itself. Two characters go by multiple names and represent various female personae throughout time. As described in the poem “nuraghe,” these two characters “. . . walk hand in hand/between the lines . . . tread winding paths . . . spiraling through intangible space.” Indeed, the book itself proceeds in a spiral, moving back and forth through temporal planes, between myth and history, between fact and imagination. The first poem of the collection, “descent,” captures the liminal nature of dates and time throughout the book, and mentions the recurrent theme of history and memory reconstructed and reclaimed.
“I was here before/thousands of years before//your hundred mouths/shouting. . .//shouting descent into/the dark thighs of your cave//. . .my hair snake-wreathed/Etruscan Medusa/speaking with a hundred voices/the sibilant hiss of prophecy . . . //I flail at vanishing memory/bruised rise from the darkness . . . .”
A third character is called Curatrix, described as the “framer of this manuscript,” responsible for collecting “lost texts” from “the present to as far back as 300,000 years.” Another character is Sulpicia, who lived in the time of Caesar Augustus and is “the only woman whose poetry has survived in Latin from Ancient Rome.” She and the Curatrix work together to re-see the remnants of her poetry, looking at it with eyes who want to find a source of inspiration and comfort for contemporary women. Livia, another character, was empress of Rome by virtue of a marriage to Caesar Augustus, the mother and grandmother of later emperors, and a woman whose power in Rome was recognized throughout the Mediterranean region. In the central conceit of the collection, Livia has organized a great party and invited women and goddesses from various epochs to gather at her home with the intent to create a new text from the forgotten, suppressed, fragmentary, or merely lost records of women of power.
A PhD and university professor, Hawthorne created this genre-busting and inventive collection as a tool to educate but, as the Curatrix states, “academic tedium only gets you so far.” Notwithstanding its side bar commentary, explanatory endnotes, bibliography, description of main characters, and a note on dates, Hawthorne’s creativity transcends academia and scholarship, incorporating noetic consciousness into poetic knowing. She wields images and emotion deftly, creating a thing of grace and beauty exquisitely balanced between scholarship, cultural history, a linguist’s pyrotechnics, poetry, and theater. Come to think of it, perhaps she does make use of her background as an aerialist. But make no mistake, this book is poetry, epitomized in the poem “ancient nerves.”
. . . in search of Etruscan relics
find italic grapes oozing sweet nectar
on a frieze birds tweeze worms from soil
ewe wolf uterine maze
night’s death hour I wake
to a giant ginger object
rise and sink into oblivion
it was only the moon
sailing through cloud
breast parrot orange
on this feathered planet . . . .
Her poetry easily stands alone as poetry, irrespective of the depth of scholarship. The exceptional quality of her writing has been repeatedly recognized by being short listed or placing for various prestigious prizes, both in Australia and the US. Hawthorne’s poetry has been translated into both German and Spanish. As well, she has won residencies funded by the Australian government, living, studying and writing in Rome and at the University of Madras in India.
As noted by Dr. Danica Anderson, a sociologist and international expert on healing from war crimes and other catastrophes, “what are remote events become social relationships threaded from the past to our life . . . [and] manifest meaning on what it means to be female.” Danica Anderson, in a December 27, 2014 conversation on Facebook labeled Blood & Honey Herstories- Charting the life. According to Anderson, we carry buried within us the memory of experiences, particularly trauma, that our ancestors encountered. Hawthorne’s book is a beautiful tool for us to access those memories. Repeated motifs include rape, incest, sacrifice, and martyrdom, demonstrating how violence against women is either suppressed, recast in euphemism, or transformed into sanctity. As to sanctity, Hawthorne grieves the deprivation of a full life for women of patriarchal religions, as in a poem to Hildegard of Bingen, the great 12th century mystic who, while an abbess in the church hierarchy, was also a mystic, a botanist, and created an alphabet and language for coded exchanges with her colleagues and political allies.
In “Hildegard,” she describes nuns as “separate and celibate/they have dragged themselves/into exile like doves without nests.” This book provides lists of goddesses who were repurposed as saints, having “dual citizenship,” she puts it both as pagan deities and Catholic saints.
While certainly quite serious in her aim for the collection’s cultural significance, Hawthorne’s book also makes use of puns and includes recurrent erotic passages. Like so many such exchanges throughout history, sometimes a poem works on multiple levels, sensual details hidden within the text, recognizable only to one looking for them. The poem “Diana shears Livia’s flock” describes the steps to shear sheep, yet the details are so sensuous it is hard to imagine that the writer intended nothing more than to describe a mundane farm task. Here are a few lines that underscore my interpretation.
. . . it’s a trust thing
she has to relax
fold her into your knees
with a firm but not tight grip
hold her close
begin on the soft belly
and back leg
dance your way
and step through
to neck and shoulders
so intimate a move
her head tipped sideways
Like the listing of goddesses in Homer’s ancient Hymn to Demeter, Hawthorne’s poems often feature lists. She names ancient rulers and writers, goddesses from cultures around the world, and female friendships through history, drawing parallels between these historic women and female archetypes and more modern or contemporary artists, writers, and activists. Her litanies create a new universe, spiraling out into the cosmos, both back into the past and forward into the present, causing, as she writes in her poem “breasted,” “a vibration in the air rarely felt in these past/six thousand years.” The illustrious guests at Livia’s party permit Hawthorne to educate the reader through poetic translations of “lost fragments” of ancient texts, while simultaneously linking lives of women that transcend the ages to heroic and creative women in today’s society. In Lupa and Lamb, Hawthorne’s artistry spins the silken strand that connects women and their achievements throughout time.
Donna Snyder lives in El Paso, Texas. Her books include Poemas ante el Catafalco: Grief and Renewal from Chimbarazu Press and I Am South from Virgogray Press. NeoPoiesis Press will publish The Tongue and its Secrets in 2015. Her work appears frequently in Red Fez and VEXT Magazine and elsewhere. Until recently, she worked as an activist attorney for indigenous people, immigrant workers, and people with disabilities. Follow her @fronteriza_djs.