‘Cow’ by Susan Hawthorne
Red cow, blue cow, black cow. A golden calf and a moon-jumping heifer. Figures that often grace pastoral landscapes or children’s books have wandered into the realm of poetry. Susan Hawthorneâs latest collection, Cow, blends the bovine figure with ancient mythologies to re-envision history for modern women.
As the title suggests, the cow is the conceit around which the mythology develops. Queenie, matriarch of the imagined herd, guides readers through the deeply woman-centered world of myth, nature, and spirituality set in an imaginary long-ago. Notable women of myth, including Demeter and Persephone, are refigured in bovine form for these tales.
It would be easy to dismiss the concept as elementary, or accuse Hawthorne of not treating serious subjects seriously enough. But the veneer of mythic whimsy allows her to take risks with content and form that would fall flat in more conventional verse. Hawthorne has much to say about the âbig issues,â as it were, and cow narrative allows her to touch on these broader concerns without becoming pedantic.
The opening poem sets the clear, if fine-lined, balance between exploration and manifesto. Though she acknowledges the powerful influence of âunspoken histories / genocides / eliminations of the unwanted,â she is aware of the dangers of âerasure,â and rewriting history for oneâs own purposes. As such, she centers the poem around:
the moment I see the centipede
pulling its hundred legs
over the rim of the wall above my line of sight
ein Blick into another world
The intersections of man and beast, nature and civilization, myth and fantasy give Hawthorne âein Blickâ into what has been erased that she may draw it out again. Itâs impossible to give a representative sample of such a long and thematically complex book, but among the highlights are her treatments of feminist ideas, relationships, spirituality, and language itself. In âwhat Queenie says about the sun cow,â the title cow takes a vacation âbecause she had worked / for too long / for too manyâ and was âtired of being / at the beck and call of everyoneâ. In punishment, the male god who claims ownership of the sun cow labels her female companions âdemonsâ and slaughters them, all the while forcing the sun cow back to her labors. On a lighter note, Hawthorne takes a turn through metapoetics in âwhat Queenie says about Sanskrit,â describing language as âperpendicular / roots elude her / gerunds are thick with meaning.â
One of the wonderful freedoms resulting from the sense of play in the book is the latitude Hawthorne has to also âplayâ with her form and language. The poems have little to no punctuation, relying on line and stanza break to shape their emphasis. Phrases become unpastured cows, in a sense, forming themselves into organic combinations that roll off a readerâs tongue: âfish fin swims by beneath / the waterâs edge / cow flank is a night feather against my shoulder”. Here, all the elements merge linguistically in a way that mirrors their harmonious coexistence in the poem.
Similarly, in diction, Hawthorne returns to the basics without seeming clichĂ©d. The sun, the moon, the sea, the mountainsâall of these grace the simplified landscape of times long past. Â Such simplicity gives way to moments of quiet beauty: âher gaze complex as chaos / fragile as a fractalâ and âmoon wing floats overhead in the dark / of the lunar mothâ among them.
The collectionâs shining moments are those that walk the line between the mythic and the real. In particular, âwhat the lovers sayâ bears only a few traces of the bovine. It also splits in voice: in each part, one stanza in third person and the other in first. Thus it opens itself up to reading as a poem of love between two women who sleep âmy nose against yours / two bodies / sleepingâ . The setting details of this poem are lovely: âyellow petals / frame her want a sickle moon carves a hollow space of memoryâ and âmorningâs messenger is blushed pink sunriseâ. Most breathtaking is a myth moment reframed into desire and adulation, as âshe looks down the throat of her lover there inside the mouth / galactic swirlâ .
At more than 150 pages, Cow is far longer than a standard poetry collection, which poses a challenge for readers used to more tightly edited selections of poems. Admittedly, it is also not easy to keep track of the diverse cast of characters who come and go throughout the pages of the manuscript. For the patient, philosophical reader, however, Cow is a delightful reclamation of the distant past for women.
By Susan Hawthorne
Paperback, 9781876756888, 166pp
September Â 2011