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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 Hawthorne’s 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 “big issues,” 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 “unspoken histories / genocides / eliminations of the unwanted,” she is aware of the dangers of “erasure,” and rewriting history for one’s 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 “ein Blick” into what has been erased that she may draw it out again. It’s 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 “what Queenie says about the sun cow,” the title cow takes a vacation “because she had worked / for too long / for too many” and was “tired of being / at the beck and call of everyone”. In punishment, the male god who claims ownership of the sun cow labels her female companions “demons” 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 “what Queenie says about Sanskrit,” describing language as “perpendicular / roots elude her / gerunds are thick with meaning.”
One of the wonderful freedoms resulting from the sense of play in the book is the latitude Hawthorne has to also “play” 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 reader’s tongue: “fish fin swims by beneath / the water’s 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 clichéd. The sun, the moon, the sea, the mountains—all of these grace the simplified landscape of times long past. Such simplicity gives way to moments of quiet beauty: “her gaze complex as chaos / fragile as a fractal” and “moon wing floats overhead in the dark / of the lunar moth” among them.
The collection’s shining moments are those that walk the line between the mythic and the real. In particular, “what the lovers say” 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 “my nose against yours / two bodies / sleeping” . The setting details of this poem are lovely: “yellow petals / frame her want a sickle moon carves a hollow space of memory” and “morning’s messenger is blushed pink sunrise”. Most breathtaking is a myth moment reframed into desire and adulation, as “she looks down the throat of her lover there inside the mouth / galactic swirl” .
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