HARD NOTES OF WAR: a review of Valence by Susan Hawthorne (Lesley Lebkowicz)

5 Jan

War has always been a subject for poetry – for all forms of literature – in every culture, in every time. It’s been examined, glorified, abhorred. Rarely does a writer confess an addicted love of it despite its horrors, as Tony Loyd, a British war correspondent, does. It’s possible to think of his work, in its shocking authenticity, as defining one end of a continuum and Susan Hawthorne’s fierce and rich polemic as defining the other.

The subtitle of Hawthorne’s Valence is Considering War through Poetry and Theory. Her twofold method of verse and discursive prose makes for a visually pleasing experience. Each poem/argument/exploration is given its own page. The poem comes first – generally two but up to four six-line stanzas – sit over a paragraph of two of commentary. The difference between the poetry and the prose is emphasised by a difference in type-face and spacing. Given that poetry is a form we linger over, and that Hawthorne’s work here demands reflection, attention to presentation pays off.

Structurally, the verse element of Valence alludes to the complex form of the sestina in its six-line stanza and in its three-line concluding envoi – but that is all. The other characteristics of the form are not used. This makes for a pleasant acknowledgement of poetic tradition without any rigid adherence to it. Many poets these days are happy to play with elements of form as they work within the currents of free verse and this work sits nicely in that context.

Within the book-ends of two three-lined verses Hawthorne offers a dense mesh of imagery in the verse ranging across several instances of military violence. Words are ‘slaughtered in the throat’, ‘widowed ground has been filled with half-grown trees’, what ‘will it take to unpurse the future’? Images freed from the control of punctuation jam one against the other invoking the terrible chaos of war.

This is the main substance of this work – but not the complete matter: the series considers questions of hope, betrayal, the difficult possibility of putting right the wrongs of war. And more. War is so big a subject, its ramifications enormous; issues arise and spill across the pages. As a feminist scholar, Hawthorne is predictably opposed to war. Some of the prose commentary alludes to her own (as well as others’) scholarly work on the subject. She also refers to her own experience in these commentaries and this invites the reader into her material. The sequence is, for instance, initiated by reflections on her grandmother’s, mother’s and uncle’s war experience.

At its best, Hawthorne’s voice is clear, striking, impassioned. The sequence begins: ‘all day long the gods have been screaming’. Her opening lines are frequently declarations strong in the vernacular: ‘revolutions have a tendency to unwind’ or are charged with rhythm (here with a Shakespearean resonance): ‘undoing hatred is a pilgrimage of hurt’.

As it works its way through its variations on war the sequence moves inevitably towards despair. In the last lines: ‘you dream of light . . . /you sob . . . / because nothing will ‘stop the clot of war’. It’s a hard note to end on. Honest – and hard.

Valence: Considering War through Poetry and Theory
Susan Hawthorne. Spinifex Press, 2011, pp16

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