Tag Archives: Robyn Cadwallader

The playful provocation of a complex tapestry (Robyn Cadwallader)

7 Mar

The cover of Susan Hawthorne’s Cow, both back and front, is an Indian-style patchwork featuring cows in paintings, photos, carvings, bas relief, even street signs (‘Beware of Cattle on Road’), each image framed with embroidery and sequins. With author and title printed only on the spine, the patchwork takes over, runs beyond the borders of the covers; we know there is more to see, that the totality is more than the particular. This is more than beautiful artwork; it is an embodiment of what is inside.

At first sight the arrangement of the book can be daunting: background information in the acknowledgements, etymologies in the front pages, running gloss notes in the margins of the text, endnotes and sources in the final pages. All are testament to Hawthorne’s thorough research and familiarity with language and mythology. It is also, of course, an opportunity to learn. With such a frame of academic apparatus there is a risk, as I found, of taking on the seriousness of all this research, of working too hard at understanding what it all means, a straining after knowledge before appreciating the depths of what is simply given. The poems are wry, humorous, poignant, elegiac, wise and longing, written with a deceptive simplicity of expression. Nonetheless, my experience is that it takes some time to begin to feel at ease with the shape and movement of the collection.

Cow celebrates all that poetry makes possible, crossing boundaries of the rational, drawing together ideas that bounce off one another and echo into new thoughts, allowing the cerebral and the fantastical to sing together. In an interview at the Queensland Writers Festival, Hawthorne described her fascination with etymology, noting that variants of the Sanskrit word for cow are present in Indo-European languages through Old Norse and Old English words for queen, and in Greek gyne (woman), details of which are given in the book. In this collection she delights in playing with endless echoes and ripples of such etymologies.

While at first sight the connections might not be obvious, cow, queen and woman are woven into a complex tapestry. The powerful physical presence of cows opens out into explorations of women’s experiences of voice, relationship, love, language, mythology and idea:

what we cannot speak about we cannot imagine
facts and imagination tangle
a weave of uncertain strings
strings pulled and plucked
edgeless origami in an unfolding universe.
(‘what the poet says’, 5)

The poems are divided into four strings, telling of tales that ‘tangle like a chinese noodle’, snarled and stretched by time: ‘these are stories about cows / who have lost their histories’. Within each string we hear from Queenie, the central figure in the collection. Having wandered the markets and settled in Fatima’s garden, Queenie gives birth to her calf; she is both milk cow and creator, there is no distinction:

I’m grazing near a human encampment
time has rolled in
on a day the length of all time
I give birth to the folding universe
my milk flows away through the night sky
galaxies spin and twirl form and unform
as the dance of creation and decreation proceeds.
(‘what Queenie says’)

In string one, ‘the philosophy cow’, subtitled ‘Queenie’s dilly bag’, the cow pulls open the strings of her bag to reveal her collection: voices from Greek, Sanskrit, Sumerian and Welsh mythology, the voice of Kuvalaya (lotus-flower), of Cow, Tiger, and even a 105-year old virgin speaking in the Daily Telegraph. Their stories flow, one after another, telling of love, power and relationships in a world that is simultaneously cosmic and mundane, but never ordinary. One of the delights in this section is the wry humour and wordplay, particularly in the voice of various cows. The cows gather on the poet’s desk and ask

what is it you want of us?
is it our delightful demeanour
or our marvellous colourful hides?
(‘what she says to her listeners’)

String two, ‘what the philosophers say’, changes tone and content. Looking beyond the voices in string one, it explores the silence around cow woman — her stories, her voice, her participation in language. While the images evoke gaps, spaces, silence, exile and loss, the overwhelming import is of presence becoming absence. Ur-woman (original woman)

is a mirage
a reflection of who we are
as she teeters on the edge
of the visible like a reflection
in a lake disappearing
(‘what her mother says about ur-woman’)

In a beautifully imagined poem that gathers eastern and western mythology, a cow ‘looks down the throat of her child’ to see inside a fertile universe, ‘cows feeding calves the milk / spilling around the calves’ mouths’. Within this eden a snake on a tree morphs into a cow, just as woman has been construed as tempter, ‘the dividing line between them blurred’. There is, nonetheless, an insistence that survives:

the mothers are trying hard to contain their children
but what can you do when the world is held
in an open mouth?
(‘what her mother says about ur-woman’)

String three, ‘what the lovers say’, conjures love in all its breadth and intensity, in poetry, body and mind, the last of these so often denied to women. In a poem that is almost an anthem to sisterhood, the one cow becomes ‘eine Frau’ (one woman): ‘go out into the world of cow / sing sing into night for we are eine Frau’ (‘what we sing in one voice’). The poetry in this section is often lyrical and intense.

In the final, short string, ‘what Queenie says about the philosophy cow’, Queenie celebrates the cow and poet:

you have become one of those fist-raisers
a troublemaker in the bleachers  you write poems
thrilling to a music that lifts you daily celebrating
unbelievable truths halleluiah alleluia they cry
(‘what Queenie sings to us’)

Hawthorne carries her erudition lightly into poems that are playful, wise and provocative. Her evocation of the milk cow next door as the cosmic creator, woman, queen, philosopher, lover and thinker communicates with immediacy and vigour. By book’s end, we have traversed a world of mythology, place and story, all emanating from the single figure, cow.

Cow by Susan Hawthorne
Spinifex Press, 2011
166 pages

The remembered, the haunted, and the differing (Robyn Cadwallader)

4 Feb

The Abbotsford Mysteries is Patricia Sykes’ third poetry collection. A surprising title, perhaps, for a book about the girls who were cared for at the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne, home for orphans, migrants, and the ‘wayward’, between 1927 and the early 1970s. But it is, indeed, a book of mysteries.

Organised around the divine mysteries of the Catholic rosary, the eleven poems in each of five sections echo the eleven beads of the rosary and its prayers, symbol and reality for the structure of the convent day. With each bead and poem we hear more than prayers — we hear the fleeting voices of women, once girls there, who speak in brief moments of memory and revelation. The collection is at once thematic and varied, historical and immediate, structured and resistant.

Sykes, once a resident of the orphanage herself, arranged reunions at the convent where she spoke to over seventy women who once lived there. Place has a power over memory, but the memories seem elusive: in ‘Architecture’ the women ‘wander like the bewildered’ to find the years they ‘buried’ behind the walls,

still present in the faces
which are not our faces
who trail us like the ghosts
of unfinished things.

They tell their stories against a sense of distance; truth is ‘as difficult to prove as differing histories’. Time and space, voice and recollection, weave together to give us glimpses, evocations, touches of people and their life behind the doors.

On first reading, I felt that the poems were so allusive and elusive that there was not enough concrete detail for me to engage with the place and the girls, now women, who speak in the poems. But the concrete is definitely there — the laundry where the ‘wayward’ girls worked, the river that runs nearby, the blood of menstruation, the baths taken wearing cotton robes, the cloak room, even the neon light of the Skipping Girl vinegar factory nearby — but each one shimmers and blurs with attachments, accretions, mystery.

In many poems, the physical is complicated by the religious and spiritual that pervaded every aspect of the girls’ daily routine. ‘Bloodline’ juxtaposes Christian imagery with the physical experiences of the pubescent girls in three simple questions. Are the ‘Holy Mothers’ all virgins? That is ‘a red line / that must not be crossed’. In the blood of their own menstruation, can the girls identify with the blood of Christ?

How can it be wicked
to hold that women and girls
are true sufferers of blood?

It is not physicality alone, but the female body and it insistent presence that is spurned and isolated to spirituality:

some of us know, have felt,
the agony of bringing forth
from the warm taboo that bore
the holy infant     what are we to
name it if not womb?

These lines are masterful, not simply drawing together images of Christ and Mary with lived female experience but arguing back, demanding recognition.

Sykes’ poems offer this over and again: glimpses, hints of a girl or a ritual, questions and confusions, set against the blindingly moving line that does not summarise or answer, but offers, as it were, a window for understanding, where contradictions sit uneasily together to reveal more to us. In ‘Glass story’, the girls, separated from families, are gathered into an impossible story ‘As if we fit together like old shards … in a neat history of broken glass’; the nuns choose the paradox of the ‘erotic distance of God’ (‘Conceived’); the convent, essential and life-saving shelter for many, is also ‘the sanctioned care / that feeds the door with young’ (‘Aspect’); and ‘in the humid confessional / everything is epic’ where the priest’s questions about sin raise unimagined horrors such as sex with an animal (‘Mortal, venial’). The images are visceral, layered, illuminating.

In some moments, the girls are not so much remembered, but become clearly heard and seen; they are vividly present to us. In ‘Visitation of sweetness’ the girls develop crushes on the retreat priests and

rush into the cloakroom
and jabber among the coats
then go out and be saintly again.

In an achingly poignant Gloria, one of the five final poems in the rosary divisions of the collection, the sensual breaks through, weaves in and out of the words of liturgy. The voices (and girls) ‘shiver’ in church, long to dance, for then

our blood would warm
us     Lord O Lord
we’re hivey-jive girls
rock’n’roll girls (we
keep your picture next
to Elvis) Kyrie eleison

Those last two words (meaning ‘O Lord, have mercy’) suggest a confession of sorts, submitting to the spiritual framework, but also a call to God for understanding, for finally, it is Elvis who takes the primary place and Christ who is next to him. In ‘Iambic pentameter’, the metre of poetry (‘I hide my poems like hoarded love’) is insistent: ‘We are children of rhythm as well as of God’. Such poems, for me, are vital, showing the resistant energy and life of female desire.

More generally, the voices remember the past. They emerge from the shadows, speak a line or two, the seed of a story, then disappear again; they are, by turns, angry, sad, broken, grateful, humorous, playful and wise. In each is the potential for recovering the ghosts of so many faces and in places, it seems that the voice, usually formatted in italics, almost demands it:

that thing who married my father
put me in the orphanage
for a virginity test
we can tell she is innocent
by the way shame strips her
naked     by the guilt
she calls love-wishing
all I ever wanted
was someone to love me
the walls such bad lovers    holding
her for years in their cold stone crush  (‘Deadly endings’)

The unfinished, the remembered, the haunted, the differing — these are the qualities of the collection, though there were times when I wanted the mist of allusion to clear more often.  The poems ask for time and careful reading, for ‘sitting with’ and listening. The life of the girls and the women they became deserve such accomplished recognition.

The Abbottsford Mysteries
Patricia Sykes
October 2011, Spinifex Press
RRP $24.95
ISBN: 9781876756956
95 pages