Lupa and Lamb, by Susan Hawthorne.
Lupa and Lamb, by Susan Hawthorne. Spinifex Press (2014), Paperback, 172 pages.
AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS
A swirling celebration, told in free verse, of ancient goddesses and strong women from myth and history meeting, exploring, talking and loving.
Susan Hawthorne’s new book of poetry takes readers into an speculative world where women are central. The poems are structured around the premise of a gathering of women in Rome, invited by the Roman Empress and guided around the city and countryside by the Curatix, Director of the Musaeum Matricum. Those who arrive first explore the vast archives of the museum and ancient documents by and about women/goddesses and visit the ancient ruins of Sardinia. Then the party begins. As more and more guests from various countries and centuries arrive, they talk and sing and act just like women at a contemporary gathering. Pain and anger may surface occasionally, but this is joyous book, not a diatribe against patriarchy. How I would like to be part of such a group.
The prologue of the book is a passage by Monique Wittig asking women to remember a time when they were strong and happy, and if they cannot remember to invent such a time. Lupa and Lamb is just such a history and an invention. I particularly liked how Hawthorne makes no distinction between what scholars accept as “true” and the glorious products of her imagination. I believe this approach is probably the best method for knowing goddesses, women saints, and other fore-mothers. Those who try to “prove” that such figures “really” lived get blogged down in rigid, defensive prose. Rather than trying to fit goddesses into the constraints of academia, Hawthorne uses them as a jumping off point for our inspiration. We can be grateful that their stories have survived even if material evidence about them is sparse. And we can use them to inspire us to create our own stories.
Hawthorne is the Director of Spinifex Press, and she has the rare breadth of knowledge necessary to write such a wide-ranging book. In addition to studying Political Science, Philosophy, and Women’s Studies, she has learned Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit and after living in Rome for six months, she also has some knowledge of Italian. These are the cultures and languages that she explores and integrates. (One can hardly ask for more, but I wished for some African or Indigenous characters.) Exploring the history of particular words, she treats them like toys to be tossed in the air and discovered in unexpected, sometimes amusing places. She tells us, for example, that lupa has had two meanings; prostitute and she-wolf, and then goes on to use both meanings in her poems.
Reading Lupa and Lamb, I kept remembering other of my favorite feminist speculations, such as Finola Moorhead’s Remember the Tarantella, and the books by American Mary Daly, who played a major role in changing the way I approach the world. Hawthorne’s words have the same earth-shaking power. Her poems are presented with no punctuation and little capitalization. The words are arranged almost like research notes, but flowing with beauty and wisdom. Lines between women and goddesses from a variety of cultures blur into each other as the women talk. Individual women/goddesses take different names and forms, which would be a problem if the book was driven by its plot. Instead, symbols and images, often of wolves and lambs and womanhood, connect the stories.
I used to say that I seldom read and liked poetry, but Susan Hawthorne and Spinifex Press are changing that. Since I am ill equipped to write about poetry, I’d like to include one of my favorite poems from this book, one that for me summarize what Hawthrone does in Lupa and Lamb. (Sorry I can’t reproduce her spacing.)
those who came after us
unraveled our stories
wiped the slate clean
smashed the pots
leaving only fragments
so we kept silent
we avoided the high arts
the public world
the official histories
craft saved us
we spun and sewed
wove patterns on fabric
cooked and healed
drew on pots
sang and told old wives’ tales
to our daughters
we were ignored
we were inventive
Lupa and Lambs is a book that I enthusiastically recommend to readers open to feminism and creative exploration of words and ideas from a feminist viewpoint.
Thanks to Spinifex for sending me this delightful book to review.
See my review of Hawthorne’s “novel in verse,” Lumen.