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