Review by Benjamin Dodds
Increasingly viewed today as kitsch and ‘creepy’ — a lazy, catch-all expression — taxidermy was once regarded as equal parts art and science. Before photography, the only way for urban dwellers to experience exotic fauna — apart from in zoos, which were few — was through the medium of taxidermy. As well as serving up convincing museum gallery dioramas to satisfy popular curiosity, skilled taxidermists also made a sizeable contribution to the vital scientific endeavour of taxonomy. It was the domain of skilled artisans who also happened to be knowledgeable naturalists. Given the inevitable irony of raising wildlife awareness through killing it and arranging it in lifelike poses, modern naturalists are understandably moving away from taxidermy. Kristin Hannaford’s Curio attempts to shine a spotlight on this once proud craft to afford it the credit it is due.
Curio frames its enquiry into antipodean taxidermy with the lives and work of two late nineteenth-century women, Jane Catherine Tost and her daughter Ada Jane Rohu. The poems in the collection explore the pair’s arrival in Australia from England, their work as taxidermists and naturalists, and their time as proprietors of ‘The Queerest Shop in Sydney’, Tost and Rohu — Taxidermists, Furriers, Tanners and Island Curio Dealers. A poem bearing the shop’s nickname catalogues its quirky wares:
fancy work and flower making gewgaws, marvellous birds,
beasts and reptiles oddities prepared and mounted to order that are
and strange discharge of a continent. Minutiae of curiosities furs, tanned
an assortment of mixed lollies: snakes, frogs, sharks’ teeth, black cats and Pyrmont rock
It doesn’t take the reader long to realise that Hannaford is a meticulous researcher and Curio is all the more robust for it; however, there are instances when she seems to become a slave to citation. The full version of the poem quoted above reads quite messily due to the chopping and changing of italicisation that denotes direct quotation from a copy of the shop’s catalogue. Most of Curio’s poems begin with a slab of explanatory text that denies the reader the satisfaction of solving the poetry’s finely crafted mystery. All too often, Hannaford’s deft imagery loses some of its power because the moment of drama has already been signposted in the extensive historical notes above.
Nobody is lining up to accuse a poet this meticulously well-researched of any sort of reckless fictional liberty or wilful inaccuracy. Given this, Hannaford might have afforded herself a greater degree of creative freedom instead of being constantly hamstrung by history.
Arguably, the best sections of Curio are the ones that explore the craft and skills of taxidermy. ‘Introduction to the Aesthetics of Birds’ gives insight into the importance of studying living subjects in the wild in order to prepare and pose realistic taxidermy.
Your White-Faced Heron should appear tentative, neck retracted and settled,
as if contemplating the missed arrival of the tide; the greyness of the day.
There is no practical, how-to guide to the preservation and display of animals here, but the reader is allowed to experience the sights, sounds and smells of the taxidermist’s world. A found poem called ‘Tools of the Trade’ comes from an esoteric handbook and draws us in with its macabre mixture of vulnerable anatomy and cold steel:
You require a skinning knife, the blade long and narrow,
with a hardwood handle of box — blood & dirt
will clean with ease, dissecting knives, a scalpel,
post-mortem hooks (for mammals), scissors
with a long and fine point (especially useful for wings),
a three-pronged impaler for insects, a bodkin or awl for poking
The poem that best combines the collection’s parallel themes of history, science and gender is ‘Wanted: Taxidermist’ in which Jane Tost applies (successfully) for a taxidermy position at the decidedly male-dominated Australian Museum.
My hands have summoned
alpacas, apteryx and thylacines, examples
of my work can be seen
at the International exhibition; the School
of arts: I worked also
for four years at the museum of Hobart Town —
I have references
if you require, specimens for perusal,
I feel myself fully competent
to undertake the arrangement of skins,
to navigate the pouched
peculiarities of antipodean fauna
The poem’s introductory information, whilst again giving away a bit too much, does helpfully inform the reader that Tost was likely the first professionally employed woman at the august museum.
Though the poems throughout Curio piece together the professional and personal stories of Jane and Ada, the narrative is neither linear nor complete. We glean a species of insight into the lives of these trail-blazing women through their work, but much of their personality and character goes unexplored. There is sometimes a sense that we are seeing through their eyes, but rarely that we are hearing their voices. Most poems are written in the third person and could be observations of Hannaford, Tost or Rohu. In ‘Blood and Bone’, after being informed by the factual chunk of explanatory text that Ada’s first husband had died and her second had left her, the opening lines state:
They don’t understand, these women,
that this is how it goes.
Is the speaker one of the husbands? Perhaps it is Ada referring to other women and their idle chatter about her situation. Perhaps it is the poet commenting back through time. Whatever the answer, Hannaford’s ambiguity injects a welcome and needed element of mystery into the collection. This feeling of distance stems from her reluctance to employ guess-work and is actually one of the more positive by-products of Curio’s sometimes edge-dulling historical accuracy.
Many other poets might have confected a purely fictional voice and fleshed out a more satisfying and complete narrative, but in doing so, these poets would have likely misrepresented two fascinating figures of Australian science and history. Kristin Hannaford’s Curio treats its subjects with an appropriately scientific degree of objectivity and the result is a very fine volume of contemporary Australian poetry.
Walleah Press, 2014
68 pages, $20
Benjamin Dodds is the author of Regulator (Puncher & Wattmann Poetry, 2014). His work has appeared in Best Australian Poems 2014, Antipodes: Poetic Responses, Stars Like Sand: Australian Speculative Poetry, and on Radio National’s Poetica program.