The back of the book. . . Susan Hawthorne

Susan Hawthorne’s comment on the back of The Tongue Has Its Secrets

“Here is a poet who tongues the language of birds, delves into the minds of sybils, explores connections with animals. She tests the boundaries of nothingness and somethingness. Donna Snyder’s poems are like Nüshu: secrets cast skywards like a cipher for those who know, to read.”

– Susan Hawthorne, poet and author of Lupa and Lamb


cover art

The back of the book. . . Susan Hawthorne

Susan Hawthorne’s comment on the back of The Tongue Has Its Secrets

“Here is a poet who tongues the language of birds, delves into the minds of sybils, explores connections with animals. She tests the boundaries of nothingness and somethingness. Donna Snyder’s poems are like Nüshu: secrets cast skywards like a cipher for those who know, to read.”

– Susan Hawthorne, poet and author of Lupa and Lamb


cover art

My review of Lupa and Lamb by Susan Hawthorne published in Red Fez

Lupa and Lamb cover art

Susan Hawthorne is a polymath – linguist, poet, script writer, aerialist, ecologist, publisher, and scholar. She has worked in a circus, as a professor, as an editor for Penguin Books, and as a publisher with her own independent press.  She is fluent in English, Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, and conversational Italian in various dialects, as well as the history and art of each of those cultures.  She also possesses at least a working knowledge in languages such as Linear A, proto-Indo-European, French, and the Angelic tongues, and is quite capable of making use of Old English, Etruscan, Kartelian, Akkadian, Vedic, Prankrit, Sardinian and other languages.

Hawthorne peppers her poems with references to calculus and physics, demonstrating yet two more arcane languages with which she is conversant.  She has published on biodiversity and erotica, and has books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. This diverse expertise and learnedness provide the vocabulary and content of Hawthorne’s poetry, which is no less than an attempt to rescue and resuscitate Woman in all her power and glory, to restore the lost culture of women ignored or obliterated by previous scholars. In Lupa and Lamb, Hawthorne ably incorporates almost all areas of her skills and knowledge, except, perhaps, her work as an aerialist.

A book of poems, scripts, fragmentary artifacts, myth, and myth-making, Lupa and Lamb has characters which blend together through time and “fold in and out of one another’s stories,” from pre-historic archetypes to contemporary travelers in Rome, as described in the Main characters page that precedes the body of the book itself. Two characters go by multiple names and represent various female personae throughout time. As described in the poem “nuraghe,” these two characters

. . . walk hand in hand

between the lines . . . tread winding paths . . .

spiraling through intangible space.

Indeed, the book itself proceeds in a spiral, moving back and forth through temporal planes, between myth and history, between fact and imagination. The first poem of the collection, “descent,” captures the liminal nature of dates and time expressed throughout the book, and mentions the recurrent theme of history and memory reconstructed and reclaimed.

I was here before

thousands of years before

your hundred mouths

shouting. . .

shouting descent into

the dark thighs of your cave

. . .my hair snake-wreathed

Etruscan Medusa

speaking with a hundred voices

the sibilant hiss of prophecy . . .

I flail at vanishing memory

bruised rise from the darkness . . . .

A third character is called Curatrix, described as the “framer of this manuscript and responsible for collecting ‘lost texts’ from ‘the present to as far back as 300,000 years.”  Another character is Sulpicia, who lived in the time of Caesar Augustus and is “the only woman whose poetry has survived in Latin from Ancient Rome.”  She and the Curatrix work together to re-see the remnants of her poetry, looking at it with eyes who want to see strength and beauty, a source of inspiration and comfort to contemporary women. Livia, another character, was empress of Rome by virtue of a marriage to Caesar Augustus, the mother and grandmother of later emperors, and a woman whose power in Rome was recognized throughout the Mediterranean region’s countries and cultures. In the central conceit of the collection, it is Livia who has organized a great party and invited women and goddesses from various epochs to gather at her home with the intent to create a new text from the forgotten, suppressed, fragmentary, or merely lost records of women of power.

A PhD and university professor, Hawthorne created this genre-busting and inventive collection as a tool to educate but, as the Curatrix states, “academic tedium only gets you so far.” Notwithstanding its side bar commentary, explanatory endnotes, bibliography, description of main characters, and a note on dates, Hawthorne’s creativity transcends academia and scholarship. She wields images and emotion deftly, creating a thing of grace and beauty exquisitely balanced between scholarship, cultural history, a linguist’s pyrotechnics, poetry, and theater. Come to think of it, perhaps she does make use of her background as an aerialist. But make no mistake, this book is poetry, epitomized in the poem “ancient nerves,” set forth here in its entirety.

a day of ancient argument

when with zealous ear and helpless eye

I go in search of Etruscan relics

find italic grapes oozing sweet nectar

on a frieze birds tweeze worms from soil

ewe wolf uterine maze

night’s death hour I wake

to a giant ginger object

rise and sink into oblivion

it was only the moon

sailing through cloud

breast parrot orange

on this feathered planet

or a brazen angel trumpeting dawn

Her poetry easily stands alone as poetry, irrespective of the depth of scholarship, and the exceptional quality of her writing has been repeatedly recognized by being short listed or placing for various prestigious prizes, both in Australia and the US.  Her poetry has been translated into both German and Spanish. As well, she has won residencies funded by the Australian government, living, studying and writing in Rome and at the University of Madras in India.

As noted by Danica Anderson, a sociologist and international expert on healing from war crimes and other catastrophes, says that “what are remote events become social relationships threaded from the past to our life . . . [and] manifest meaning on what it means to be female.”  Danica Anderson, in a December 27, 2014 conversation on Facebook labeled Blood & Honey Herstories- Charting the life. According to Anderson, we carry buried within us the memory of experiences, particularly trauma, that our ancestors encountered.  Hawthorne’s book is a beautiful tool for us to access those memories. Repeated motifs include rape, incest, sacrifice, and martyrdom, demonstrating how violence against women is either suppressed, recast in euphemism, or transformed into sanctity.  Hawthorne grieves the deprivation of a full life for women of patriarchal religions, as in “Hildegard,” where she describes nuns as

separate and celibate

they have dragged themselves

into exile like doves without nests.

She provides lists of goddesses who were repurposed as saints, having “dual citizenship,” she puts it.

While certainly quite serious in her aim for her collection’s cultural significance, Hawthorne’s book also makes use of puns and has recurrent erotic passages. Like so many such exchanges throughout history, sometimes a poem works on multiple levels, the sensual details hidden within the text, recognizable only to one looking for them. The poem “Diana shears Livia’s flock” sets out the steps of shearing sheep, yet the details are so sensuous it is hard to imagine that the writer intended nothing more than a description of a mundane task. Here are a few lines that underscore my interpretation.

. . . it’s a trust thing

she has to relax

fold her into your knees

with a firm but not tight grip

hold her close

begin on the soft belly

and back leg

dance your way

and step through

to neck and shoulders

so intimate a move

her head tipped sideways

Like the listing of the many goddesses in The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Hawthorne’s poems often feature lists. She names ancient rulers and writers, goddesses from cultures around the world, and female friendships through history, drawing parallels between these heroic women and more modern or contemporary artists, writers, and activists. Her litanies create a new universe, spiraling out into the cosmos, both into the past and forward into the present, populated with the “forgotten women,” causing, as she writes in her poem “breasted,”

a vibration in the air rarely felt in these past

six thousand years.

The illustrious guests at Livia’s party permit Hawthorne to educate the reader through poetry, translations of “lost fragments” of ancient texts, while simultaneously linking lives of women that transcend the ages to heroic and creative women in today’s society.

In  Lupa and Lamb, Hawthorne’s artistry spins the silken strand that connects women and their achievements throughout time.