Launch: Susan Hawthorne's Dark Matters

Collected Works Bookshop, Melbourne - October 18th 2017

Well it’s daunting indeed to launch for someone as illustrious in achievement and multi-gifted as this poet.

Dark MattersSusan Hawthorne is the author of two novels, a verse novel, six collections of poetry, two chapbooks and three non-fiction titles. Her poetry collection, Cow (2011) was shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Poetry Award in the 2012 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards as well as being a finalist in the 2012 Audre Lorde Lesbian Poetry Award (USA). Earth’s Breath was shortlisted for the 2010 Judith Wright Poetry Prize. She has been the recipient of two international residencies: in 2013 from the Australia Council for the Arts for six months to write Lupa and Lamb, the BR Whiting Library in Rome; and in 2009 a four month residency for Arts Queensland and the Australia Council to Chennai, India to write Cow.

Her previous fiction includes a verse novel, Limen (2013), The Falling Woman (1992) which was a Top Twenty Title in New Zealand's Listener Women’s Book Festival and selected as one of the Year’s Best Books in The Australian.

Her non-fiction includes The Spinifex Quiz Book (1993) shortlisted in the Australian Educational Awards and Wild Politics (2002), selected as one of the Year’s Best Books in the Australian Book Review. Her most recent non-fiction book is Bibliodiversity: A Manifesto for Independent Publishing (2014) which has been translated into Arabic, French, German and Spanish.

Susan is the 2017 winner of the Penguin Random House Best Achievement in Writing Inspire Award for her work as an outstanding lifetime contributor to increasing people's awareness of disability. In 2015, she received the George Robertson Award for her services to the publishing industry. In 1996, she won the Hall of Fame Award in The Rainbow Awards for contribution to the Gay and Lesbian Community. She is also a publisher and Adjunct Professor in the Writing Program at James Cook University, Townsville.

Silence can be a plan
rigorously executed

the blueprint to a life
It is a presence
it has a history a form

Do not confuse it
with any kind of absence

Adrienne Rich ‘Cartographies of silence’ in
Dream of a Common Language (1978).

Marion May CampbellWe talk sometimes too glibly of erasure, of silencing, of disappearance: but this magnificent work of defiance, memorialisation and poetic resistance reminds me, through the sheer force it gives to disappearance, of Micha Ullman’s Bebelplatz Berlin memorial to the Nazi burning of the books. This features a window cut into the square’s pavement that reveals, deep below the viewers’ reflections in the glass, an uncanny library of empty, white, subterranean bookshelves. A vertigo-inducing silence. Thus, when catastrophic trauma mutilates language, just as it does the silence in its wake, an extraordinary courage of resistance needs to be summoned from the depths of being to write this silence back into form.

Dark Matters mobilises a poetics of the fragment, as does so much of the work of Francophone lesbian poets Monique Wittig and Nicole Brossard, to draw constant attention to the lacunae in history, culture and language, where holes have been blown out of memory, where lesbians have lived and made love, cultures practised, poems composed, songs sung and dances danced. This work knows that writing grows a lace to configure the blank page; that its purpose is to allow these tracts of silence to bear witness, to accommodate the phantom wounds, the stigmata in palimpsest, the ravages of wilful violence and cultural wipe-out, a torn lace at that, its edges, its trailing threads, signalling gaping fissures, where the missing have been cast to oblivion.

The stench of the abattoir is with us always, alas. But the dead are many, we say, dismissing again the disappeared so slickly as many, just as we invoke as many the disguises and detours we have had to take, whether through insidious internalised homophobia or through lesbian-targeted, virulent misogyny and homophobia. ‘What has often been erased […] kept from our knowledge is joy, sensuality, courage, and community, as well as guilt, self-betrayal, and pain.’ Rich argues in ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ (46). Dark Matters plunges us with extraordinary imaginative courage into the hallucination of the beloved recast through the furnace of terror:

You are silent, a bulwark, both graceful and threatening and then you
I scream at your approach. I cry out, Mercedes, Mercedes. It’s me.
Stop. It’s me.
But you come straight for me, swoop, and your talons
grasp me, lifting me into unconsciousness. (‘Querida Mercedes’, 37)

The disappeared. The missing. To activate the event that escapes narration requires all the resources of the poet, of the musician of form suspicious of eloquence, of facility. These silences, these gaps, these lacunae do not mark any kind of absence. They mark disappearances that are willed. And this is how the poetics of the fragment can work, politically, to interrupt the smooth rhetoric of placation and assurance perpetrated by the purveyors of the phallocracy that we are included in the very discourses that kill so many of us. A poetics of interruption is required to make us trip and stall in the midst of this killing automatism. This poet makes these gaps gape again, like the wounds they are; the ardently desired and adored have disappeared here, in the rips she marks and re-marks; our stories might be fragmented but we must gather the ‘shards and broken songs’ and conjure again that music that will make our world a little less demented. We begin again to learn to dream along the fault-lines, and summon the missing text, loves and lives, around the erasures, as around the fold-lines of the papyrus manuscript of a poem by Psappha, whose name Susan teaches me to pronounce as she might have done.

The physical mystery of dark matter of the eponymous pun suggests the sense of cultural and experiential immensity and energy that the novel performs through its tactics. Dark matter makes up most of the universe but is invisible, emitting, reflecting, refracting no light. In fact, it doesn’t emit or interact with electromagnetic radiation; it’s actually invisible to the entire electromagnetic spectrum. And while dark matter has no local gravitational effect it apparently has a global effect on the universe as a whole. Dark matter has more than five times as much energy as ordinary matter, Susan reminds us, and if it is almost imperceptible it takes up space. Darkness matters. The invisible matters.

Poetics, politics and ethics are inextricably bound in the most potent works, and Dark Matters’ power, its miraculous expansiveness, backwards and forwards in space-time, resides in its risk-taking form, in telling a story via the poetic and narrative fragment, of course, but also by incorporating irrecoverable, abysmal holes and blanks. All cannot be recovered. These fragments dare to suggest a collective history far beyond the specific lives of the particulars it tracks so well, enjoining ‘fiction’ with real and specific murderous violence suffered globally by lesbian and other minorities, ethnic or oppositional, in regimes of terror. These narrative fragments, prose poems and lyrics, point to – are themselves a synecdoche for – a whole history of persecution, of sometimes murderous silencing, and torture, but especially they retrieve from erasure a culture of passionate connection, reaching back to Psappha, and commemorating lesbian poets of modernity and beyond, like Gertrude Stein, Monique Wittig, and HD, who reclaim Lesbian space-time.

That’s the thing about lesbians, it’s a kind of detective story that unwinds in scraps, but half of the pages are shredded and the rest are so destroyed as to be unreadable. What we have left are fragments. (3)

But this novel also directly confronts terror, where LGBTI communities are concerned, of the kind encountered under the Chilean and Argentinian Juntas, Europe under the Nazi scourge, under current regimes across the continents and in many countries, including Russia, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, and it also knows to link these regimes to [and I quote] ‘the escalation of prison building in Australia. The boat people. It’s all for their own good (p. 25).’

Desi, whose name echoes the Sanskrit word for land or country, desha, gives this terror a shape and anchorage by her journey into the past, her historical sleuthing around the persecution, and incarceration of her poet-aunt Ekaterina and her lover Mercedes. Thus, the primal patriarchal horde cements its bonding, by the expulsion and torture of those who refuse the penile economy – in fact, securing the penile economy with its penal colonies for those deemed other. Tapping into Kate’s fragmented records, Desi re-anchors lesbian forebears in history and geography for the reader, but in the process, brings back to contemporary life the cultural past, mythic and poetic embodiments of aspects of lesbian culture, sexuality and love. The continuum Kate-Ekaterina-Hecate has mostly to be imagined, such is the mainstream denial of this other society.

The writing is virtuosic in its adjustments – in turn, meditative, speculative, lyrical, then stuttering in broke-back phrases of pain and sorrow, or, again, falling swift and flamboyant, in meteoric, scintillating image-events. Nor is this a monological history: here Susan’s possibly unique situation and gifts as a polyglot Australian writer, who channels Spanish, Italian, Sanskrit, French, Latin, Ancient Greek, ensure an extraordinary mobility through space and time via polyglot puns, opening out and reactivating the histories and technologies and bodily practices slumbering in etymology, the sense through linguistic re-enactments of a living tissue of lesbian bodies loving each other. The intertextual mesh becomes intersubjective and intercorporeal, and a polyphonic hymn to lesbian struggle and solidarity is the result. Like the boustrophedon – we move backwards and forwards in time. Remembering the physical, material process, that language is an extension of the body wanting connection, ‘we make language dance, reviving old rhythms, patterns: poetic metre as primordial, body-memory.’ (10)

At least we know from the start all is not lost; the book begins with a release. With Kate’s incarceration and torture comes testimony, especially as their progress is companioned by the younger woman’s trajectory and recovery of shreds of story behind enigmatic clues. This is the beautiful demonstration of the lesbian cultural continuum. However, no straight chronology is possible to start with: a trajectory fixed on narrative closure, or so-called teleology, is symptomatic of the patriarchal phallocentric mode: intent on finitude, wrap-up. Here is no: Get-thee-to-the-terminus-where-all-is-tied-up-and-locked-down. For evident reasons.

Post-traumatic memory can best be performed by (and perhaps only performed by) poetic suggestiveness through the fragment, a mode which breaks away from the penile economy, one which celebrates openness and allows the silences to testify that here is no absence of bodies, of love, of suffering, of stories. It is a poetics of recovery that registers traumatic aftermath through suspended ‘shards and splinters’, their repercussions and aftershocks, and gives survival its voices and a terrible beauty. (And in Dark Matters, if words and books have condemned their authors, their not-speaking and not-writing words of betrayal become resistance.) Here, survival throughout incarceration, deprivation, gagging, rape, and the myriad forms of torture that evil contrives, is in, and of itself, resistance. Kate’s survival is only possible through the thought of love, and of longing for Mercedes’s body against hers. The intensity of love and memory of bliss sustain more potently than mere ideas and are the superb catalysts here for reactivating this multi-millennial lesbian history — love as survival: ‘I will find my mind with Mercedes. Imagine her body against mine. Imagine skin and hair, muscle, laughter and warmth.’ (18) She escapes the unbearable present through poetry, through images of sensually inhabited landscapes, suffused with love and desire. As in Wittig’s Lesbian Body and the Guérillères, lines of flight and fight are available through metamorphosis and mythic magnification and reclamation…

Kate composes her ‘poem of morning’ ‘against the hate-filled misogynist rap that counts for [her torturers’] music’. She recalls from her knowledge of Sanskrit-Vedic culture that zero, that invention of genius, is not nothing, but a basis for imagination and the spiralling creativity (of women).

Language makes us. But we too remake language. And ourselves. If we listen, imagine, invent. […] It was the singing that began language. We imitated the birds. And slowly, so very slowly, words began to take shape. Words formed from the electrical charges in our brains. Concepts arising with each new song. And so, in a way, we sang ourselves, our communities into being. (10)

But the systematic violence perpetrated against women, and particularly against lesbian women brings to the shattering edge of despair. ‘I know how Sappho must have felt. Broken words. Shards of language. A song fallen apart. I want to sing it to someone. To sing and let my voice ring out. But not here. Give them nothing. Not even a broken song.’ (38)

   O Demeter, you who laughed at the bawdiness of Baubo. Where has our humor gone? Why has the world gone so mad? Was it as mad in your time as in ours? What am I doing here? What do they want of me? Is there anything I can do but sing ancient songs in my head to long dead goddesses? (38)

But these songs, here, now, contemporary, are utterly alive.

This book, Susan says, has been in progress since 2002. The massive research behind Dark Matters would have entailed excruciating pain and an immensurable emotional undertow, I imagine. That, and the imaginative work of slow artistic devotion that followed have prepared Dark Matters to perform superbly its work of poetic testimony, to rise for these dark days as a magnificent emblem of the enduring vibrancy and triumphant resistance of lesbian culture.

How wonderful to see it spread its condor’s wings and fly into our moment and the worlds of space-time past and to come.

MARION MAY CAMPBELL (born 1948) is a contemporary Australian novelist and academic.

Born in Sydney, New South Wales, Campbell earned a BA in French Literature studying first at the University of New South Wales and completing her degree at the University of Western Australia. She then pursued post-graduate study at Aix en Provence, writing a dissertation on the work of Stéphane Mallarmé and completed a PhD in Literary Studies and Creative Writing at Victoria University in 2011.

Campbell's novels explore professional and personal relationships between women and literary theoretical concerns, often in a non-standard 'experimental' writing style. In addition to novels her work includes short fiction, poetry, and essays and reviews for journals. For the stage, Campbell has written the musical theatre piece Dr Memory in the Dream House which was first performed in 1990 and an adaption of Not Being Miriam entitled Ariadne's Understudies in 1991.

In 2013, Campbell was appointed Associate Professor of Professional and Creative Writing at Deakin University. Campbell has previously coordinated the creative writing program at the University of Melbourne.