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Book Review: Meat Lovers

Rebecca Hawkes has established herself as a provocative and vital new voice in MEAT LOVERS. Check out what Leila Lois has to say in her review of this Auckland University Press poetry book.

Book Review: Meat Lovers

Reviewed by Leila Lois

Rebecca Hawkes has established herself as a provocative and vital new voice: rustic and risqué, candid and lyrical.

Her poem “Flesh Tones” demonstrates this freshness: 

Her world is made on the music of meat. Heifers lowering her to sleep, smudged chalk on their haunches, mounting each other in the muddy twilight.

Hawkes looks at the awkwardness of the strange era in which we find ourselves with a keen eye, where synthetic meat is grown in test tubes and love is procured through mercury screens.

“The fake was always prettier and more delicious than the real apple, the illusion of non-perishable desire magnetising my attention…

These lines are telling, in the post-human age, where our ideas of wellbeing and belonging are so constantly challenged by the dissatisfaction and shininess of the marketing that surrounds us.

 “…we have invented death without killing/ flesh without shame/ noble and frigid as aliens/ or deities…” she writes in her poem “Petri dish of lab-grown meat.”

Hawkes hints at the vacuous, lonely orbits contemporary living encourages as she writes: “No matter how many I ate I never felt full.” Taking a treasured childhood memory, of collecting candy, becomes a metaphor for innocence lost in dystopia.

Her poems are funny, raunchy and acerbic, sometimes sneaking up on you like a pantomime nightmare, other times hitting you right in the guts. Either way, Hawkes’ imagery and attention to detail stays with you long after reading. One poem that stands out in particular for these reasons is “Sparkling Bucolic:”

It’s not real cottagecore unless you’re up to the elbow in it

blindly groping down the blood-slick canal

as another contraction ripples around your knuckles 

the cow is lain on her side kicking a mud angel…

At once reminiscent of Seamus Heaney or Gillian Clarke, in the raw readiness of the subject matter, (cattle birthing) the poem progresses similarly into a sense of desolation, as she writes:

wipe the afterbirth on your thrifted silk slip

your garden strange in the torchlight the red flax bowing

like a cow to her newborn the wisteria blossoms heavy as udders

loneliness collapsing on you like a waterlogged tent.

In these passages, adjunct to the loneliness, is the undeniable beauty of the wild New Zealand landscape, as Hawkes gives us a window into what growing up on a farm in a small one-horse-town is like. 

“Dry Spell” depicts both the ennui and fascination of growing up ‘wild’ artfully. The poem, as the title suggests, morphs into exotic dance show-style delivery, exposing the troubled politics of a Saturday night in downtown Wellington (or any contemporary Western city, where our focus has for too long been protecting our women in lieu educating our men against gender based violence).

So on the one hand, we admire, on the other, we fear. Homophobia rears its ugly head in the third installment of the eight-poem set.

Of course, as with the earlier poem, the speaker’s positionality here as queer evokes radical empathy in the reader. How terrible to be made to feel other, subhuman in this way, in this era, when so many have fought so hard against such prejudices. 

Hawkes seems to be imploring the reader to stand in their power against such injustices, using the dramatic extended metaphor of humans as farm animals, ready to look for pastures greener, places of safety, harmony and acceptance in a world for too long troubled by animosity and shame.

Hawkes perfects the too-muchness of her poetic style to make deep social commentary at the same time as kindling our humor. She may raise a laugh as often as she raises an eyebrow or a sigh with this collection. In so doing, she exposes an array of injustices, people and animals still treated with cruelty in a society that definitely ‘knows better’. 

Following the legacies of other great female poet-activists such as Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, Rebecca Hawkes offers us a unique perspective on the world. With humor and imagination she demands we take a hard look at the absurdity of the Anthropocene, doing it all the while with beauty and comedy.  

Publisher: Auckland University Press

Genre: Poetry

Print Length: 92 pages

ISBN: 978-1869409630


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