Lily Holloway reviews Meat Lovers, the new collection of poetry by Rebecca Hawkes.
“The 2023 Ockhams are going to be a bloodbath.” You hear that sentiment a lot, bouncing around the Te-Whanganui-a-Tara literary events, in the launch speeches, and around the free booze table after the readings. And hello, they would be right. This year has brought a glut of incredible poetry collections from powers such as Chris Tse and essa mai ranapiri as well as beginners: see Jordan Hamel, Khadro Mohamedand Cadence Chung. Many other promising issues sit in my pile to read or are yet to come.
Meat Lovers, Rebecca Hawkes’ first collection of poetry, feels like a book that would thrive in a bloodbath. Divided into two sections – Meat and Lovers – the collection is visceral, successful in its embrace of the sexy and lush as well as the weird and grotesque. Hawkes is particularly masterful in her precise and vibrant descriptions, the kind that make you wonder how a fly-stricken sheep, say, or filmed supermarket meat, could be otherwise described.
Sometimes the imagery is so intense it’s almost as if I could touch it: In “Waif & stray,” a sheep’s mutilated eye is “iodine-tinged and pulpy, like a knot in a school desk. school boy stuffed with chewing gum”.
Or in ‘Flesh tones’, where the rapid rhythmic language mirrors the rapid, mindless processing of the lambs “in an orderly rhythm of bleat-shunt-roll-pop-squirt-cut-clap-push”. The sharpness of the language allows for a rich and often gory examination of the farming industry, bodies, sex and love.
It’s not just how Hawkes describes it. At many points while reading, I was struck by her ability to pace the poems in order to create impact. In “Is This Cruelty”, two girls encounter a dying sheep as they go swimming in a river:
“If the sheep tries to get up when it sees them but can’t?
If the sheep’s eye rolls in his head, hazelnut
iris nebula swirling around flat black
student? If it’s two shadows that erase
the sun reflected in said wet eye?
This poem, which consists entirely of questions, amplifies the gruesome horror suspense by repeating: “If the stone strikes the skull with a dull, silent sound that is barely a crack?” The traumatic image with its nauseating onomatopoeia heightens the emphasis with each repetition, giving the question “Is it cruelty if…” a growing sense of urgency and desperation.
“After the blizzard, I followed my mother” is another poem that struck me with its ending. It is a balanced and piercing piece where the speaker leaves the warmth of his home to tend to the cattle. The space between each two-line stanza recalls paths traced in the snow:
“My mother said our livestock service came first, even though the power
was outside in the house and the needs of us all formed a torrent
like badly stacked firewood falling towards her, quite heavy
The connection between cattle dependency and the stark, frozen landscape of uncertain family relationships is most striking in the last line of the poem, when the speaker asks about their mother: “And if she dies while we are still in mad at each other?”
Underlying the collection is an examination of the contradictory ways in which we see animals as adorable embodiments of innocence while killing them, often brutally. In ‘The Conservationist’, the farmer’s daughter has “hands that go around to break the neck/to caress”. Even the title – Meat Lovers – embodies this duality. Descriptions of sheep in “flesh tones” are gruesome, then beautiful as the speaker recalls being “ankle-deep in a glowing purple corpse” before cauterizing the lambs’ wounds with “eyes of a warm brown of sunshine on a cello”.
“Hardcore Pastorales,” the seven-part poem that ends the first section, is the bloody, beating heart of the collection (and is a sequence of poems that deserves a full review). Its final section changes it up by switching to the first-person perspective of a cow about to be slaughtered. The cow speaks with power:
“I know all about your mistakes and I judge you
behind my placid gaze of a bimbo I calculate
the leached nitrates the cargo of conflict phosphates
the torturous whelping crates the always inventive
cruelties of efficiency”
The cow challenges the reader to reconcile their cognitive dissonance, to stop messing around pretending we’re not all part of the slaughter:
“so bitches you better marvel
you better eat, drink and be merry
don’t just pass in this decrepit subaru heritage
you’re already enjoying these paddocks
even if you’ve never set foot there”
Similarly, discomfort is evoked by creating a parallel between meat and sexualized bodies. In ‘The Flexitarian’, “slaughterhouse red ink” is compared to lipstick. In ‘I’ll eat you, I love you so’, the speaker is “the slice / of wagyu tenderloin / in softcore food porn”. The sexy body is the consumed body. A lot of those sexy meaty moments are pretty funny too. ‘Mince & cheese’ details a sexy pie incident in which the speaker is splattered with
“deflated pastry stripped of its protein load
the flimsy plastic sheath serving no protection”
The setting for “Denying It Was A Phase (was an accurate indicator it was a phase)” is a “dismal fetish ball” in a basement parking lot, for Pete’s sake.
Meat Lovers is also a deliciously queer collection. The recurring werewolf motif is used to speak of the perceived danger of homosexuality to the people around us. In “Werewolf in the Girls’ Dormitory”, the speaker hides what looks like a terrible secret:
“You certainly don’t want anyone else
detect the unsuspected danger in you.
press the burning moon to the roof
out of your mouth like a dry pill.
The idea of queerness as a danger to others is examined through the roles of predator and prey. The werewolf has internalized the idea that his sexuality makes him an inherently frightening impostor. This idea is also echoed in the brilliant and heartbreaking poem “I can be your angel or your devil (know your meme)”, when the speaker makes sure to make it clear that he didn’t watch his drunken friend in the helping to shower. Learning to accept your homosexuality often involves unlearning the idea that you are inherently evil or monstrous. We spend a lot of time reassuring others (and ourselves) that we mean no harm.
For me, reading and re-reading Meat Lovers has been one of the only surefire ways to get through the ever-looming gloom of winter. A much safer way to get that spark of feeling than licking stacks or engaging in intense Trade Me bidding wars for shit you don’t really want. It’s everything I want in a collection: wild and never pulling punches while being so perfected and balanced in its craft. The kind of collection that you point to and say, “I want to do this” (or maybe “I’m going to have what She is have”), Meat Lovers testifies to one of the greatest talents of the poetic scene of Aotearoa.
Meat Lovers, by Rebecca Hawkes (Auckland University Press, $24.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.