Review: Meat Lovers

Reviewed by Paula Green

Meat Lovers, Rebecca Hawkes’s debut full-length collection, is a triumphant display of the power of words.

Rebecca Hawkes’s debut full-length collection is a triumphant display of the power of words. The book is in two halves, Meat and Lovers; two sides to a beating heart, both dependent upon the other.

I am a vegetarian who cooks meat for my family and I wondered whether I would hold the ‘meatiness’ of Rebecca’s collection at arm’s length. The first poem, The Flexitarian, begins in a supermarket meat aisle and ends with meat sizzling in a pan. The sensual dexterity, the aural finesse, are so compelling I am transfixed. Assonance meets alliteration meets addictive rhythm. It’s like falling upon a song you love that you keep on replay. This poet can write.

She moves from the density of the opening poem to the lush detail of stealing sweets in Countdown (Help yourself) to the sweet economy of Sighting. The movement between spare and opulent is a trait of the collection as a whole. At times, the poems draw upon distant memories, using distinctive and shifting chords to translate the past.

Hawkes returns to her rural upbringing near Methven, resisting postcard landscapes and picturesque scenes. Or hiding farming in a writing bottom drawer. Expect a poetic lens on birthing calves, quad-biking riding, skinny dipping, rescuing livestock in wild weather and power cuts, killing animals, putting animals out of wounded misery, burying elbows deep in blood and guts. She begins Flesh tones with the line, “Her world is made on the music of meat.” The poem suckles upon the gory, the repellent, maggots and mud, a lamb suckling a finger. I offer the word ‘sensational’ because every sense is aroused as you read, and the effect is sublime.

She is not the first poet to frame rural life in poems. Marty Smith has done this with an unfiltered eye in Hat. One Meat Lover poem is entitled Hardcore pastorals, another Sparkling bucolic. In the latter poem, the birth of a calf is presented, no bloody details spared, yet despite my squeamish stomach, the poetry dazzles.

 wipe the afterbirth on your thrifted silk slip

your garden strange in 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

Hawkes charts a childhood with uncensored farm details and the child’s fervent imagination. With her best friend, she invents a realm of fabulous creatures with her becoming a werefox, her friend a weregryphon. Hatching such an expansive fantasy, that both makes and almost breaks the friendship, is transferred to the fantastical elements in Hawkes’ sublime adult artwork. Her paintings are found on the cover and within the book, equal matches for the febrile and motif-succulent poetry.

Meat Lovers is a poetry thicket, knotted with possible reading paths and revelations. A second drawcard theme is that of love, an appetite for physical contact, human connection, yearnings, sugar and heart rushes. In Hardcore pastorals, the family observes gay cows and this blazing revelation slips in:

 a secret in your mind so fragile

if you said it out loud the air would rip like silk

lesbians lesbians lesbians lesbians

At one point, Rebecca asks: ‘What do you want from nature poems?’ Perhaps the book also asks, ‘What do you want from love poems?’ Don’t expect bucolic love. Expect the strange, the unsettling, the tender, the incredibly moving. This from Poem about my heart:

you have one job

which is to hold

this disturbingly large moth

battering the woven

basket of your fingers

I am hard pressed to think of a poetry collection that has affected me as much as this one has. I welcome the ‘meat’ and the ‘lovers.’ The poetic craft captivates, yet it is the glint and gleam of life, as young girl and as young woman, at times macabre, at times lust, at times vulnerable, always astonishing, that transports and impales. Meat Lovers is a significant arrival in our poetry landscapes. Glorious.

 Reviewed by Paula Green