Sinews — On Siobhan Hodge’s Justice for Romeo
Advocacy, elegy, and a deep respect for horses are the sinews running through this book of poetry. And ‘love’ — by which I don’t mean the false love that Siobhan Hodge notes in her preface as being extended to horses as a kind of ‘well-meaning’ though mistaken fetishisation and objectification, but rather as a genuine affection for the uniqueness and difference/s of horses. This is no book of anthropomorphic projection, but of seeing and hearing, of sharing life with horses. Though horse life is not contingent on humans, there’s been a timeless interaction between horses and humans, sadly, mainly with humans exploiting horses. In her remarkable work, Justice for Romeo, Siobhan Hodge considers the complex nature of human-horse interactions, and especially her own interactions with horses since childhood. It is not about objectification, but self-scrutiny and self-searching as to how Siobhan has situated herself in these interactions. In essence, these are dialogues of trust, of call and response, of elation and disappointment, of miscommunications. And further, it is not a romanticised version of human-horse relationships, but a complex and often troubled one.
Through reflections on the distance between depicting the horse in art and the ‘inspiration’ in quotidian matter-of-factness, the utility of the horse in — say — the world of the ancient Greeks, or of the 18th-century English painter of horses, George Stubbs, there is an overwhelming sense of slippage in the poems between the real lives of horses and how we use and see them. Some artists are sensitive to it, giving horses different expressions for different moods; others are so distracted by aesthetics that they move through the horror of corpses, through the anatomies, with a ‘scientific eye’, and an eye to their art. So, Siobhan’s poem ‘Stubbs’ is a powerful challenge to placing aesthetics over life and marks the distance between seeing and compassion. I admire the empathy of this book, but also its hard-nosed critique of human abuse of horses, its confronting the disturbances.
The use of horses for sport, or in war, or as transport, and in so many other ways, leads to an expression of not only guilt in this book, but a furious sense of advocacy. Nothing is whispered in speaking back to other humans about the wrongs of exploitation. But there’s also the respect and the out-and-out understanding that can be expressed by horse and human. Siobhan is able to express this redemptive and enriching spirituality in ways I have encountered in no other poetry.
Throughout the various short, swift, and concise sections of the book, there is an intense physicality. Relationship between rider and horse is necessarily physical, and often risky. There are accidents in here — to rider and horse. They are lamented, critiqued, recorded. But what comes of it is the equality between embodiments — the horse’s body and the human body are deserving of equal respect, and equal marvel. If the rider goes with the horse, and does not bully and cajole, there is the chance of communication that is respectfully and non-invasively physical, as well, as yes, spiritual. What I so respect about Hodge’s ‘spirituality’ as expressed in this work is that it is universal, not constrained by a machine of belief. Hodge has a purpose here — to translate the conditions under which horses, individually and collectively, live when in contact with humans.
One of the most remarkable poems in the collection is ‘Przewalski’s Pelts’ in which we consider — no, more than consider... we engage with the fate of the Mongolian horse as ‘breed’, but also as individuals, as bodies and souls. So under threat, with their ‘rebirth’ measured in terms of a couple of remaining horses, they have strangely and somewhat disturbingly thrived in the fallout zone around Chernobyl, which has been designated a nature reserve only because it can’t be used for anything else. In recent years, the herd had reached two hundred individuals, but poachers have much diminished the herd. This entry into the fallout zone to profit, to ‘murder’, reflects on the human condition in dreadful, catastrophic ways. In these horses is hope, as well as agency.
Siobhan Hodge doesn’t see herself as holier than thou, though she speaks from great empathy and authority. She also sees herself as complicit — complicit in not being able to stop the slaughter, the use and abuse of ‘horse flesh’, its consignment to the glue factory when past its profitable days. I say ‘its’, because its personhood has been denied it — from being seen as living organism to an almost worthless commodity that needs changing into something useful. In a superb trilogy of prose poems, ‘Zebra’, Hodge takes us on a picture-shooting safari through encounters with zebras: her admiration, her awe, her point of contact, her epiphanies, her distress, our shame. As in so many of the poems, ‘skin’ and ‘hair’ are so important — they are the points of contact for horses and people — and it’s as skin and hair in the airport when departing that the persona becomes closest to the zebra:
‘...zebras aren’t big sellers alive, after all. Guide has better targets to net. A clearer shot will come later, from the airport. I found you, by Departures, crisp bodies flat and shining under lights between the gates. Tufts and bristles.’
The body reduced to ‘signage’ for tourists — the most brutal of hollow signifiers. I am disturbed by the inherent threat in the ‘seeing’ (hunting is never far away from ‘watching’ in the world of trophyism) and Siobhan configures this tension perfectly (in terms of the workings of the poem).
One of the remarkable things about Siobhan Hodge’s advocacy of horses, uncompromising and partisan as it is, is that she also manages great cultural respect and sensitivity towards human communities. Hers is not an obvious poetry — its pared back, impacted style is so strongly drawn from the fragmentary remains of Sappho’s poetry, and a scholarship that has fully comprehended the value of space around a poem — that even ‘missing’ bits of a poem, the lacunae, are essential to our reading of the world of the past, and in the here and now.
In communicating and communing with horses (as far as a horse will allow!), there are necessarily gaps and spaces, and it’s in these than the figurative generativeness of Siobhan’s verse might be found. Also, her use of the short impacted line allows a riding poem like ‘In the Pines’, where rider and horse are ‘we’, to find a way through an often inclement environment, following the path, the journey, acquiring knowledge and dealing together with threat, stating and contemplating both beauty and trauma, involved in a call and response relationship between each other, the place, and us, the readers. And the whole time, the intensity and precision of the language draw us into the place, the scenario, the relationship, compelled under and between the pines:
Collective space in shadow,
your black coat nips
throw the lens astray
at lines we do not own
in fallen trees. Soaked
needles, lost maps and each
and we feel the heartbeat under the ribs, the closeness.
I’m frequently fascinated by the shift between (displaced) ‘point of view’ of horse and human in the interaction. There are times in some of the ‘riding’ poems, where the horse is being made to perform and we slip into the horse’s sense of things, that the work opens genuinely new ways of insight into humans per humans. Yet the horse is always allowed to be itself, not co-opted; the book explores issues of appropriation in so many ways. It’s also about the uses of history and the occlusion of humans by other (predatory) humans’ activities; it is also the horse-realm as well. Parallel and intersecting worlds. I am still pondering the ‘whip’ and its tyranny of control, and there seems to be confessions of culpability and guilt as well as accusation in there. The book is a confession and an analysis, a prayer and a recounting.
I — we — might also admire that the work analyses a different quality of ‘love’ and affection and ‘sharing’ outside the human-to-human, without appropriating the animal into an exploitative situation. To have familial warmth is not to use or abuse or to be entertained, but to be gratified by the existence of the horse. Those people who use animals for financial or physical or whatever benefit, will never see this unless works like this one are written and said. It’s a love of familiarity and sharing and respect, of difference and similarity. It’s the genuine empathy, compassion, respect, admiration of horses that make this a creative, artistic and moral triumph.
It’s also a very clever book, and it needs to be, to articulate the all-too-often unspoken reality of human usage of horses. It’s clever in its language-usage, its pinpoint allusions that make us reflect on the language we use around all non-human life, and about what our art actually means when it comes to the living world. It uses rhetoric to upset our/the persona’s familiarities and sureties, to contest our safe positions, such as in the poem ‘You know’, the brilliant and distressing conceit of Romeo and Juliet and the fate of the horse, Romeo, and the failure to appreciate that language is non-human as well; all this emanates from this collection in ways that will, I hope, change the way we talk about human-animal interactions in general, and, indeed, human-human interactions. Justice can be done, and achieved.
And, as I launch this book, I want to say how ably served the work is by Dennis Haskell’s astute and beautifully ‘condensed’ introduction — a piece of poetry in itself. One great poet introducing the first full-length book of another, who will also bring a change to how we discuss and perceive what language can do.