Valence: Considering War through Poetry and Theory

Valence: Considering War through Poetry and Theory

by Susan Hawthorne

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Valence in chemistry, the number of bonds in an element's atom in linguistics, the number of arguments controlled by a verbal predicate in psychology, the emotional charge something has  See more details below


Valence in chemistry, the number of bonds in an element's atom in linguistics, the number of arguments controlled by a verbal predicate in psychology, the emotional charge something has

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Considering War Through Poetry And Theory

By Susan Hawthorne

Spinifex Press Pty Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Susan Hawthorne
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74219-819-4


    all day long the gods have been screaming
    their prevalent song of war and pre-emptive strike
    war leaves you gobsmacked words slaughtered in the throat

When we speak of fundamentalism, it's abstract. But such ideas have real effects on real people's lives. I had been thinking about language and about the many ways we talk about war. Think of rape. For how many centuries it has been used as a weapon of war. Every woman knew that. But only in the 1990s, after the mass rapes in a European country, did the wording of UN documents change.

Militarism, fundamentalism and the sex industry share the same ideology. Traumatised and vulnerable individuals become fodder for war and religion and pornography and prostitution (Hawthorne 2006a).


    that widowed ground has been filled with half-grown trees
    almost impassable they are topped by yellow-crowned florets
    along each side run sorrow pegs a means to
    navigate grief
    against the fox-pelt cloud a woman stumbles tear-blinded
    and half-demented her mind dismantling itself in a
    so profound that buried poetry rises unbidden

    the tiger's tongue is red at the root like a meridian
    dissecting the fearful symmetry of its body
    melting in the delicious buttery light of late
    you dream of Petra's rock red caves imagine the
    bone dry
    severed joints slumped like a ragdoll lumpy and
    cranes settling above that old city in their
    precarious nests

    no ladder long enough to reach them no florin
    of pure gold to take you across that stream of air
    you know you'd have to pay a bigger price for
    to mint that coinage sometimes you wish you'd
    learnt more
    than just the Hebrew alphabet like raindrops in an
    preciousness is nothingness against silk and stars

    in your heart is a great hollow of pain like the
    sound of a cello washing away the world's grief
    a pilgrim on that Spanish trek to Santiago
    your world turns illegible with its multiplying
    all you can do is eclipse the scream stuck in your
    like a sow at sacrifice roped to interminable silence

The phrase 'that widowed ground' represents the bodies of women, of earth and of the loss of lives women have sustained – they have become a part of the great sense of loss that we experience in war. How do we 'navigate grief'? How navigate men's sense of entitlement over women's bodies. I know that feeling. My 20-year-old self, looking into possessive eyes. We are not lovers. But he has that look of a lust for conquest. A tremble of rape.

Places are infused with histories of violence. Years later, you can feel it. I was thinking of the remnants of the Spanish Civil War and the paths pilgrims tread. The echoes of war and the different ways it is carried out. We recognise the squeal of a slaughtered sow, it is not very different from a human scream.


    you study the index find grief sitting alongside
    how dictionaries can turn destiny on a few letters
    consider the difference between a water sprinkler
    its afternoon sun of rainbows and laughter running
    and a gas sprinkler its grey days of mud rag and
    what a difference our meanings make of the world

    you pick foxglove from the garden hoping for cure
    there in the corner among the electric ferns is an
    old nude
    green with moss her eyes crossed her forearms
    broken at the wrist like a museum Venus her
    breath salty
    you long for the nostalgia of flames foggy
    streets that cobble between old stone buildings

    leaping shadows of gaslight in real-world film noir
    galoshes keeping out the damp as you stroll the
    bank your lungs filled with the effigy of cold air
    your destination was the Sistine Chapel but Rome
    on a
    Monday has no secrets to give up to naïve
    with budget time and so you wait twenty years

    to see that composition now engraved in your
    arriving in Cairo might never have happened had
    travelled a day later not the shock of machineguns
    in the street
    but in the hijacked plane sour breath a blurred
    video death
    you talk the half dead tree fern back to life gentle it
    when the time comes to write the word grief yet

In a poem you don't always know how a metaphor emerges, and suddenly I am confronted by the difference between water and gas. It shocks me, how such a simple thing can shift meaning. I am reminded how greed is connected to grief, through exploitation, by the desire to amass material goods at the expense of other people's lives.

The broken wrist of a Venus is considered a work of art. Mutilation elevated as nostalgia. The good old days of raw violence. But post-modern violence replicates what has always happened to women. You can never know quite who the enemy is. Is it the stranger, or more likely someone known to you? And how close we come to death sometimes. That hijacked flight I missed by travelling 24 hours earlier.


    on the tv last night the dead of Rwanda remain
    where they died in the school buildings their bodies
    preserved displayed as if part of an art installation
    hands grasping at air mouths gasping a vacuum
    skulls and leg bones sorted by size like hats cloths     and rags
    skins slung from a fork is it ever enough you never

    in advance what life-dice you have thrown the one
    you get to decide between flat buttons or round
    on your jacket where foxes minks and seals
    their lives for your pleasure will you be the one
    whose foliage
    screens the pool's liquid arabesque where cigarette
    wafts lazily in summer air not likely these chances
    are few

We sit in front of the TV, and it is no escape. As wars are rewound, as histories are written and rewritten they are played out before our eyes. I am struck by the part played by luck, because the other side of TV is glamour and celebrity. Rwanda is a nightmare, the horror almost too hard to bear. In 2002, at another Women's World Congress in Uganda, the driver whom three of us travelled with over a week, stopped the car one day and pointed to a small river flowing between green fields. He told of how this river had been filled with bodies.

In that same country, I learn about the torture of lesbians. It's like a blind being raised. The light is too stark. How had I not seen this before? It takes me on a journey which I can never abandon. Every year, I update the horrors. The war against lesbians as corrective rape and torture (Hawthorne 2006b; 2011a).


    at the beginning of every year we ask whether
    the killing spree is over for now all the soldiers
    who heard earth's tinnitus ringing on the frontline
    fly home walk through the front gate
    cannot explain what they have seen have heard
    that there is no longer any grace in the world

    in the houses where women keep time with days
    over stoves where hunger is the taste of childhood
    and thirst a close neighbour no one dares to speak
    peace is a mirage a vision at the edge of thought
    cities stagnate and are separated from the people
    countries are divided like pieces of cake

    few speak against revenge slit the veins open
    let the blood run a long-fingered violinist
    plays a spree of notes emergent gravity looping
    as a new virus explodes crossing all the man-made
    boundaries taking off on its very own killing spree
    rampaging through the gutters into the glare of air

My grandmother worked as nurse on a Red Cross ship in World War One. I was thinking of all that she had seen, of the hopelessness of war wounds, of the hunger of children, and of the waiting. And then the discovery of what had happened in the trenches, the effect of mustard gas. Not only were the lines drawn in Europe, in that same period the precursor lines of the Middle Eastern Wars were drawn. A country is not a cake to be divided.


    in Sabra and Shatila only bodies are left
    shadows of screams echoes of eyes
    that have stopped seeing stopped recording
    a nation's memory will not unwrap when the chain
    is nothing but missing links one by one
    each memory becomes a wilderness

    history is the mind of the patient
    crumpled in the hallway after electric shock
    fate is an uncut life sentence that fine stalk
    of a body bent under the burden of guilt
    a left handed idiom that itches beneath the skin
    among the cedars of Lebanon gods once lived

This poem came from seeing the film, Waltz with Bashir, an animated film made by Ari Folman in search of memories he had lost following the 1982 Lebanon War. Like the patient referred to in the poem, the minds of those who participate as soldiers in war sometimes stop recording (Folman 2008).

Can we speak of abuse? Of the child whose memories flash back into her mind fifty years later. Searching for lost memories, steering around the boulders of fear blocking sight, running from recall (Stark 2011).


    you are writing hope in dust composing in a rapture
    of fingertips by late afternoon ink stains make
    on your skin more patterns to unweave in memory
    of Penelope
    your yarn unravelling night by night delaying that
    of suitors choking on impatience the siren's voice
    it's you bound to the mast wanting to unmake
    those knots

    the halflife of patience is short and betrayal follows
    in its wake
    the hero sputters about the massacre the one he
    he didn't want his lips framing the victor's tale his
    telling another hands in pockets it's an ambivalent
    stance as if ash
    and chaos and harrowing cries were not stalking
    his memory
    whether justice is ever done or undone is a matter
    of want and will

Hope is an enduring element in war: hope that one day the war will end; hope that one's family members and friends will return alive and safe. Can we question the hero, the one who wears the medals, who can't bear to tell what really happened. And how war is framed when it is finished depends on who gets to write the history.

Betrayal and treachery in the deepest wells of Dante's hell (Allighieri 2006: xv-xvi). There can be no patience for those who betray their nearest and dearest, nor for turncoats who thrive on chaos. How can we resist 'the legitimation of irresponsibility' (Kappeler 1995: 83). The irresponsibility of patriarchal militaries. The institutionalisation of greed.


    revolutions have a tendency to unwind become
    as a greasy pole of jittery climbers how to
    the fissures of power those times when absolutes
    are abstracted
    followed by a contagion of swelling theories based
    on nothing
    but a dream of marble palaces endless cases of
    whiskey temples
    and statues to the self an insect grown large thorax
    like a shingled roof

    behind stand the glassy-eyed disciples trilling with
    promising to sacrifice all retreat to the woods
    for fourteen years eat rotting peaches if need be
    post-revolution days turn heavy all the dreams
    knives appear and serrated philosophies become
    the latest thing
    the way to leave your very own mark

Violence and corruption can become masters of even the most visionary struggles. Victory is a powerful drug and you see it repeated: a good idea turns into a dictatorship. Comradeship and unity are easy in the face of an enemy. Later, the rifts appear, ambition overtakes justice.


    undoing hatred is a pilgrimage of hurt
    power unwinds as much charge as a tangle of wire
    we squirm in death's footprint caught in private
    fogs of affliction
    all that energy ebbing in acts of fury the dying
    swan stilled exhausted
    its wings wired its fluttering mind caged and broken
    these many-mouthed furies iron-tongued grind their teeth all night long

    uncurl your limbs stretch your spine
    walk as if the sky's mantle is wrapped about your
    when your breath evaporates look at the world with
    a split vision
    imagine a hawk-eyed view of the oceans
    from that height see the vast pastures of plankton
    whalefood float with cuttlefish unoccupy your days

Not only people die in wars. Plants are burnt in raging fires; watercourses are polluted by chemicals; animals get caught in barbed wire or are stopped from migrating; or like the gorillas, their numbers further ravaged, their existence under severe threat. The idea of quiet, of having nothing to do, of having time to float on a calm sea seems impossible in the midst of war.


    you try to measure the valence of your feeling
    runged like a ladder it is playing truant
    these are the astonishments of life cunning as
    gravity's spectrum
    this morning someone spoke of the desire to be
    this evening you race to the vet on a false alarm for
    the dog
    how to measure that strength of bond is it like
    helium or xenon

    at the time of vespers a huge flock of lorikeets
    sweeps along the street a wave with thousands
    of particles like a symphony filled with quavers
    bones splinter in earth's chemicals accrue new
    anchor on thin strings of narrative built syllable
    by syllable valences as permeable as love

During war, life continues. Whether it's the emergencies of pets or children, or the mad rushings of a flock of noisy birds. And even love persists, indeed for some, it is heightened by the prospect of losing it so soon.

The amputee of war is fetishised by the practitioners of sado-masochism, who will play at torture in their well controlled dungeons. They cry, Stop, they cry, Rumsfeld. With contempt, appropriating pain (Hawthorne 2011b: 93-4)


Excerpted from Valence by Susan Hawthorne. Copyright © 2011 Susan Hawthorne. Excerpted by permission of Spinifex Press Pty Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Susan Hawthorne is a poet, novelist, aerialist, political activist and author of ten books. She grew up on a farm in rural New South Wales. She has degrees in Ancient Greek and Sanskrit as well as in Philosophy, and a PhD in Political Science and Women's Studies from the University of Melbourne. In 2009, Susan was an Asialink Literature Resident at the University of Madras, India and is Adjunct Professor in the Writing Program at James Cook University, Townsville and an ASA Mentor. Susan is Director of Spinifex Press and has played a leading role among independent Australian publishers in innovative and eBook publishing.

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