Mel O’Connor reviews Dark Matters by Susan Hawthorne
by Susan Hawthorne
Reviewed by MEL O’CONNOR
In counterpoint to how these histories have been silenced and extinguished, Susan Hawthorne, in Dark Matters, testifies to the horrifying reality of abduction and torture of lesbians—especially outspoken activist lesbians, such as Kate, the central character of the text.
This is not a quiet novel, of implications and subtlety: it is designed to upset, as human rights have been historically upset by happenings such as these. Kate is stolen from her home by men who brutalise her, in particular by attempting to ‘convert’ her to heterosexuality. Only after Kate’s death are her fragmented writings and journals from the time of her incarceration discovered by her niece, Desi, who attempts to organise and interpret them for a university research project. Dark Matters as a work lies somewhere between the research project Desi creates, and a charter of Desi’s reflections on Kate’s experiences.
Of the many notable features of Dark Matters, Hawthorne’s style is perhaps the most immediate: from her lack of descriptors on dialogue to the visceral empathy she evokes in her practised prose-poetic voice, her expertise is ever-present. In some ways, the text wars between genres—prose poetry, horror, and speculative fiction all have elements present—but it is poetry that the work most resounds with. Hawthorne employs recurrent symbols, and recalls found artefact poems, such as poetry in lines running back and forth (p5), stream-of-consciousness rhapsodising (p13), and free associative Latin, where the language runs as rampant as the wolf Kate envisions herself as. In step with prose poetry, the use of space is deliberately selective; Dark Matters swims, framing fragments as verse. When Kate’s poetry—or Desi’s found artefacts—occupy the work, they dance down the page (p29):
dance dance dance
dance the trata in your
red white and black garb
dive down dive down
dance dance dance
dance the trata
for bread and pomegranate
dance as we have
as is carved
on the tomb
` of the dancing women
dance a zigzag
dance the weave of a basket
dance the stars and spirals
The writing is alive and evocative—a distinctly lesbian call to motion in the style of prose poetry.
Further supporting a prose poetic angle, Hawthorne’s leitmotifs are hypnotising, not least of them the character of Mercedes. Kate’s lover before she was abducted, Mercedes’s perspective bookends the work, and indeed, she is a beacon throughout the text—“I will fill my mind with Mercedes” (p18), writes Kate, her “Querida Mercedes” (p37)—an icon of desire and desperation from page to page. This memory-Mercedes secures Kate to her identity, even throughout her torture, because Mercedes is concrete proof of Kate’s identity as a lesbian—something her abductors are desperate to erase and destroy.
Another leitmotif is the figure of the eagle. Tellingly, it is from Mercedes’s point of view that this creature is first seen—“My eagle swoops into view” (p1)—but it is Kate who recalls this eagle in her trauma, imagining her “arms growing wings. Wings of heavy metal … Too frail to fly” (p17). Throughout her incarceration, Kate grapples for symbols such as this, coding them into her being. This is her means to survive amidst the nightmare of her life (p50):
Aaaagh. I vomit. I shake./I shake and I sprout feathers. I take off and soar: a wedge-tailed eagle. I leave this horror behind.
There is a visceral empathy embedded deep in this, as there is through all of the work. Usually, it stems from Desi’s ignorance as a narrator. When Desi writes “This page fell out and I can’t figure out where it goes” (p114), or “I wish Kate had been a Virgo because then I’d have some chance of following her schema” (p20), it is heartbreaking—Kate is literally silenced by Desi’s lack of knowledge or understanding, symbolic of how lesbians throughout history have been silenced by a lack of knowledge or understanding on a much larger scale. But here in particular, the empathy for Kate is born out of a sense of injustice to her situation, and a sympathy to her desperate wish for escapism.
The eagle resounds both forward and behind in the text, tethered to Kate’s “Codex psapphistra” (p148): Desi writes, “She describes a range of animals from a lesbian-centric point of view. She is creating a universe in which lesbian symbols lie at the centre” (p148). Kate—by her Greek name, Ekaterina—moors herself to her Greek history. Because of this, Dark Matters bleeds with heavy Greek interplay. Kate’s obsession with the Muses and with Psappha may unmoor a reader not well-versed in this history. However, as Kate is herself unmoored, this decision is deliberate; the impact is viscerally sympathetic, rather than alienating.
Similarly, Kate, her physical and emotional boundaries under assault, wars between ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ attitudes to her situation—the micro, an intrinsic desperation for herself alone, and the macro, a selfless agony for the thousands of lesbians like her. On a personal level, she writes: “There I am, still strapped in, covered by their hate. I cry and cry” (p51)—on a societal level, she writes: “I cry. I cry for all. For all the women. For all the lesbians” (p52). For Kate, this is another means of survival—she reminds herself of the bigger picture in order to stay strong and silent, refusing to give information to her abductors, knowing how much is at stake. She is painfully aware of how much her incarceration represents (pp109-112):
The boundaries between my flesh and theirs. They have violated those boundaries. They have violated me. And through me, as they know, they are symbolically violating every other lesbian on this planet … Lines of self. Lines of the other. They rip through the lines.
Inevitably, little by little, her resolve crumbles, her psyche under attack by these invasions. Lines relating to her torture, for example, that her captors “Took [her] hands and strapped [her] to the … I cannot call it a bed” (p47, author’s ellipses), are later matched by lines recalling her time in Greece before she was incarcerated, such as “for this narrow space could not be called a bed” (p59). This second line is provided as Kate settles down with a foreign paramour. The striking similarities in expression and language between these quotes evidence how the horrors of Kate’s incarceration have contaminated her memory. The reader sees her trauma, achingly, begin to corrupt her experience of significant lesbian encounters through life, buckling her sense of lesbian identity.
To match how the boundaries of Kate’s identity are compromised and attacked, her sense of self unmoored, Hawthorne provides a ‘shredded’ story. Desi struggles to piece together the narrative—“What we have left are fragments” (p3); “It’s a giant jigsaw” (p35)—just as Kate struggles to piece together a psychic defence—“I forget who I was, who I might have been” (p169); “I have died and died and died” (p173). This wounded sense of self and community is what makes the work so unforgettable.
In a rare moment of awareness from Desi, she writes: “Dark matter is almost imperceptible. Invisible and yet it takes up space. Like a lesbian in a room full of people” (p160). Hawthorne depicts a lesbian under siege, her personhood, psychic, and personal boundaries all compromised by systems which cannot accept her. Personally, she is attacked by abduction and assault. Societally, she is diminished through prejudice and inequality. The resulting text is something profoundly important. Dark Matters is a war-cry. It is a declaration of personhood and reclamation of identity from the traumas induced by these dark histories.
MEL O’CONNOR is a Professional and Creative Writing graduate from Deakin University. Her experience is in communications and administration. She is working on her novella, a literary fiction about the animal rights scene.