Hodge, Siobhan. Justice for Romeo. Melbourne, Australia: Cordite Books, 2018. RRP: $20.00. 102pp. ISBN: 9780648056805
Siobhan Hodge’s Justice for Romeo is a book of poems as much as it is a book of horses. It is dedicated to two horses and its two epigraphs come from horse writers rather than poets per se. One epigraph is from Alois Podhajsky (1898 – 1973) and the other R S Surtees (1805 – 1864). After some extra textual research, I find that Podhajsky was the director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and an Olympian in dressage who wrote several instructional volumes on horse riding, including the one that is quoted here. Surtees was a novelist whose main theme was sport. He was also the author of The Horseman’s Manual (1831). Read together, the epigraphs suggest to us that the poet cares about not only the poetic sensibility but also the practical discourse around horses. And from that, we learn that the rider must know the horse in body and mind, to give it space, to be led by it. A similar sentiment could be expressed for the reader and the poet; that we must be taken for a ride as we turn the pages, making sense but also meandering and wandering with intent. Hodge allows us a kind of simpatico, asks us to consider what she sees.
Her ‘Preface’ points us towards the complex cultural notions of horses in our contemporary moment. Hodge highlights the role of interpretation including the fact that what is ‘dangerous malice’ can be called ‘love’ by ‘horse people’ (xi). This refers to the treatment of animals as well as the industries that we are enmeshed with, and it is here that we see the dialectical kernel of Justice for Romeo – that beauty is in the eye of the beholder but that we all must share a world where there are hard truths and actual facts. In this book, the (ecopoetically) structural is never far from the (lived) personal, and the book is underpinned by research and experience of both fields.
The book comes in eight sections, opening with one titled ‘Autopsy’ and ending with ‘In Memoriam’, and, thus, bracketing the volume with deathly overtones. Taken as a whole, the horse moves beyond being a mere symbol and becomes a living, breathing being worthy of respect who also dies when circumstances conspire against it. We see this in corporeal, physical terms and symbolic gestures.
In the poem ‘Happy Valley Turnover’ the body of the horse is one fed on ‘alfalfa’ and there are ‘Soybean starches/ulcered bellies’. These are placed alongside the trade of global commodities (‘Imported hay’) and a particular space that is urban (‘Kowloon’) (3). If the horse is a body, it is also a body in space and world, which in Hodge’s view is one of ‘halogen nights’ and ‘punters park[ed] elsewhere’ (3). It is not the pastoral setting of a romantic horse experience, and there is a complicity in the ignorant who simply want their entertainment. This sets the tone for the whole of Justice for Romeo.
Throughout, we get thick description of horses as bodies – nerves, lungs, bones, gut, back, throat, heart, eyes, skin, sinew, mouth, neck, mane, teeth, hoofs, legs, cavities – and what they do – sweat, blur, snap, fall, buck, froth, bleed. We also get what has been done to them by people – slap, beat, struck, pet, heel – and how they have been represented artistically (‘Stone Horses’ in particular, 16). However, readers will be pleased to know that Hodge is not a one trick pony and there are variations in tone, form, style and content in the particular. ‘The horse’ is the spine of Justice for Romeo, but this does not mean that the poems are similar from one to another. If the horse is what binds the content, there are shifts throughout as Hodge observes, rides, remembers, from free form to constraint and back again.
Hodge’s poetic voice can be heard as urgent, considered, thoughtful, spacious, generous, demanding, and it comes with a tender wryness (no runner [horse]/available/for comment (7)), a historical knowledge from Roman Times to the Melbourne Cup, and a command of poetic technique such as the great rhymed line ‘cheques, not the dead, and we’re set’ (9). Yet, if the dead is one axis including the titular real horse Romeo, love is the other. The two are interlinked from beginning to end, and the final lines of the final poem, ‘For Gina’, read:
but I love you more now
than I ever have in my whole life (78, italics in original).
It is that sense of love, a complicated love rather than innocent, apolitical, naïve, that sustains Justice for Romeo, and gives to us a remarkable portrait of who we are and how horses mean so much to our collective culture as a whole.
Robert Wood is the author of History & the Poet and Concerning A Farm. He has been an Endeavour Research Fellow at Columbia University and is currently based in Western Australia. To find out more please visit: www.robertdwood.net