In Bed with Animals is a poetic exposé of gender discrimination and sexual harassment. The experience of one woman and every woman, Bronwyn Lovell’s debut collection captures the ‘wildly frightening’ banality of patriarchy’s bludgeoning of women, animals and the environment.
With excoriating honesty, Lovell mindfully carries us through some difficult territory, starting with the book’s cautionary trigger warning that calls upon readers to take care while reading – and living – this disturbing social reality.
‘I honestly feel that my experience is just one variation of every woman’s experience under a heavy-handed patriarchy,’ Lovell says. ‘Sadly, I think it’s pretty ordinary.’
Pretty ordinary but anything but pretty, the poems map a lifetime of incursions, from: ‘on the way to school when the man / on the bus presses his body firm / against my nine-year-old form’ to ‘as a lecturer in my forties / unpacking popular culture / with young adults / student survey remarks suggest / a little less feminism in class / would be nice.’
‘It’s not an easy read, but it’s a book you can easily read in one sitting because the brutal honesty of the narrative is so compelling,’ fellow South Australian poet Alison Flett said at December’s Tarntanya/Adelaide launch. ‘In a world where women have been encouraged to stay silent about abuse, it’s liberating and invigorating to read such unashamed truth-telling.’
In a world full of animals, Lovell encourages us to ‘let the right ones in’ and provides practical advice for navigating contemporary life, such as her helpful guide for men on how to hug a friend: ‘If you touch skin / at the meeting / of your friend’s / top and bottom / clothing, your hands / are too low / and you are not / a friend at all.’
Her carefully wrought poems explore the world through an ecofeminist lens. If you’d asked before I read In Bed with Animals whether I cared about animals being sent into space, I would have barely spared them a thought. Now, I often dwell on the ‘soft sausage meat of their hand-fed / retirement. Poor mutts with their mugs / plastered on plates and collectible coffee cups, / big toothy-grin photographs taken before / the terror of take-off, / before gentle natures and smiling / for cameras cost them their teeth.’
Her ethical interrogation of science and exploration makes me look forward to Lovell’s return to space travel with her speculative verse novel, Between Worlds, later this year.
Closer to home, Lovell’s affection for her own furry family is clear in the book’s dedication to her dog (and doppelganger), Carmela. In Bitching, she writes of a closeness that other dog and pet people will understand: ‘Doctors ask about the bruises. / Am I in an abusive relationship? / No, although I am loved violently. / You collide with my body. Your / pounding paws imprint yellow / purple and green, You get under / my skin. I have so many tender / spots for you. I am struck / by the force of your affection.’
A collection in four parts, the book’s clever design throws us straight in the deep end before allowing us to draw breath. The later, quieter poems are gentler while not letting up the pressure, and devastating in a completely different way, reminding us that ‘Grace and dignity / don’t come easy. / You will try to be your best / and it is the trying / that matters.’
On its cover, poet Melinda Smith quotes Muriel Rukeyser’s words: ‘What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.’ Lovell’s fierce and fiery debut does just that. It splits apart our assumptions and acceptance of what the world condones while managing to wrest beauty from harrowing experiences. This is an extraordinary, generous and activist gift.
‘We need to speak out against the injustices we experience or witness because that’s the only way to affect change,’ Flett says. ‘In writing In Bed with Animals, Bronwyn Lovell has created a beautifully crafted and utterly compelling vehicle for change.’