It is infuriatingly difficult to find much scholarly stuff about witch-hares on the net, but those of you who are Jstor subscribers will find something useful here: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1260796
It isn’t by any means essential to know any of this stuff, but it is impossible, having read these poems, not to go in search of Nan Hardwicke and her fellow witch-hares. I found this on a site called Encyclopedia Mythica. I have absolutely no idea how reliable it is, but there must at least be a smidgin of truth:
Hares were strongly associated with witches. The hare is quiet and goes about its business in secret. They are usually solitary, but occasionally they gather in large groups and act very strangely, much like a group of people having a conference. A hare can stand on its hind legs like a person; in distress, it utters a strange, almost human cry which is very disconcerting to the listener.
Watching such behavior, people claimed that a witch could change her form at night and become a hare. In this shape she stole milk or food, or destroyed crops. Others insisted that hares were only witches' familiars.
These associations caused many people to believe hares were bad luck, and best avoided. A hare crossing one's path, particularly when the person was riding a horse, caused much distress. Still, the exact opposite superstition claimed that carrying a rabbit's or hare's foot brought good luck. There is no logic to be found in superstitions.
So there we have it. Of the fourteen poems in this pamphlet, five are ‘Nan Hardwicke’ poems. They are written in the first person. Nan is the poet’s alter-ego. The overwhelming sense is that Nan provides both a way out of the poet’s tragic real world (dominated by the still-birth of her daughter) and a persona with which to reflect on difficult or associated feelings of disappointed motherhood.
There is a mother in the first line of the first poem, ‘How to Find Spaces to Lose Things In’. There is a garden too, and a handbag. The themes of the book are set out: nature in both its beastliness and its beauty, the mundanity of ‘real life’, and mothering or motherhood. The poem itself is a kind of fugue, playing on a series of images: straps, pearls, brokenness, dresses, the sky. It demands reading and re-reading, and has an almost gyroscopic effect. It ends in a kind of hope that feels brave rather than true.
This is followed by the first Nan poem, dedicated to the poet's daughter, which works almost as a flashback, Nan entering the hare and “Pushing her bones / to one side to make room for my shape / so I could settle myself like a child within her”. The poem describes what an embryonic poet (literally) might make of being inside her mother.
So the poet is already inhabited, and a pregnancy test follows, in ‘In the Bathroom’. It shows first negative, to the father’s despair, and then positive,, “a faint pink line, too slow / in my palm”. It turns out that this, sadly, is an omen.
The poet takes on another persona in the next poem, that of the Duchess of Devonshire giving away her bastard. We can see the “black maw” as an equivalent to death; as she gives the baby away she is left with “milk / in my breasts” and not knowing “how to hold my arms now”. These physical details are enormously touching, and make everything, however distant – Nan or Duchess – extremely present and real.
Nan is now hunted as a hare and manages just to escape. There is in this the suggestion of fear, of having always to be very careful, of being on the edge of catastrophe: “I still had a hare’s foot / tucked beneath the hoop of my skirt”. Lucky.
There follows an extended exercise in pathetic fallacy, the subject being not a handbag but a supermarket plastic bag dancing about the yard. Bags, like hares, like mothers – is this too fanciful? – contain things , are receptacles – oranges, bottles, shopping, testicles. The bag’s “belly hung low”. Always there are echoes.
At the start there is lust and then comes conception, and ‘Behind the Velvet Rope’ manages the extraordinary trick of rendering as genitalia the bed in a room on a guided tour of a country house. The poet “becomes a voyeur to the ghost / of someone else’s love”. Love, lust, death.
The next poem describes the statue of a Roman boy who died young, and ends with this marvellous verse:
…a mother curled, like a dead wasp,around a red clay urn. Her grief a tidethat washes up my back, across the years;shaerd loss, the same.
The dead wasp is wonderfully acute, and oo the tears of grief turned into a tide, somehow evoking distantly Matthew Arnold, and washing up her back, and thereby knocking all possible cliché for six, because why her back, except that, yes, it isn’t the heart or the head or the gut that grief sweeps up…
Pregnancy is announced with sickness, but it is Nan’s cat that is sick in ‘Nan Hardwicke’s Familiar’, and both cat and witch are old, now short of breath, waiting for each other’s demise. “She is more a part of me than I am” writes Nan, and again the reader cannot help but be reminded of all the withinnesses that have preceded this poem, which heralds death.
The two poems that follow - 'A Week on Friday' and 'Funeral' - are poems that follow death. They are intimate, personal, straightforward, brave because the mother has transformed herself, magically, Nan-like, into the poet in order to witness, somehow dispassionately, the funeral day. And of course all this dispassion, in touching paradox, speaks of great pain.
In ‘Scrying’, the long poem at the heart of the pamphlet, Wendy Pratt becomes Nan Hardwicke again in order to describe how the devil has visited her and “carried off the contents / of my head” and left her “mad”. I think it is appropriate to see in this an analogy – indeed it is strongly implied - with bringing forth “a bairn that was as still as earth”. The poem ends, I think, with a kind of triumph, the devil defeated, burned, seen off.
And after all this – this “tempest” - the final poem, which brought tears to my eyes, records a moment of loving tenderness between the two parents who find themselves not parents, but who have nevertheless survived grief. There is no sense of sorrow banished, but rather of love affirmed, gently, and “the thrum of life” acknowledged.
This is a terribly moving series of poems and deserves all the exposure it can get.
Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare
by Wendy Pratt (Preface by Alison Brackenbury)
Prolebooks, £4.50, 28pp
Available from Prolebooks