Rabbits I Have Known...
JS Harry’s Sun Shadow, Moon Shadow (Vagabond Press: Sydney, 2000; rept. 2001)

by MTC Cronin

Peter Henry Lepus (the last Latin for hare)—rabbit!: if not more-travelled than the Easter Bunny then perhaps more interestingly-travelled; seer of sights at least as psychedelic as those seen by the late white rabbit who evaded Alice; and owner of a singularly flyless nose though his mind has been known to do a few flips and flops when confronted with the living, eating and breeding (not to mention thinking and writing!) habits of that very infamous two-legged animal—human!

Peter wonders, for example, “WHY    humans    like humans best?,” without forgetting, I am sure, that not only do humans like humans best but also hate humans most. (And in fact their ‘hate’ for other species is probably confined to phobia scenarios and even then hate is hardly the right word: a general ‘disregard’ for other animals might be the agreed upon norm.)

J.S. Harry biographs P.H. Lepus in her earlier book, The Life on Water and The Life Beneath, where ten poems about him exist: “named by his mother, an extremely well-read and well-educated rabbit of Creole ancestry, after a character in a book of old Creole folk tales, L’Histoire de Pierre Henri Lepus [rhymes with chou],” he is, however, a British rabbit—growing up in the English countryside of the early twentieth century—with a penchant for wandering and wondering.

And if the world has not been his oyster it has at least provided the odd weed and, in happier moments, a stout-hearted lettuce. From the Australian Poets’ Union Party of 2003 (already funny, if you’re Australian)—where Hank Lazer has heard they’re getting a web site and has dropped in for the views—to negotiating the slippery slopes of a questionable Antarctica with an anguished Wittgenstein; from a rough “rescue” in Calcutta by Mother Teresa (she grabs him by the ears!) to “Value-Judgement” Land where the sign reads:

thrown in—all shaded brown
like Nescafé—or philosophy—with
similarly pleasant
addictive smells:            YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO PICK
                                     WHICH BLEND OF GRITS
                                      MAKES BEST SENSE
                                      FOR YOU TO CHEW[;]

from a chat with Altieri (“says Altieri, / “I want to see your / ‘means of production’—” / Peter / is not producing / at the moment & doubts / whether Altieri could see / how he did it were he to hop…/ either if he were producing PELLETS FOR CRITICS then…/ or, if he were not”) at the Poets’ Union 1998 Moon Viewing Party to hiding from Chairman Miaow (“He is CAT who is white”) under the rose bushes (where at that moment Peter “would rather live by guile / than die by art”), this rabbit gets around and is “provoked,” as Harry so undelicately puts it, into using his mind.

What’s the provocation? Like Brer Rabbit, Peter has his own personal tar-baby which attracts him. Unlike Brer Rabbit’s tar-baby, which fascinates and entraps with its silence, Peter’s tar-baby is “knowledge”—given human and idiosyncratic form in the tar-babies of philosophy and literary criticism: the aforementioned Wittgenstein, Lazer and Altieri, and, among others (though theories often make appearances without names), Bertrand Russell, Derrida and Marx.

Peter’s desire is not simply to make these tar-babies talk, but to mull over in a kind of by-the-by way (as, of course, a rabbit would do when confronted by human “genius” and “idiocy”) not simply what they say, but the how and why of it. Epistemology and methodology, our hows and ways of knowing, cop a hilarious gentle savage guileless savant no-holds-barred beating at his travelling rabbit paws. Two beautiful examples, first, from “At the Poets’ Union Party, June 31st, 2003”:

Peter thinks, if Altieri came back,
he could offer him a cold & frosty [for the not-Australians, a can of beer!]
& Altieri could go and see
how THEY get produced
out of the refrigerator
which to Peter
is something of a miracle,
though disappointing—
It doesn’t have any of his food
but only
the cold & frosties
which he’s heard said
are the means
by which
are produced.

Could the refrigerator door
be a poetic opening too?

No poems come swinging out of it
while Peter’s watching.

and secondly, “Laws, 1”:

you were hoping
this or any
was going to leap up
off its page
& absolve you
from the critical
of having
to work out
how to live
your life
for yourself
you were wrong.

Peter might be a naif, as he is described by David Brooks in the Foreword to the second reprint of Sun Shadow, Moon Shadow, but unlike Ms Potter’s Peter Rabbit this little hopper is no household pet. Indeed, his mind is delightfully untamed as evidenced by Brooks’ qualification of Peter as a “truly intelligent naif”:

clear-minded and more or less without prejudice, with a talent for finding the kind of simple, obvious question that might take him, if he cared to follow it, straight to the heart of the matter. In another incarnation, I’m sure, he was the boy who inadvertently forced his townspeople to admit that their Emperor was wearing no clothes.

Consider, if you will, Harry’s handing along to us in her “A Preface?” Peter’s view on prefaces (perhaps he met Akhmatova and approved her use of “Instead of a…”) of which he is not fond:

he says that though they are the ‘face’ you see before the ‘face’ of the other writing, he feels they should more properly be called placed-first tail notes, as they are done after the longer writing.

And what about his alarming ability to put his paw on it, viz., Peter ‘I’dentifies the ‘I’ness of humans as their distinguishing mark:

They use a pronoun called I
all the time. It seems to hop around
with them.
But you can’t see it properly
not all of it. Not like you can see
ears or whiskers,
or paw or a sun shadow.

“This is what Peter tells the flowerbed rabbit/who lives deep in dark leaves/that grow straight to a sky of apple-red flowers.” I imagine her to have the dark-fringed Disney-bunny-girl eyes of the rabbit Thumper fell in love with when all the boy animals became “twitterpated” in Bambi. Indeed, the flowerbed rabbit cannot read and is baffled by the I’s Peter forms from twigs on the ground.  And when he moves on from “I” to “die” she doesn’t know what that is either because “It’s a word…like I is: nobody knows what it’s like inside it.” Peter explains and explains—when the girl rabbit, like Thumper, would probably think a skunk a flower—until getting nowhere realizes

He’s given her a lecture
when all he wanted to do
was follow the white
bobs of her tail
into the scarlet flowers.

Well, even if Peter does occasionally get caught up in the web of human theorizing—he is no Peter Cottontail, hopping down the bunny trail!  I’ll follow Harry any day into her flowers. Hope to see you there (we can split our sides together reading these gorgeous poems and then have a good cry about the state of being human and not rabbit—and I’m not talking Bugs Bunny!).

Note from the bushes: Harry’s Sun Shadow, Moon Shadow was shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry 2001 (New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards). Unfortunately The Life on Water and The Life Beneath is out of print. Hopefully more Lepus poems will appear and perhaps one day the tales will be collected as poems sometimes are (though I’d be titillated to know P.H. Lepus’ views on this particular human—and poets are human!—habit).

Bio: MTC Cronin has had six books of poetry published, the most recent being Talking to Neruda's Questions and Bestseller (both Vagabond Press, 2001). Another collection, My Lover’s Back: 79 Love Poems, is forthcoming in 2002 (UQP). After being employed for most of the decade of the nineties in law, she has in recent years begun teaching literature and creative writing at secondary schools and universities. She is currently working on a PhD entitled Poetry and Law: Discourses of the Social Heart, and has recently received an Established Writers New Work Grant from the Australia Council for the Arts. Her books are available by contacting her at: margie_cronin@hotmail.com or ph: 02 9550 2918.


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