Bobbie Louise Hawkins:
Absolutely Eden.

United Artists 2008.

Review by

Barbara Henning


On the cover of Absolutely Eden, Bobbie Louise Hawkins wears a silk robe and beautiful large turquoise beads. She's smiling sweetly as she fingers the beads. If I had never read her work before, I might have expected a blissful experience. But as soon as we read a few pages, we discover that this Eden is not nirvana. Instead it's a web of errors in our thinking and Hawkins with humor whittles away at these erroneous props often used to justify our actions.

In the first monologue, "One True Love," Hawkins compares humans to plants: "we live our lives in a state of semi-self-hypnosis," clinging to common ideas about one true love, living happily ever after, looking to tv for a reality check. "I will always remember you," we say after our love is over. And if this doesn't work out, we just switch registers to our "real" one-true-love, the newguy or gal who is sure to come around the bend any minute now. Starting with love, Hawkins sails through cultural categories —the movies, chance, religion, self help, rational thinking, and the internet—all the false facts we search and repeat, search and repeat.

There aren't many personal details here, but there is always the sense that this comic, sardonic, bitter-sweet advice is the outcome of lived experience. "At the end of the form I saw—where the couples are supposed to sign—there's a great typo, or there used to be . . . For this document to be legal you must sing here . . . Your spouse must also sing." Funny, but sad. Why funny? Perhaps because I too still believe in one-true-love. Stupid lady, an Indian guru might say, hitting me with a little stick. Someday you will learn. Divorce papers should come with marriage licenses.

All fools want to be in love, especially women who have "that hovering idea that somebody is going to love you back and they're going to take care of you, carry the packages, keep you from harm" ("A Little Dumbness"). Then there are those other fools. The seven nudists who decide to walk on coals and end up in the hospital with burnt feet. A Mormon group that baptizes the dead, including some famous Jewish people like Freud, Einstein and Anne Frank, and then after many complaints their names are erased from the rolls of the saved. And those who want to freeze the dead so they can be reconstituted at a later time when we have the technology—with family freezers in the living rooms! Then there are those like the narrator herself who collect books and boxes and kitchenware and new and old appliances, clothes she doesn't wear anymore. "It's Gulliver, sprawled on the beach with Lilliputians anchoring him with a net of threads". How stupid we are as we cling to "The Sweet By-and-By". Hawkins sifts through newspapers and television shows, mocking and pointing: here, here, here, and here, too.

With Buddhist and yogic practices, we meditate to try to stop the racket of thinking and be still with our existence. In "Perfection is a Thing the Mind Does," instead of meditating, it's simple, Hawkins writes, tongue-in-cheek—turn off the television, make a list, hold on to things. Even though we know we're probably wrong, we continue setting up one obstacle after another, circumventing the possibility of living in the present moment with any clarity.

"It's making a racket. It's getting harder to hide." From What? I wonder. From all those things we do and collect to distract ourselves. What is reality? "We pay people money to please tell us we're O.K. and everything is going to be fine." . . . There are "an infinite lineup of God and Gods who say, 'Go kill everybody else." Yikes. We are stupid and dangerous, sometimes hilariously stupid. And then we have our other distractions, conquering space, for example. Ah did you know that "The Pentagon 'advises' for Hollywood war movies"? Hawkins starts this monologue by talking about shutting the mind off and then she spring into religion, war, population growth, space adventures, science fiction, dolphins and chimps and voting machines. And about our ignorance: "It doesn't matter that the machines don't work . . . we probably shouldn't be allowed to vote, anyhow."

The racket is getting louder and louder. Memories interrupt our lives and what bothers the narrator the most are the lies, all the lies, especially those of the politicians, whose speeches have been written by someone else. Put a sign under them: "This speech was not written by this man". Let's enforce "mindful truth."

In "Birds do it" there is this funny television image of a male rhinoceros following the female, "who is running, and runs for miles. Chug, chug, chug" or the male hummingbird "fall[ing] straight down for fifteen or twenty feet with the female watching from her perch on a tree" or "Why not write a poem! . . Chug, chug, chug, Rhinos on the run." Maybe after everything you still believe in true love, maybe you go back to the ancient texts like Propertius's to prove your point: "No love if it's true, is EVER done." Hawkins reminds us that these folks hardly ever lived past 30 years. And yet we go on and on, year after year of falling flat on our faces. ("Two People and Where They Manage to Be")

"Adam and Eve and Absolutely Eden" is a hoot—A retelling in of the Hebrew/Christian creation myth. If God was so powerful, why when he said "Let there be light" did it only last for twelve hours?. And all these mistakes, the weak-minded humans, the enemy snake. All this despair. Why? Why? Hawkins has a lot to say about Adam being made in God's image and given "the word", the power of naming, "the Executive Gender Bias" she calls it, "A piece of male-written revisionism." Women just get "a modified rib, with tits and legs and an attitude" The "supreme nominator" gets to name everything. She points out in a bitter-funny way how women started spouting their own lies—"how great it is to be paired up with somebody in God's image who can name stuff." But when she wants a little more, Adam or the mythic man comes back and "solves it by telling her he couldn't do it without her." And then that never-ending story, accounting for all of his mistakes, "The woman tempted me." Hawkins snaps back: "Well, you lucky duck."

My favorite passages in the book are when the storytelling comic voice breaks into poetry:

The lover in a bed turning the sheets back.
The berserker in the street with knives out.
The sweet smile. The bitter smile. The heart that breaks. And mends.
Temptation and the maintenance of Desire is the true mystery.
The unchanging holy of holies. The almighty gobble, gulp and swallow.

. . .

And however much each next thing pretends to be new, it was always just this way.

Just like this. This is the way it is.

Look at us. "All these stories and still the poor battered heart invites in all that grief masquerading as joy." ("Two People and Where They Manage to Be") Later "you find yourself dancing with someone who's scanning the room over your shoulder, whose face is signaling angst and lack-love, the same face that caught you in." ("The Princess of Cleves") Of course some people succeed at the game. Then there is the work to buy the furniture, she writes. "Call it 'A relationship"' : "The search is over" : "adore the mundane" : "Sit on the verandah, drink tea, watch ducks navigate the pond. It is summer and you are living a very long unfinished Russian novel." ("Happy Ending").

Oh to get out of this thought-prison! I turn to her earlier book for a clue. In My Own Alphabet, I look up "Absolutes."

Absolutes are seductive; an outright tragedy, an outright comedy; one wants an end to all the ramification, the second thought hard on the heels of the first thought and then the second thought's second thought.

In all the daily push and shove it gets to where a pratfall is a laugh and a disaster is a rest with hope doing a half-baked tango back and forth between.

Oh to get out of this absolutist thinking-prison. Sometimes an effective strategy is to unravel the mistaken mind by laughing vigorously at ourselves. And that's what I did as I read Bobbie Louise Hawkin's new witty-truth-telling book, Absolutely Eden. Ain't it the truth. Ain't it. Absolutely. Absolutely.

December 14, 2008