Writing & News

New review by Deborah Wardle of Hayley Singer’s ‘Abandon Every Hope: Essays for the Dead’ in SWAMPHEN March 2024

Swamphen, Vol. 10 2024 ASLEC-ANZ
[Review] Hayley Singer, Abandon Every Hope: Essays for the Dead.
Upswell, 2023, 168pp.

University of Melbourne and RMIT

Most of the ever-growing body of creative and critical literature that explores human and
nonhuman animal relationships addresses the various ways that humans think about and
connect to living beings. Scholars focus on the lives of kin and the ways that humans have
exploited or preserved our interdependencies with both domestic and wild nonhuman
beings. The discipline of animal studies over decades has emboldened discussions about
and activism towards the rights of nonhuman animals, working incrementally towards
nonhuman animal rights to habitat, shelter, food, voice and a life and death with dignity.
For nonhuman animals to someday enjoy the same rights as homo sapiens remains at the
forefront of scholarly and activist efforts. Few writers enter the territory of how humans
and nonhumans share death. Hayley Singer’s collection of ‘essays for the dead’ opens
hearts, minds and souls to this important junction by drawing attention to the scourge of
industrial-scaled deaths in abattoirs and slaughterhouses.

Readers fall into the book, unguided by a table of contents, no index to direct us to
possible areas of interest, no prologue. The first section title is a date, ‘February 2022.’
The reader is lanced to a current moment. We enter an urgently contemporary and
darkened world. On the first page we are asked to look into the face of a pig. Soon we are
‘smashed against concrete,’ invited to ‘descend’ to grim and horrific places. Well might we
cling to the title, Abandon Every Hope, taken from Dante Alighieri’s work Inferno about a
journey into hell. Readers have had their warning; this will be a difficult read. No pastoral
romanticising of agricultural lives, no sweet bucolic days humming with bees. Singer
musters all her skills as a writer and a scholar to unveil the violent deaths that humans
prevail upon nonhuman animals in massively scaled death factories. She asks, ‘What if we
all opened a door to our brains and let horrors flow in?’ (105). Multiple examples of
disregarded animal death are exposed, from roadkill, factory farms and abattoirs to the
growing extinctions of insects, birds, reptiles and mammals. She questions the reader and
other writers, ‘Have they considered how much literature is founded on the assumption of
human supremacy?’ (105). Through looking death in the eye, Singer demands that human
beings become accountable for nonhuman animal deaths they are causing.
Thirty-two essays/poems braid together a montage of images; we see red, we smell blood,
we feel fear. Each essay/poem is an artful inducement to take a journey to a hellish place.
Nausea slows me down, I put the book down regularly. I am often swimming in blood
and gore. Images of industrialised deaths of millions of pigs, cattle, chooks, sheep are
scorched to the page. Reading the book was for me like being propelled from stone to
stone across a raging torrent. I could at any moment be washed away by the strength and
vitality of the language, the horror of the death images. The trajectory between each of the
thirty-two essay/poems is not at first obvious. I did not know on to what stone I would
next land. Through a consideration of death Singer inveigles the reader to consider
responsibilities for the barbarism and to shuck impunity for industrial-scaled death. She
asks, ‘How many acts of injury can a body withstand?’ (112).

Thanatology is defined in the Macquarie Dictionary as a branch of psychiatry which studies
the traumatic effects of death and dying. Thanatology addresses ‘ways in which people
who are dying can come to terms with their death and ways in which the survivors of the
dead person can adjust to their loss’ (Macquarie Dictionary). Singer ‘composts’ this concept
into a literary form she calls a ‘thanatography,’ a ‘form that works to invoke the unnamed
dead’ (168). She composes collages of images, asking readers to ‘remember the dead in a
world that would have us forget’ (168). The invisibility of abattoirs, the occlusion and
shadowing of cruelty and mass-slaughter is under the spotlight. Readers may be blinded by
the harsh glare, the horror of killing floor realities. Singer takes us by the hand into the
pain of dying animals. It is not a silent pain, we hear the roars and shrieks of resistance.
Animals protest. Humans are ultimately asked to take responsibility for murderous

The book is about writing death, as much as knowing about it. It has a gesture towards a
manifesto, the title of the short, eighth essay. Singer makes a proclamation of dark and
silent conversations, not secrets, but ‘disregarded depth[s]’ (128). In a key poem titled
‘Snuff,’ Singer explores ‘how close can writing come to death?’ (122). She laments that
there are no monuments, no obituaries, no eulogies for the dead at factory farms or
abattoirs (123). Abandon Every Hope provides more than a eulogy. Singer models writing
not just for, but with the dead.

Many of the essays could be read as prose poetry, at times enmeshed with snatches of
memoir. Each piece floats independently. A liminal blurring of writing forms emerges,
somewhere in the vicinity of creative nonfiction, lyric essays, prose poetry. Hybridity is
too clinical a word to describe the fluidity of form and the transgressive ways that
boundaries are crossed. Singer achieves her distinctive potency of prose through
fragments of images, ideas and experiences. She makes perilous leaps between paragraphs.
The reader clings on tight. In the vein of Jenny Offill’s novella, Weather, Singer utilises
disjointed fragments and paragraphs that jettison conventions and thrust the reader from
the personal to the political, from abhorrent lives to undignified deaths. Bloodied hands
hold the page.

Singer opens the door to a remarkably wide range of literatures. The book is grounded in
the work of many outstanding authors who have laid foundations to Singer’s
considerations. The referencing may be unorthodox (works cited are listed for each
chapter at the end of the book) but readers enjoy a smooth ride through philosophy and
cultural studies giants. We are assured that Singer has done her homework. From the
words of Gertrude Stein, Simone Weil, Susan Sontag, Virginia Woolf, Val Plumwood and
numerous literary luminaries, Singer builds a well-credentialed inventory of the many ways
that humans write about experiences of dying and death.

Scattered shellfire in a first-person narration displays Singer’s courageous voice and
commitment to her project, which builds from her PhD dissertation and further research.
When she steps back from her own experiences, a firm but aesthetic approach to her
analysis of scholarly inspirations is impressively handled. Singer’s courageous endurance of
endless horror scenes, we are told, took their toll on her. The book is as much about the
horror of industrial-scaled slaughter of animals as it is about the author’s visceral
responses to such practices. Readers are privy to Singer’s drinking, sleeplessness, her
depression and smouldering rage at all she was experiencing about human treatment of
animal bodies. The tenth poem/essay titled ‘Big Curse Energy’ reveals Singer’s personal
responses to the atrocities she was embroiled in. These sections are in my mind weaker
sections of prose, where a tone of anxious self-revelation rather than reflection prevails. I
didn’t need to be told that the deplorable treatment of factory farming and animal
slaughter is enough to turn a person to drink—the quality of Singer’s prose implies this
possibility. The debilitating effects on the author of working with words and descriptions
of gruesome animal deaths and deplorable human behaviours is commonly experienced
when writing the numerous atrocities of the Anthropocene. Rachel Hennessy and peers
(2022) invite a consideration of collaborative peer support when engaging with depressing
anthropogenic disasters. I wonder if Singer is seeking succour from her grief in delving
into the world of death. Scholars and writers are indirectly urged to join Singer in this
otherwise solitary investigation of thanatography. The deplorable treatment of non-human
animals as they die in the millions needs many more voices speaking in their defence.
Her descriptions of the difficulties of teaching eco-critical ideas in classes at university
dissipate the thanatological line of argument. The quantities of alcohol, sleeplessness and
late-night research involved in the work towards this book show Singer’s empathetic
engagement. This is not only an idea in her head. Singer shows us she lives these horrors.
The bodily responses, the emotions shown by the author act as a counter point to the
otherwise cerebral and darkly aesthetic examination of societal blindness to the crimes of
animal slaughter at massive scales.

Abandon Every Hope is an important book because its examination of animal slaughter
challenges a predominantly unexamined social acceptance of a global meat fetish. While it
is predominantly an Australian take on the problems of abattoirs, barbaric animal deaths
occur worldwide. With faith in the author’s sense of purpose, the book as a whole makes a
powerful contribution to a globally important subject. We know by the end that Singer’s
courage in witnessing and collating untold barbaric murders is intentional. The taste of
flesh is sour on the page. Singer demands we eat the words. This book forges new terrain
in content and in its form. Writers, scholars and community readers are urged to look into
the unexamined deaths of nonhuman animals, to hold their hands up and say it must stop.

Alighieri, Dante. Divine Comedy: Inferno. Penguin Books, 2006 [1314].
Hennessy, Rachel, Alex Cothren and Amy Matthews. ‘Creating New Climate Stories:
Posthuman Collaborative Hope and Optimism.’ Text: Journal of Writing and Writing
Courses vol. 26, no. 1, 2022, pp.1-20.
Offill, Jenny. Weather. Granta Books, 2021.
Singer, Hayley. Abandon Every Hope: Essays for the Dead. Upswell, 2023.
‘Thanatology, N.’ Macquarie Dictionary, Macmillan Publishers Australia, 2020.