Taut and Quivering Narrative Traction: Susan Hawthorne’s Limen

Posted on October 19, 2013 by in Verity La Reviews

Taut and Quivering Narrative Traction: Susan Hawthorne’s Limen

Limen Cover 300Review by Lucy Alexander

Limen is the notion of barely perceptible difference, where the senses can barely detect that there is sound, for example, or that the river has edged that much closer to camp.  In this sequence of poems Susan Hawthorne explores these ideas, circling around perception and its filters in relation to the natural world.  But Limen is also a narrative cycle added to and altered by the art of Jeanné Browne, whose delicate visual footnotes – bird shapes, tyre tracks, feathers and leaves – invite the natural world to come and sit within the book, giving hints and reminders to the reader of its beauty and power.

It is striking that three voices carry the narrative of the series and that these three viewpoints offer perceptions of the events that vary and warp.  The two women and one dog; nine days and the rain the sun and the wilderness make for a story that is tense and compelling.  If at the outset the river rising is barely perceptible, that the three characters sit on the limen of danger, as the narrative unfolds the outline of this danger becomes clearer, it is physical.  As the car slides in the mud, and the river breaks its banks and the dog’s own ‘ever-filling food bowl’ goes missing.

There is something gut-wrenching in the way the portrait is painted – the sense of something about to give, of things beyond the control of the characters slipping and falling away – just as the societal constructs slide out of view – one woman approaches the farm workers in the 4WD topless:

I’m up and running
no T-shirt
no shame

they see me
I go back
pull on a raincoat
walk to the car
raincoat gaping

The language is so spare, the line breaks so tight (on the back cover Robin Morgan compares the writing to haiku) that it makes the reader hold their breath.  Reading this concentration of language is a little like river swimming, the glints of absolute certainty among the rocks and sand.  Even without punctuation Hawthorne limits the breath, like that moment of stepping into deep water when the diaphragm flutters and adjusts.

a morning dip
sandbanks like oblongate ears
skirt the river
with overhanging eucalypts

However, there is also a sense in which this sharpness of observation and brevity of line loses characterization.  Woman 1 and Woman 2 swim into one another – and while one is the more experienced bushwoman and has more insight into the dangers they face is more aware of the liminal shift of the river in relation to the camp – the scarcity of descriptors makes it hard to differentiate which she is.  This rides on the back of the success of the writing; the impending impression that some dark event is about to take place, which makes this quick to read but no less evocative.

this year
no water where previously we had swum
in easy nakedness

thunderclouds gather
on the horizon

But after all this taut and quivering narrative traction (spoiler alert) – the rise of the river, the failure of the car on the mud in the night (‘the car stops/an awful lean/mud curls/around the stilled wheel’) the fleeing to a safer camp, the two boys on foot, and the return triumphant through the swollen creek crossings with the help of an earth-mother figure (who delightfully whips off her crimplene pants to push the cars through the mud) – there is: one milkshake/two chips/three hamburgers/no onion on one.  Could we be further from nature? Could this be more ordinary? Is this an anticlimax?

This is exactly what we would all want after several nights cut off in the wilderness, the comfort of warm food with hearty calories, quick and cheap and reassuring us that in fact we are – to a measure – divorced from this roaring, shifting, natural landscape?

But, in my book of poetry, do I want more than this? As a reader do I want to demand of Hawthorne that she give me more than this junk-food ending?  I have breathed the breath of the characters, I have danced the syntax dance and balanced with them of the limen bridge between the flooding bushland and the sodden cows that die and stink in the shallows.  I have wanted to shout to them to stop throwing sticks for the dog into the swirling flood, to not swim among the logs, to keep to the shallows.  There is a part of me that wants to demand that the ill-at-ease thread, those metaphorical ‘thunderclouds’, do more than rain fried potato.

I can see Patrick White frowning over there…

Limen
Susan Hawthorne
Spinifex Press, 2013
RRP $24.95 eBook $14.95

The Playful Provocation of a Complex Tapestry:
Susan Hawthorne’s Cow

Posted on March 7, 2012 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by Robyn Cadwallader

The cover of Susan Hawthorne’s Cow, both back and front, is an Indian-style patchwork featuring cows in paintings, photos, carvings, bas relief, even street signs (‘Beware of Cattle on Road’), each image framed with embroidery and sequins. With author and title printed only on the spine, the patchwork takes over, runs beyond the borders of the covers; we know there is more to see, that the totality is more than the particular. This is more than beautiful artwork; it is an embodiment of what is inside.

At first sight the arrangement of the book can be daunting: background information in the acknowledgements, etymologies in the front pages, running gloss notes in the margins of the text, endnotes and sources in the final pages. All are testament to Hawthorne’s thorough research and familiarity with language and mythology. It is also, of course, an opportunity to learn. With such a frame of academic apparatus there is a risk, as I found, of taking on the seriousness of all this research, of working too hard at understanding what it all means, a straining after knowledge before appreciating the depths of what is simply given. The poems are wry, humorous, poignant, elegiac, wise and longing, written with a deceptive simplicity of expression. Nonetheless, my experience is that it takes some time to begin to feel at ease with the shape and movement of the collection.

Cow celebrates all that poetry makes possible, crossing boundaries of the rational, drawing together ideas that bounce off one another and echo into new thoughts, allowing the cerebral and the fantastical to sing together. In an interview at the Queensland Writers Festival, Hawthorne described her fascination with etymology, noting that variants of the Sanskrit word for cow are present in Indo-European languages through Old Norse and Old English words for queen, and in Greek gyne (woman), details of which are given in the book. In this collection she delights in playing with endless echoes and ripples of such etymologies.

While at first sight the connections might not be obvious, cow, queen and woman are woven into a complex tapestry. The powerful physical presence of cows opens out into explorations of women’s experiences of voice, relationship, love, language, mythology and idea:

what we cannot speak about we cannot imagine
facts and imagination tangle
a weave of uncertain strings
strings pulled and plucked
edgeless origami in an unfolding universe.
(‘what the poet says’, 5)

The poems are divided into four strings, telling of tales that ‘tangle like a chinese noodle’, snarled and stretched by time: ‘these are stories about cows / who have lost their histories’. Within each string we hear from Queenie, the central figure in the collection. Having wandered the markets and settled in Fatima’s garden, Queenie gives birth to her calf; she is both milk cow and creator, there is no distinction:

I’m grazing near a human encampment
time has rolled in
on a day the length of all time
I give birth to the folding universe
my milk flows away through the night sky
galaxies spin and twirl form and unform
as the dance of creation and decreation proceeds.
(‘what Queenie says’)

In string one, ‘the philosophy cow’, subtitled ‘Queenie’s dilly bag’, the cow pulls open the strings of her bag to reveal her collection: voices from Greek, Sanskrit, Sumerian and Welsh mythology, the voice of Kuvalaya (lotus-flower), of Cow, Tiger, and even a 105-year old virgin speaking in the Daily Telegraph. Their stories flow, one after another, telling of love, power and relationships in a world that is simultaneously cosmic and mundane, but never ordinary. One of the delights in this section is the wry humour and wordplay, particularly in the voice of various cows. The cows gather on the poet’s desk and ask

what is it you want of us?
is it our delightful demeanour
or our marvellous colourful hides?
(‘what she says to her listeners’)

String two, ‘what the philosophers say’, changes tone and content. Looking beyond the voices in string one, it explores the silence around cow woman — her stories, her voice, her participation in language. While the images evoke gaps, spaces, silence, exile and loss, the overwhelming import is of presence becoming absence. Ur-woman (original woman)

is a mirage
a reflection of who we are
as she teeters on the edge
of the visible like a reflection
in a lake disappearing
(‘what her mother says about ur-woman’)

In a beautifully imagined poem that gathers eastern and western mythology, a cow ‘looks down the throat of her child’ to see inside a fertile universe, ‘cows feeding calves the milk / spilling around the calves’ mouths’. Within this eden a snake on a tree morphs into a cow, just as woman has been construed as tempter, ‘the dividing line between them blurred’. There is, nonetheless, an insistence that survives:

the mothers are trying hard to contain their children
but what can you do when the world is held
in an open mouth?
(‘what her mother says about ur-woman’)

String three, ‘what the lovers say’, conjures love in all its breadth and intensity, in poetry, body and mind, the last of these so often denied to women. In a poem that is almost an anthem to sisterhood, the one cow becomes ‘eine Frau’ (one woman): ‘go out into the world of cow / sing sing into night for we are eine Frau’ (‘what we sing in one voice’). The poetry in this section is often lyrical and intense.

In the final, short string, ‘what Queenie says about the philosophy cow’, Queenie celebrates the cow and poet:

you have become one of those fist-raisers
a troublemaker in the bleachers  you write poems
thrilling to a music that lifts you daily celebrating
unbelievable truths halleluiah alleluia they cry
(‘what Queenie sings to us’)

Hawthorne carries her erudition lightly into poems that are playful, wise and provocative. Her evocation of the milk cow next door as the cosmic creator, woman, queen, philosopher, lover and thinker communicates with immediacy and vigour. By book’s end, we have traversed a world of mythology, place and story, all emanating from the single figure, cow.

Cow
Susan Hawthorne
Spinifex Press, 2011
166 pages, $24.95

Hard Notes of War:
Susan Hawthorne's Valence

Posted on January 5, 2012 by in Verity La Reviews

ValenceReview by Lesley Lebkowicz

War has always been a subject for poetry – for all forms of literature – in every culture, in every time. It’s been examined, glorified, abhorred. Rarely does a writer confess an addicted love of it despite its horrors, as Tony Loyd, a British war correspondent, does. It’s possible to think of his work, in its shocking authenticity, as defining one end of a continuum and Susan Hawthorne’s fierce and rich polemic as defining the other.

The subtitle of Hawthorne’s Valence is Considering War through Poetry and Theory. Her twofold method of verse and discursive prose makes for a visually pleasing experience. Each poem/argument/exploration is given its own page. The poem comes first – generally two but up to four six-line stanzas – sit over a paragraph of two of commentary. The difference between the poetry and the prose is emphasised by a difference in type-face and spacing. Given that poetry is a form we linger over, and that Hawthorne’s work here demands reflection, attention to presentation pays off.

Structurally, the verse element of Valence alludes to the complex form of the sestina in its six-line stanza and in its three-line concluding envoi – but that is all. The other characteristics of the form are not used. This makes for a pleasant acknowledgement of poetic tradition without any rigid adherence to it. Many poets these days are happy to play with elements of form as they work within the currents of free verse and this work sits nicely in that context.

Within the book-ends of two three-lined verses Hawthorne offers a dense mesh of imagery in the verse ranging across several instances of military violence. Words are ‘slaughtered in the throat’, ‘widowed ground has been filled with half-grown trees’, what ‘will it take to unpurse the future’? Images freed from the control of punctuation jam one against the other invoking the terrible chaos of war.

This is the main substance of this work – but not the complete matter: the series considers questions of hope, betrayal, the difficult possibility of putting right the wrongs of war. And more. War is so big a subject, its ramifications enormous; issues arise and spill across the pages. As a feminist scholar, Hawthorne is predictably opposed to war. Some of the prose commentary alludes to her own (as well as others’) scholarly work on the subject. She also refers to her own experience in these commentaries and this invites the reader into her material. The sequence is, for instance, initiated by reflections on her grandmother’s, mother’s and uncle’s war experience.

At its best, Hawthorne’s voice is clear, striking, impassioned. The sequence begins: ‘all day long the gods have been screaming’. Her opening lines are frequently declarations strong in the vernacular: ‘revolutions have a tendency to unwind’ or are charged with rhythm (here with a Shakespearean resonance): ‘undoing hatred is a pilgrimage of hurt’.

As it works its way through its variations on war the sequence moves inevitably towards despair. In the last lines: ‘you dream of light . . . /you sob . . . / because nothing will ‘stop the clot of war’. It’s a hard note to end on. Honest – and hard.

Valence: Considering War through Poetry and Theory
Susan Hawthorne
Spinifex Press, 2011
16 pages, $9.95