Taut and Quivering Narrative Traction: Susan Hawthorne’s Limen

Review 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…

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


Lucy Alexander is a Word Construction artist. Poet. Workshop leader. Author.Writer of things. Imaginatior. Fictionaliser. Storyteller. Story collector.