Mary Cresswell reviews Limen by Susan Hawthorne

Susan Hawthorne, Limen, with art by Jeanné Browne. North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2013. ISBN 9781742198606 (pbk). Kindle, epub and PDF details at http://www.spinifexpress.com.au

 

Mary Cresswell

 

This is a story of two women on holiday, camping beneath the stars as they have done for the past few years. On the first night, they look back to

that first year grief-filled for our old dog  (6)

Although there is a new dog this year, a puppy keen for chasing and sniffing sticks,

on the other side of the river

a black spirit dog arrives

sniffing the Styx

she stands

looks our direction

wades in, drinks and leaves  (6)                                             

The first night they see “thunderclouds gather / on the horizon” (12), and “by morning the river has risen / six to seven feet” (14). The second night is peaceful and filled with the sound of birds. The third day they swim, and end the day with “fire warmth / and a star-filled sky” (22). That night, Woman 1 dreams of her parents drowning in mud.

The fourth morning they begin to worry. Wet and wet upon wet, and that night sleep is mixed with apprehension. The fifth day passes quickly and ends in musing:

quiet conversation

time just to sit

ponder

wonder

what the new year will bring  (36)

The sixth day brings disaster, the river is gone and the water’s edge is at the tyres. The car becomes hopelessly mired, most of the camp floats away, the dog has no sticks to chase, they huddle and hope. Two local men appear and pull the car loose.  The women try to dry out in the sun. The men have reassured them the road ahead has no problems. But it does, and they are stranded between two branches of the flood. Women and dog dine on sardines and try to sleep.

The seventh day they stay with the car, enjoying “the silence / the beauty of the bush / mountains / river” (101) and throwing sticks for the dog. A ute arrives with two other locals, brothers who come to work at the nearby mine. They offer advice and disappear, leaving Woman 1 in a maternal tizz over their welfare.

it’s a struggle

between the bliss

of this stream

and worry plagues

 

should we have stopped them

from going?  (138)

The miners come back the next morning on foot, and the women drop them off nearer the mine, next to one of the flooded rivers.

On the ninth day, the tone of the book changes entirely, from observations to an external narrative, with geographical specifics. The heat has become worse, the women shelter in the creek, and—like deae ex machina, a mother and her daughter drive up in their two cars, en route to Canberra. There is great shifting and pushing, maneuvering and intelligent cooperation, and suddenly everything is good, organised by the mother, who knows exactly how to do everything:

she knows this creek

knows the best way through

leads the way

now stuck but we are pushing

 

on the other side

she removes her

pale blue crimplene pants

only girls she says

is back to push if needed

 

next her daughter

in the second car

if she makes it

we’re fine  (153)

A limen is a threshold, a boundary—and the story is very much about boundaries, as the women work back and forth from one impassible river to another. They move from hope to discouragement and back again.

They move back and forth from isolation to being part of a wider world: until this point, the women are entirely in their own mud and river world—could be anywhere, Queensland, Death Valley, the Mountains of the Moon. The story is so intensely self-contained that I was surprised each time people (or cows) suddenly appeared from offstage. I had forgotten that the drama was happening on the threshold of civilisation.

A threshold implies a point of no return—one moment you are outside and the next you are not, even though what happens next is not always what you had intended. The women’s adventure teeters back and forth between pleasure and the possibility of disaster. Finally, they make it:

on our way

no more back and forward

between rising rivers

no more waiting

for sun or rain

or wind to turn  (160)

This, along with the very sparse structure of the book, puts me in mind of a Greek play, and I read the book as a classical drama. (I would really love to see it as a stage production or reading.) There’s a tiny bit of dialogue from the locals and the Day Nine women, but for the most part, we have two characters on stage alone: Woman 1 and Woman 2. They stand side by side, facing us and addressing us (not each other), and even the few words we get from the side characters are by way of comment, abstracted from anything like conversation.

And the Chorus? Well, that’s Dog. Not alas the black spirit dog of days gone by, but a Chorus-in-Training who at least has got the basic idea that her function is to keep us aware of the essentials. At the moment, sticks are her only essential.

I lie like a lizard in the sun

then move to the shade of the car

waiting for the next stick’s tip  (82)

Is there a moral to the story? In some ways, this could be a parable of our times, as the women (here and now, these individuals) appear as victims of their environment through no fault of their own. We keep skirting the edge of disaster, not quite taking the last, fatal step but (with no credit to ourselves) never quite ending up totally in the mud. The cow cockies pull them free—but that doesn’t work in the long run. The miners offer not only local connections but the possibility of a helicopter out (as high-tech as you can get here)—but that doesn’t work in the long run.

The pale-blue-crimplene goddess and her daughter lead the last charge, and the massed group does win its way through, a triumph of cooperation and human ingenuity—but it was pure luck that anyone came by in the first place. We can’t count on it all happening again next year. When everyone is down to earth, eating their hamburgers and giving the police a heads-up about the young miners, no one has really changed and nothing is any different.

I couldn’t spot a point of no return in this story, no one place where the women could have turned back and avoided the whole near-disaster. When I think of an awful future of a world bound up in changing water levels—too much or too little—I wonder if there often is no clear tipping point at all, no place we can point at and shout “stop”. If that’s true, we need even more to pay attention to finding

…the limen

that space between

water and sky …

where we could

be on both sides of time

where

the birds

the ones that indicate

water is nearby

perch in

the eucalypts  (166)

Jeanné Browne’s paintings float and meander amongst the poems, bringing us lizards, birds, wonderful insects, tyre tracks writ small—or are they lizard tracks writ large? The birds are in feathered close-ups, entire portraits, or flying away leaving only tracks; at the end of the book there is a sketch of the river banks, giving a full picture for the first time. The pictures fit beautifully and add further dimension to the text, again moving back and forth in varying focus. The book is a joy to read on all sorts of levels.

 

Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on New Zealand’s Kapiti coast. She is a former natural history editor and as a poet has published in Australia, NZ, the US, the UK and Canada. Her newest book, Fish Stories, will come out in 2015.

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