Original Research

'Life?': modernism and liminality in Douglas Livingstone’s A littoral zone

E. Terblanche
Literator | Vol 27, No 1 | a185 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/lit.v27i1.185 | © 2006 E. Terblanche | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 30 July 2006 | Published: 30 July 2006

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E. Terblanche, School of Languages, Potchefstroom campus, North-West University, South Africa

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In an attempt to find his place within nature in South Africa and in a global modern context, Douglas Livingstone returns strongly to modernist poetry in his 1991 volume A littoral zone. In contrast to his predecessors like Wallace Stevens in “The glass of water” and T.S. Eliot in The waste land, this volume at critical moments gets stuck in a liminal stage. Images and poems, and eventually the volume as a whole, despite the highlights they present, say that it no longer seems so possible to end up also within the postliminal stage, so as to complete a rite of passage. Yet modernist poems such as Stevens’s “The glass of water” have the ability to end up in postliminal affirmation through and beyond the liminal stage of the overall process. Here light becomes a thirsty lion that comes down to drink from the glass, with a resultant transcendence of the dualistic between-ness that characterises the liminal stage in the modernist poetic mode, while this further results in the incorporation of a deeper and refreshing, dynamic unity. Even more remarkable is that this poetic rite is not of a closing nature, but open, especially in the sense that it affirms all that is possible and greater than the individual ego or subject, this, while getting stuck within a liminal stage just short of the postliminal stage can be in the nature of closure, as Livingstone shows, for example, when he says in “Low tide at Station 20” that humanity is trapped in its inability to see the original power of unity with and within nature in order to live within it; and while humanity remains an ugly outgrowth on the gigantic spine of evolution. In provisional conclusion this article finds that it will be better to view Victor Turner’s 1979 celebration of what he terms the “liminoid” in the place of a “true liminality” critically. Although it is impossible to return to a collective catharsis in watching a play, one cannot feel too comfortable about getting rid of the cosmological, theological and concrete embeddedness of rites of passage (of which a liminal stage merely forms a part). Van Gennep links these matters, and modernist poets are still able to express these interlinked matters with a powerful, sensitive effect of dynamic unity. Livingstone also does this, but in considerably lesser measure, and from within a considerably more uncertain context. The article ultimately shows that for these reasons and more, Livingstone’s volume deserves far more critical reading than it has received to date, and that despite one or two weaknesses – of which the employment of The waste land in the rather flimsy “The waste land at Station 14” is the most serious – the volume continues to make a rich contribution to South African life, or within any country that views poetry as an important form of human communication.


Douglas Livingstone; A Littoral Zone; Liminal Stage; Modernist Intertext; Openness; Postliminal Stage; Unity


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