FISHING FOR THE TRUTH
Robert Adamson’s poetry represents a vivid form of social history, writes
One likes to think that the era of mainstream Australia’s almost complete disregard for contemporary poetry is coming to a close. But even with certain encouraging signs of late the vicarious middle-class fantasy of what a poet or writer amounts to certainly does not include the possibility that they have spent time in prison for armed robbery.
Notwithstanding heroic figures such as Osip Mandelstam in Stalinist Russia, Pramoedya Ananta Toer in Indonesia or Yannis Ritsos under the Greek junta, and despite the avantgarde chic assigned to Jean Genet in France, and the countless other poets and writers whose work has survived, or even flourished, behind bars, the contemporary reader still looks largely to lifestyle backdrops and escapist formations when fulfilling their writerly stereotypes.
Robert Adamson famously enjoyed and endured a wild young adulthood around the northern shores of Sydney Harbour before being imprisoned, first in boys homes and then in Long Bay jail in the early 1960s. Amid the brutality of prison life he was given the task of bookbinding for the government printer, discovered poetry, and set out on a path not necessarily of redemption but towards the joys and difficulties of art and illumination.
Until The Clean Dark, his 1989 collection, in which he captured a wider readership by placing himself firmly in the tradition of fishermanpoets such as George Mackay Brown and Ted Hughes, he was largely known for his central and lively role as the editor of New Poetry, the magazine of the innovative Poetry Society of Australia.
All along, but most successfully since The Clean Dark and the volume that followed it, Waving to Hart Crane, he has immersed himself in the world of both romantic and experimental poetics, constructing a long and rather Franciscan dialectic between trauma and beauty, between disgrace and fulfilment, in a body of work that deserves to be on every high school and university syllabus, and in every bait and tackle shop, in the country.
As is immediately evident by its title, Adamson’s new volume continues his signature art of romantic and realistic juxtaposition. Net Needle once again shows Adamson to be a beneficiary of the more protean aspects of modernism, an emotionally warm and compassionate poet whose scarifying disclosures are never made simply to shuck the past.
Indeed the past for Adamson, time as a whole in fact, seems too prismatic for such easy possibilities, so that if he is clean he is nevertheless still dark, if he carries the memory of a needle it can have more than one use. In this case the ‘‘net needle’’ refers elegaically to fishermen of his childhood who have ‘‘stitched their lives into my days’’, ‘‘their hands /darting through mesh, holding bone /net needles’’.
The volume opens with a brief sequence of poems rich with declaration and inquiry. It is immediately clear we are reading a poet in a fecund stage of technical advancement but also one with a humility reminiscent of Dante before his guide. In Adamson’s case the guide is environmental and he inscribes his riparian context microscopically in these opening poems, absorbing us in spectral interiors of shadow and inflection, of dream and questioning. ‘‘I’m looking hard,’’ he tells us, ‘‘my boat plows through fog’’, and, as he peers, he asks: What form shape or song Might represent a soul? What words paint or mud Resemble such an intangible glow? A stain of mist hangs above a blackbutt, Brushed by the wings of a grey-headed flying fox.
Prepared by such symbols we travel in Part Two back to the glare of the Sydney Harbour of his youth, a bluewater forge of touchstones, rebellion and lurid horizons. These poems formed part of a collaboration with linocut artist Peter Kingston in 2012, published as the limited edition artist’s book Shark-net Seahorses of Balmoral: A Harbour Memoir, which is available for viewing in the National Library of Australia and the State Library of NSW collections.
The subject matter of these poems, in its eventfulness and powerful genius loci, is reminiscent of Adamson’s prose memoir Inside Out. What would the pre-1788 peoples of the Eora make of this kindred latecomer? Such is the picture-forming power of the harbourscape in Adamson’s work that the question springs to mind. Among the highly vocalised verse some lines seem more etched into indisputable form, such as the following from Sugarloaf Bay, Middle Harbour: On windless mornings, the bay stretched tight, a glass drum, as if waiting for the vibration of an unknown force, some dark fin that might cut a pathway to civilisation.
One senses that Adamson, the Neutral Bay urchin, the zoo thief, the crim, the poet, is often in league with the sharks. In fact what he represents is a type of moral authenticity that the newly captioned Team Australia increasingly pours down the drain.
His work in Part Two of Net Needle sees him continuing his particularly vivid form of social history, in which the glamour intrinsic to starlit shores and turquoise bays has not yet been appropriated by the financial elite.
Along with Kenneth Slessor and Christina Stead, as well as figures such as the Sydney cave surrealist Les Robinson, Adamson is the voice of a harder, more mercurial and therefore more evocative harbour, a flawed place in which suicide cliffs and fin shadows co-exist beside hope, poverty and fluorescent birds.
With the harbour now so polluted, the fish ‘‘very scarce’’, it is part of his romantic narrative to have relocated that democratic landscape in the uplands, as it were, the less glary, less lairy but equally profound riverscape of his grandfather’s Hawkesbury. It is a measure of Adamson’s talent for what is these days called ‘‘place literature’’ that the enigma of the shadow-clad river, with its sucking banks and noirish lap-lap, seems a predestination for the middle to latelife poet, seeker like the river of the edges of things, fisher of images, archivist of the sensuous currents of truth.
Part Two closes with two poems from prison,
Robert Adamson on the Hawkesbury