Robert Adam­son’s po­etry rep­re­sents a vivid form of so­cial his­tory, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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