Ebb and flow of a life along the river

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Barry Hill is a for­mer po­etry ed­i­tor of The Aus­tralian. His new book of po­ems is Kind Fire.

No other poet in Aus­tralia has rooted his po­et­ics in place as Robert Adam­son has done on the Hawkes­bury River. For a half-cen­tury he has made of it his Dream­ing (in an Abo­rig­i­nal sense) and his Night­mare (af­ter ev­ery ro­man­tic poet since Shel­ley). The river is Life — glit­ter­ing at dawn, se­duc­tively inky at night — and the river is Death, with its beau­ti­ful, sav­age birds and fishes of the un­der­world, most of which Adam­son has known by heart and by name since he was a boy.

Here he is in the poem Full Tide, about half­way through his new se­lected col­lec­tion, Reach­ing Light. It was taken from The Clean Dark (1989), his seventh book, which scooped up all the prizes back then.

My whole be­ing’s the bay cra­dled in the warm palm the steady open hand of today’s flood tide. Any­way let’s tell the fish­er­men some­thing they al­ready know — it’s the fa­bled calm be­fore the flow: I love a gypsy with a lithe soul who’s dif­fi­cult to please …

Up­ping the stakes of self-con­scious­ness, Adam­son refers to his poem as “a new psalm” that ropes in the fish­er­men “who rec­og­nize my strength and who say to keep an eye on me”. The poem is brazenly self-mythol­o­gis­ing, and with mirac­u­lous brevity flows to­wards “my wild Mag­yar — gen­u­flect­ing from your an­cient bed”.

Imag­i­na­tion folds in and out of re­al­ity with Adam­son. In lesser mo­ments it is more fancy than imag­i­na­tion, but at his best it is full-blooded re­al­i­sa­tion from lived ex­pe­ri­ence, an achieve­ment that has am­pli­fied with each book.

Poem af­ter poem co­heres with­out fuss, like the scales on a fish. In his 2004 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, In­side Out­side, which re­counts his delin­quent days of first loves and in­car­cer­a­tions, Adam­son per­fectly places his grand­fa­ther, a fish­er­man who lived to his 90s.

The old man said the river was his Bi­ble. Young Adam­son should learn “to read” it too be­cause “when you live here, the whole river be­longs to you … Just as long as you come back — never stay away too long”. Yet at the same time, an early poem has it: “when my granny was dy­ing / I’d go into her bed­room / and look at her / she’d tell me get out of it / leave this foul river / it will wear you out too … she said the prawns will eat you / when you die on the Hawkes­bury River”.

When he was in prison his granny sent him a photo of him­self as a five-year-old with the cap­tion: “All the hope and joy of boy­hood in this snap, Robert. What went wrong?” Adam­son never quite knew ei­ther, and the body of his work is a mov­ing ef­fort to work it out or to set­tle with what had hap­pened. His po­ems of child­hood and youth in Where I Came From (1979) are fear­lessly plain and as painful as a long slash of the wrist. Sea­mus Heaney, I be­lieve, loved these po­ems most of all, and in the earth­bound ease and ca­dence of any one of them you can see why:

Mum and dad are at it again in the room next to mine their ter­ri­ble sob­bing comes through the damp wall

They fight about some­thing I have done

So the boy takes off. He gets out of bed and pushes his boat onto the river, “the black and freez­ing bay / un­der the man­groves / that smell like hu­man shit” and so on un­til “all I catch are cat­fish here / and have them slid­ing in the belly of the boat // they are the ugli­est look­ing things / in the world”.

Wher­ever you look in the oeu­vre of Adam­son, there is the ebb and flow of am­biva­lence about life it­self, in what­ever state: as man-woman, as sober-de­ranged, as wild-tame, as loved-bereft, with the poet rav­ished and be­calmed by na­ture even as he knows its in­dif­fer­ence to­wards him. It is am­biva­lence that flicks in the spine of each poem and Adam­son’s artis­tic man­age­ment of it, along with his history of self-mis­man­age­ment, makes him the ma­jor poet that he is.

His flu­id­ity of per­sona — a true sense of mak­ing be­lieve — puts him in the com­pany of the artists he adores, mim­ics and tran­scends: Arthur Rim­baud, Bob Dy­lan, Hart Crane, to name a few of the free­dom rid­ers who knew how to trust their senses more than most of us can say. And what­ever we say, there’s no get­ting away from Adam­son’s canny lin­eations, per­fect phras­ings and cun­ning lit­er­ari­ness.

Reach­ing Light is his fourth se­lected col­lec­tion. Mul­berry Leaves (2001), the first, was beau­ti­fully, proudly pub­lished on acid-free pa­per by Pa­per Bark Press, which Adam­son founded with his wife, pho­tog­ra­pher Juno Gemes. It was fol­lowed by Read­ing the River (2004), a Bri­tish pub­li­ca­tion by Blood­axe, which added more bird po­ems. The third, The Golden Bird (2008), a fat­ter book pub­lished by Black Inc on lousy pa­per, was no­table be­cause it in­dulged the au­thor’s group­ings that came with sub­head­ings var­i­ously en­light­en­ing and re­dun­dant.

Reach­ing Light is a stream­lined book bril­liantly edited by Devin John­ston for Chicago’s Flood Edi­tions and read­ers in North Amer­ica, where Adam­son has a fol­low­ing, hav­ing long cul­ti­vated friend­ships among some of its best po­ets.

It kicks off with the fa­mous The Rebel An­gel, a poem as full of at­ti­tude as all get-out (“Shit off with this fake dome of a life, why / should I re­main here locked in my own / buck­ling cells … / back on the street in the rain — searched for / some kind of rebel an­gel, / some kind of law”), and it closes with the stately, po­tent, self-crit­i­cal med­i­ta­tion on lan­guage and mem­ory, The King­fisher’s Soul, ded­i­cated to Juno and her “blood’s iron”.

The king­fisher, John­ston writes, re­mind­ing us of an ear­lier poem by that name, is Adam­son’s dae­mon. “It hunts / for souls”, yet “its life’s an edge / you can’t, / mea­sure”.

This is the best of the se­lect­eds. It has the poet’s up-to-date full mea­sure. You could go fish­ing and bird­watch­ing with it, let­ting your own soul camp by the great river at night.

John­ston re­marks that line by line an Adam­son poem can “build to­wards mem­o­rable state­ments of clinch­ing power”, and I found this to be the case read­ing him again. If you are start­ing late with him, it’s the es­sen­tial book to get.

Poet Robert Adam­son

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