Ebb and flow of a life along the river
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