Australian Literature Resources website; first published in New Poetry, vol. 27 no. 1, 1979
The Voyage Out from Xanadu
Dorothy Hewett reviews the poetry of Robert Adamson and Michael Dransfield
‘a needle spelling XANADU
in pinprick visions down your arm
what of nostalgia when
the era that you grew with dies’
~ Michael Dransfield: ‘Birthday Ballad, Courland Penders, August 1969’
In the early seventies whenever I visited Sydney from Perth I had the myth in my mind that, somewhere in a loft in Paddington, two young poets were living ‘on the edge’ — their names were Michael Dransfield and Robert Adamson — and that one day I would go in search of them.
Both these ideas are basically ‘romantic’ — the ‘risk’ life, and the search or the journey to find ‘the other’. As in all myths there was a kernel of fact. Dransfield was living sometimes in Sydney in ‘the loft’ in Paddington, often visited by Robert Adamson from Balmain or the North Shore, but to have found them would, in a way, have endangered the myth. Human kind cannot bear very much reality.
The difficulty with Dransfield and Adamson has been to separate the fire from the smoke, the romantic cult from the work itself. Like all committed romantics both have, of course, collaborated in the creation of their own sensational mythology, and then let it roll.
To come to terms with Dransfield has been almost as difficult as coming to terms with Chatterton, that ‘marvellous boy’, for in Dransfield was embodied so much of the left-over detritus of nineteenth century romanticism, and the later French Symbolists; the young wanderer poet with the ruined homestead of Courland Penders rotting behind him, who died in his twenties from the needle, and his own deliberate death-wish neglect of himself.
Adamson had the more difficult task, of living on into his mid-thirties, moving out ‘across the border’ about as far as it was possible to romantically go, and then, faced with other ways of transmitting where he comes from, cutting out into new territory of factual information and economic language. Adamson and Dransfield shared the concept of art as the ‘made thing’, ‘the glorious lie’ and in his latest work Adamson’s poems, which appear on the surface to contain the unvarnished truth, are still as dramatic in their ‘lying’, perhaps even more so than his Grail poems in Cross The Border. It is not the attitudes that have changed but the methods of expressing them. The ‘reportage’ method suborns the reader into thinking that he’s getting it at the source, the poet is at last coming clean, but the honed down straight talking is an integral part of the deception, just as a Hemingway or a Bogart gave us only the titillation of the iceberg tip.
The bleak stoical tone of Adamson’s new poems with their powerful storyteller’s drive is one way out of the romantic impasse, particularly in a country like Australia, which (even more than the U.S.) has a fastidious distaste for emotional overburden of any kind, and an underground sympathy for the dry-eyed masculinity of the stoic loser.
But the persona of Cross the Border and the persona of Where I Come From (Adamson’s new collection) are both as romantic in essence as each other.
It is interesting to be able to see now with the new posthumous Dransfield volume Voyage into Solitude, edited by Rodney Hall, that Dransfield, before his death, was moving in somewhat the same direction as Adamson.
The direction was similar but different, as it must be. Dransfield died very young, but even up until then his background and his life experiences, with his reactions to them, create a totally different personality to Adamson’s personas.
In his preface to this new edition Rodney Hall comments on ‘the Keatsian lushness’ of Dransfield’s early poetry in 1967. Teaching an Australian Literature course at the University of W.A. in the early 1970s I came across, for the first time, the Courland Penders poems in Alexander Craig’s anthology Twelve Poets 1950-1970.
The languid stream of consciousness embedded in the flowing rococo line, the gothic landscape of the ruined country house, the suggestion of the ghosts of long dead ancestors, the real and unreal coalescing in a landscape of the mind, the imagery borrowed from courtly love, is a far cry from the short broken lines, the etched economy of the later lyrics, marking the sandy beaches of the [N.S.W.] South Coast like sea birds’ feet.
The longing for Courland Penders, the country mansion that never was, the lost Xanadu is related to Randolph Stow’s nostalgia for the ancestral homestead, Sandalwood —
I hide from time and the sun, on the wide verandah.
My great grandfather’s house. Out there, on the straw-brown sand-plain,
the christmastree and the blackboy, tougher than ancestors,
bloom in a fume of bees.
— ‘At Sandalwood’ (1959)
and is the dying fall of Yeat’s last romantics at Coole Park taking for theme traditional sanctity and loveliness.
But how far is it really possible to cling to romantic positives in an unromantic world: the healing powers of nature, man’s struggle to find his inalienable place in the natural universe, the freeing of the buried life through self-awareness and the plastic powers of the imagination? There was always the danger that the freeing of the ego for good or evil through the principle of energy would turn out to be only a circuitous trip back to the cell of the small round skull by a stranger, a wanderer unable to gain ego-room or to be ‘at home’ in the world.
These inherent contradictions in the romantic position become more desperate in Dransfield’s later poetry, creating a tension within the poem, composed of fragment and flow. Each word, or sometimes a skeletal phrase is picked out like a pebble, inhibited, then pushed out moving into the current of a stream, strongly influenced by the cadences and notations of classical music.
name rank religion?
I have none. I am this hand
pushing a pen along
in random patterns
my fate is my own
I have nothing to say to them
or to their questions;
— ‘Notes For An Inquest’
more and more, of late, it becomes
difficult to be whole. The unity of self
is riddled through by doubt, which
devours concentration as small insects
might tunnel through a book ...
what you create is what you see
and soon see only what you’ve made
your diary is to look around.
what’s left of you is not enough
to hold a mind together, or,
except in one bright image, make
a literature of all this pain
— ‘Studio IV’
The poems appear to move further and further into that conspiracy of silence, the ‘counterfeit silence’ that Randolph Stow, another Australian Romantic, explored perhaps to his undoing. Stow has an Afterword in 12 Poets. ‘I really have nothing to say about poetry in general’ he writes, (‘except that mine tries to counterfeit the communication of those who communicate by silence.’) ‘And these poems are mostly private letters.’ Dransfield’s Afterword in the same anthology reads: ‘My views on poetry are few and private.’
How can we compare the silence of a Stow made up of crow calls, the desert places and the apparently final silence of the artist himself, with the prolific Dransfield, who carried round bundles of unpublished manuscripts and wrote a dozen poems before breakfast?
What I am suggesting is that Dransfield’s later voice is like a ransom paid in the kingdom of the silent. His defences have broken down, he is the romantic without a country, so that the effect is like reading the private diary of a poet who has lost his outer skin. The diary is coming to us in broken phrases, sometimes almost monosyllables, held within a firm rhythmic flow, the language stripped to essential emotive phrases. The landscapes, outer and inner, coalesce, and we hear a voice still determined to communicate at all costs, from the centres of human sadness, irresolution and isolation. Apart from the power of this learnt language there is immense value in it, because Dransfield is reporting back from the boundaries of human alienation, and what he has to communicate is important to us all.
For the effect, although sometimes painful, is not alienating, because it is contained within this hard won, but not hard edged, seeming simplicity of form and tone, which organizes and cools off the emotional content, without dissipating it.
The poems are, in the own way, as solitary and gut-lonely as Adamson’s protagonist finds his life style in 1979. But Adamson has a different method of dealing with the dilemma. He accepts the brutality of the situation, and his protagonist appears to be tough, with survival techniques built in; a protective schizophrenia that breaks the heart.
I am not suggesting that Dransfield doesn’t create a persona. He is the ultimate creator of himself in different guises. The usually lower case ‘i’ of the poems is a projection or self-dramatization of many archetypal romantic roles — the wanderer, the aristocrat (disinherited), the lonely, the despised, the nature boy, the death-wisher, the ephemeral lover (of the ‘don’t think twice it’s alright’ variety), and, above all THE POET.
He creates himself as Lady of Shalott with her mirrors flashing high over the city; Robinson Crusoe on the wrong island; writes to Rimbaud in Paris, — ‘the poet is the thief of fire’ ... ‘the great man of french lit. is 17’; he is disappointed in love, in ‘the other’ ...
Now it is almost winter again
this may be my last chance to
talk to you...
you do not listen. No forwarding address
— ‘No Forwarding Address’
He moves through refugee landscapes like etchings drained of all colour, where there is no food, no warmth and no future.
I wasted, pacing out the ramshackle
captivity of a
camp for displaced Romantics.
— (op. cit.)
He has the obligatory romantic attitude to the city as the claustrophobic ‘city of dreadful night’, quite unlike Adamson’s manic plunge into it as some kind of glowing infernal bath, a transfusion and a celebratory joyride.
dear charles: it is dreadful here, i should not have come, the
people are draped statuary, they feel nothing, their city is
glass, but nothing breaks or marks it. i walk among these
dummies, and they appear to walk also, and make voices nothing
— ‘To Charles Buckmaster’
I am living alone now
contained in one small room
the walls cry with rats cries
the window rejects me like a mirror
in a cliff room
among other rooms in cliffs
i think beyond the city
to the farm and sea
— ‘Island Farm’
The answer is then maybe to move out and on, through the streets of the long voyage, be an inspector of tides, take the voyage into solitude — the titles point signposts into flux, movement, existential moments.
The end is distance. A day
too great. You are surpassed. Your steps cannot be equated
with such immensity. You sit on the track waiting.
merely to depart
is no answer.
freedom’s not an evasion, but to search
horizons for the meaning, and to meet
with rainclean eyes
whatever faces you
when distance ends.
— ‘The Grandfather’
There are some poems of bitter annihilation when the natural world rejects him as in ‘Bum’s Rush II. Through The Ice.’
and sky refuse you automatically, you are no freer than before.
Time stops Thats the first sign. And you wait.
Nothing more happens. You are left alone
with no surprises to anticipate.
Endlessness traps you
In Journal d’un homme vide the shape of the poem on the page echoes the terror of the experience, the lines beginning with the long flow of ‘Three Aprils ago the road was the best escape’ to the desolation of the return through doors which don’t open to a false season and regret, with the lines shrinking to three words, two words, then one.
Sometimes Dransfield uses a pause at the end of the poem, then one word drops into space like one desolating chime:
art of our time is something which
— ‘On Hearing the First Poet in Spring’
Sometimes it is only one image, and we are only half-prepared for it. In the poem The Dinner Hour we move through a landscape where slightly threatening serpents glide, but the birds watch and don’t forget to sing, the flowers smell sweetly, the white clouds hasten to the west, then —
a great shadow walks into the lake,
Since Michael Dransfield’s death on Good Friday 1973, Rodney Hall and the poet’s mother have gathered over six hundred poems written mainly in the six years between 1967–1973. The poems written between 1967–71 are collected in Voyage Into Solitude, poems written between 1972–73 will be published in a subsequent volume, The Second Month Of Spring.
In his tough and weirdly tender elegy for Dransfield, The Thoughtless Shore, published in his Selected Poems, Robert Adamson wrote:
We asked for a rotten deal and that’s what we got.
Beautiful ineffectual rebels of an imagined sky.
We searched among the long dead for the living.
Blake, Shelley, they were the harder stuff —
ideas of ourselves as poets was addiction
more terminal than any opiate chemists could refine.
So we rode out our night higher then
than ever with our smack or chalked-up methadone.
He goes on to castigate Dransfield for ‘selling out’ —
And you’ve turned my hand, you had it pat
flush as I’m left here playing
struck down, and the irony — shit,
of writing you another letter.
And I’m reminded of the poem ‘The Change’ in The Inspector of Tides with its existential images of youth and Sydney and being holed up indoors with the TV on like refugees:
we stay indoors
out of the way of
nerve gas police
a clown appears
says he is prime minister
his face grins & falls
apart & a testpattern
in the kitchen are fish
12 Poets 1950–1970, edited by Alexander Craig. The Jacaranda Press, 1971.
A Counterfeit Silence — Selected Poems, Randolph Stow, Angus & Robertson, 1969.
Selected Poems, Robert Adamson, Angus & Robertson, 1977.
Cross the Border, Robert Adamson, Prism Books, Poetry Society of Australia, 1977.
Where I Come From, Robert Adamson, Big Smoke Books, 1979.
Streets of The Long Voyage, Michael Dransfield, Paperback Poets 8, University of Qld. Press.
The Inspector of Tides, Michael Dransfield, Paperback Poets 8, University of Qld. Press 1970.
Voyage Into Solitude, Michael Dransfield, collected and edited by Rodney Hall, University of Qld. Press, 1979.