Australian Book Review August 1999


Australian Book Review August 1999

Approaching Zukofsky

Dorothy Hewett

Robert Adamson
Black Water: Approaching Zukofsky
Brandl & Schlesinger $19.95pb, 79pp
1 876040 14 9

FOUR YEARS IN THE MAKING, Robert Adamson's new collection of lyrics is worth every moment of it. It is as if these poems are lit from within like an illuminated manuscript, a model of compression and explosion shaped by strict observation and the power of the imagination.

Fourteen collections, and with each new book his maturity and control increases. The clarity and hardness of the line plus the ability to transcend its limits makes him the most unique poet of his generation. For Adamson is a craftsman. He has a natural affinity with making, with the instruments of skill, that hard slog and thrill of it, whether it be used to catch a poem or a fish.

Amongst his earliest mentors have been Pound, the imagist, the guru of poetic theory and William Carlos Williams, 'no ideas except in things'; Shelley, Mallarmé, Robert Duncan et al. add the music of the spheres. Now he adds to these Zukofsky, one of the pioneers of objectivist verse. The subtitle of this collection, After Zukofsky, is therefore a clue to the book's making.

The first section opens with a series of bird poems, with a singular difference. Adamson's signature has always been the ability to become the thing he's writing about. Pushing to the limit Keats' Theory of Negative Capability he does not humanise nature but dehumanises himself, so that in these poems he 'sings parrot, scratches lyrics in parrot talk, dances the stump hop of the night parrot', writes from inside the head of a stone curlew. But in the end he admits 'no one knows what it is to sing crow song'.

As a central myth Adamson has always had the inherited symbol of a great tidal river, the Hawkesbury and its tributaries, teeming with fish and birds, worked by oyster farmers and fishermen. How real he is and how accessible sitting in his room above the Hawkesbury looking out over black water, writing letters to the future and the past 'cutting and pasting the past with a mind full of ink'.

If you could look into the present
you might see a pudgy figure at the desk,
throwing back double shots of gin,
fumbling for cigarettes and a light.

But this river is also charged with a freight of symbolic meaning. It is the River Styx, the black water of memory, reflecting, in its opaque depths the mystery of life and death. Here in a seeming paradox the black river of death also becomes the river of light and life, the creative source of composition. The epigraph to Black Water is a quote from Robert Duncan's 'Styx': 'We draw the black water, pure and cold./The light of day is not as bright/as this crystal flowing.'

Ever since his first book, Canticles on the Skin (1969), Adamson has had another central myth - the myth of the big city and in this collection he has managed to combine the two. 'Day Book for Eurydice' is a sequence of twelve poems. 'He walks the streets of/the inner city enduring his limbo calm/as a sentence...'. Adamson's world is made by symbol. So this city is not only Sydney but 'The City of Dreadful Night' inhabited by 'phosphor-headed floosies', a drag show called 'The Fairie Queen', a naked woman screaming, drunks shadow boxing neon, and when the mask of Cupid falls it reveals 'a man without a hat, a murderous swine, cold as a job fish'. This sinister city is redeemed only by the magical figure of Eurydice — 'Who is Eurydice under the stars?' She is a goddess of renewal, rising up out of the lower depths: 'Eurydice flies up from under the ground/and moves through the penthouses.' Transforming a goddess into a mortal woman takes only a few tender lines: 'Take this sprig of delphinium, my chatterbox,/our lives will change.'

Except for a haunting epilogue from Novalis, 'In dew-drops I'll sink and mix with the ashes', Black Water ends with the brilliant poem, 'Creon's Dream':

Out there the black finger points to the mouth
of the river where the dead are heading, moving
over the window glass, the extinct fins move
the fingers of my dead grandfather mending nets.

The dead friends sing from invisible books.
The herons pick the blood-shot eyes from my father's
work in the kilns and the darkness is complete.

Distanced by window glass the black glass of water closes over them. The dead bodies, the extinct fish, the shifts of memory achieve a synthesis. 'I pad the kitchen where are the books/Who reads the poems?' Robert Adamson asks. I predict that this book and these poems will go on being read by lovers of poetry into a future none of us can predict.

Dorothy Hewett is a poet whose new collection, Halfway Up The Mountain, is hovering on the brink of completion.