The Age 25 September 1999


The Age 25 September 1999

Poets of the light and the dark

Ivor Indyk

Poets and Others
By Bruce Beaver
Brandl & Schlesinger, $16.95

Black Water
By Robert Adamson
Brandl & Schlesinger, $19.95

BRUCE BEAVER is perhaps best known as the poet who bridged the generation gap, breaking through the old formalities, and introducing a conversational, personal mode of address into Australian poetry. The great distinction of his poetry is that it can be intimate and public at the same time, can turn on his own foibles, or those of the 20th century. His subjects are often humble and his stance unassuming, but his view is always long.

"We are quite personal in what we write/ and the world may eventually be/ a tiny bit the better for our speaking/ out of ourselves."

This is from a poem addressed to the poet Adrienne Rich in Beaver's latest collection, Poets and Others. It was with precisely this sort of poem that Beaver established his reputation 30 years ago in his pioneering collection Letters to Live Poets, and the commitment to the personal, and to fellow-feeling, is just as strong here as it was then.

Some of the most striking poems in this collection are tributes to fellow practitioners — Celan, Borges, Lowell, Duncan, Grace Perry — not for being heroic, but for being human. There's a similar recognition of human limitation, and the need for mutual support and reciprocity, in Beaver's poems to his wife Brenda, love poems as rich and earthy and wise as any by a younger poet.

In one of these poems Beaver refers to his wife's "unuttered faith/ in things and beyond things/ your belief in their being/ of import". Beaver himself has always been excellent on ordinary things, suburban things, which he milks for their promise of strangeness or consolation. There is a poem here about the common cricket, archetype of "those chirping generations/ of fragile, angular/ serenaders", under which description one understands that the poet includes himself of course. Or the walking stick, which gives rise to the strangely comforting thought, "I doubt/ that I will ever again feel that/ two legs are preferable to three".

In one memorable poem, Three Not-Quite-Still Lives, Beaver celebrates a trailer carrying a cement-mixer, a deflated plastic bag, and a house-painter's radio, finding the first "as unattractively functional as asphalt", and the last two heroic in their "heaven searching" aspirations. These ordinary objects are somewhat outside the normal range of poetic icons, even for a Les Murray or a John Forbes. But that is what one values most in a Beaver poem, the modest approach, the intimate address, the familiarity — and then something wholly unexpected, a perspective opened on to something big. In this late collection especially, the perspective is filled with light.

Not so for Robert Adamson, who does extraordinary things with light in his new collection, but whose orientation is towards the dark, the finality of death, as suggested by his title Black Water, and the last line of its last poem, "and the darkness is complete". The line is the conclusion to Creon's Dream, Adamson's six-part elegy to his friend Brett Whiteley, a poem that claims to embrace death, and that begs comparison with Slessor's Fire Bells, in both the intensity of its imagery, and its persistent questioning. "Death turns up/ and life goes on incredibly, what can/ you feel if the day turns to stone?"

Adamson has much in common with Whiteley, particularly that Van Gogh-like intensity of color and line, by which they seem to be dealing with energies and forces, rather than with objects and settings. "The sun is a hole in the sky, a porthole/ you can see turbulence out there/ the old wheeling colors and their dark forces," Adamson writes in The Gathering Light.

The poems in The Tropic Bird and Approaching Zukofsky sections of Black Water are, if it is possible, even more intense, more saturated in energy, color, light, scent, music, pain, alcohol and detail of a hallucinatory clarity, than we are used to in Adamson's Hawkesbury poems. It is as if the vision has been sharpened to a screaming or a swooning point, as in Swimming Out With Emmylou Harris, which appeals to all the senses in a rich concoction worthy of the Symbolistes, even to its crooning final incantation, "Sweet Lord,/ sweet poison, sweet, sweet music".

Of course what is embraced here is not death, which is after all the absence of energy, seen by Adamson in The White Abyss as "a blank/ where no thought flowers, a pit of black/ tideless water, where no fish kill". But it is an apprehension of life wrought to such a pitch, that you feel that death cannot be very far off, as if what it offered were the kind of vision that you could only have in the final moments.

Why does Adamson conjure with death in this way? It is, after all, the greatest of the intensities. And he is a primitivist, constantly playing on that borderline where the human surrenders to the forces of nature. There are poems in Black Water where Adamson seeks to see through the eyes of a bird, or to decipher the mysterious code of the Book of the World, and I find these somewhat forced. But there are also others, such as Swimming Out, Tropic Bird, The Gathering Light, The Night Heron, Creon's Dream, poems of highly wrought sensation in which death is used, in a mannered and theatrical way it is true, to emphasise the sweetness and the acid bite of living — and these are really special.

Ivor Indyk is editor of HEAT magazine.