Chicago Review Volume 45, 1999
Chicago Review Volume 45, 1999
Chicago Review Volume 45, 1999
Chicago Review Volume 45, 1999


Chicago Review Volume 45, Numbers 3 & 4, 1999

Black Water: Approaching Zukofsky

Robert Adamson
Rose Bay, Australia: Brandl & Schlesinger, 1999

In Robert Adamson's first book, Canticles of the Skin (1970), the most striking poems are confessional, and pass through drug use and juvenile homes in vivid detail, deadpan humor, and with a nervous energy. From the beginning, his poetry chafes against a settled persona, and against the trappings meant to delineate a self: in this sense, he writes with a restless—and sometimes ironic—self-consciousness. A more Romantic strain emerged in his poetry by the mid-1970s, and largely under the influence of the New American poets. Robert Duncan visited Australia for a month in 1976, and Robert Creeley did so the next year (he commemorated that reading tour in Hello: A Journal). Adamson's Romanticism often takes flight in natural imagery, and particularly that of the Hawkesbury River region where he lives. These two strains in his verse—ironic self-consciousness and romantic lyricism—are not exactly opposed, but suggest a bifocality to his work that gives it remarkable depth. I imagine the poet with one eye on the sky, the other on the page.

In Black Water, forms of nature and culture perform a curious dance. In the book's first section, "Stone Curlew," each poem takes its title from a bird's name-such as "Arctic Jaeger," "The Great Knot," and "The Pheasant Tailed Jacana." The latter proves characteristic in its sharp observational details:

The canoe winds its way up stream,
a school of garfish scatter
around lily-pads, streaking

silver pencils, scattering nonsense;
their gut-sacks translucent,
alive with insect larvae, calligraphic ink.     (14)

Writing, in this instance, serves as a metaphor for the darting movement of the fish. In other passages, this relation between vehicle and tenor is overturned. Such is the case in "The Southern Skua":

The skua flew into our head in 1968
a new kind of poetry, a scavenging predator
frequently attacking humans,
flying through the streets of seaside towns,
foraging with seagulls. One was found
in Tasmania, its beak embedded in the skull
of a spotted quoll, dragged
into a clearing by devils. [. . .]     (18)

As the poem later makes clear, this literary ornithology concerns poetry of the Black Mountain School, and the "shock of the new" that accompanied projective verse. More ironically, the conflation of birds and bards comments on the competitive and rancorous territorialism of poets such as Charles Olson, and the tendency for such poets to band together: "They form clubs / and proclaim their territory / by various displays and loud aggressive calls" (18). Beyond the point Adamson is making in relation to literary history, the fluidity with which he moves between the natural world and literary history is both striking and strange.

Often, natural and literary concerns triangulate the poet himself—the mind both thinking and observing. In "Black Water," this tendency is made explicit:

I took Robert Duncan in my grandfather's skiff
rowing across Mooney Creek
words hummed around our heads

The trees are speaking on the far shore
we'll never get there in time
the pages of books swim upstream

we study words growing on them     (50)

It is not clear until the plural possessive on the third line that "Robert Duncan" refers to the man himself, rather than to one of his books. Such distinctions are blurred as the trees "speak" to the poets, and the river bears the imprimatur of their poems. The result is a little Emersonian in its correspondences between signs and natural facts, and nature's role as symbol of the spirit. Yet in Adamson's poetry, such relationships are unsettled (and sometimes unsettling), and subject to ongoing revision or alteration. For this reason, Duncan's presence in the poem is appropriate. Much of Duncan's poetry—like that of Shelley—charts the movement of thought. In this respect, Duncan's verse sometime lacks sociability, but convinces us that we are witnessing the consciousness in flux—a rare accomplishment. I get some of the same feeling from reading Black Water.

One section of the book, "Daybook for Euridice," would appear to share most closely the sense of "writing from the moment" advocated by experimental poets of the 1950s and 1960s. Most poems in the section bear a time in their titles, presumably indicating the hour of their composition. Here, for instance, in "Nothing on the Mind (3 am)":

The gnome's Akubra is part of his head.
He drinks Jack and Coke; at last they have come up
with an alchoholic robot. Let me tell you
ambition leads to imitation oak.

The weight of eyes rides on my cheeks,
until blotchy flowers become thoughts
feeding my brain; venomous butterflies flit
through my eardrums. When the limits fall away,

brightness flares about, there is no shade
nothing but illumination on a sea of drink.
Philosophers I swallowed undigested swim in circles,

bronze-whalers of the intellect, one cannot dream
in this slipstream of blood. Your punishment is to think.     (60)

As in Ted Berrigan's poetry, this adaptation of the sonnet serves as a form for rumination. Yet, to my mind, Adamson manages a sharpness absent from Berrigan's pseudo-sonnets, without sacrificing spontaneity. Grasping at sardonic observations, the speaker is caught in a circle of thought (as Duncan would say), adrift on a "slipstream of blood" that calls to mind the black water of the river itself.

In the United States, the aesthetic practices of poets such as Duncan and Zukofsky have become the grounds for polemic. And the lessons learned from the poets are often unfortunate—capaciousness mistaken for prolixity, spontaneity for lack of craft, and erudition for obscurantism. I am glad to find a poet from elsewhere refining some of the best aspects of their innovative style, yet with both clarity and precision. In poems such as "Meaning," issues of semantics, and linguistic abstraction, are in the service of emotional intensity:

Who can I talk to now that you have left
the land of the living? The sound of more words.

The moon rolls out from the side of a mountain,
and I decide to earn the rent;
the net pours into a thick chop,
a line of green fire running before the moon's light—

Does four inch mesh have anything to say tonight?     (37)

In such passages, Adamson depicts receptivity to nature's communications as a break in a normative concatenation of signs, or the consequence of mourning. In this sense, abstraction can have dangerous consequences: "On Friday nights I fork out comfort, I but tonight I work with holes, with absence." It is this awareness of risk, and sense of the poem as existing on the edge of what's human, that makes Black Water so compelling.

Devin Johnston