The Times Literary Supplement 9 July 1999


The Times Literary Supplement 9 July 1999


Steven Matthews

Robert Adamson
BLACK WATER Approaching Zukofsky
79pp. Rose Bay, NSW: Brandl and Schlesinger. Aus$20.
1 876040 14 9

Robert Adamson was a key figure in the group of Australian poets who, in 1968, actively embraced the post-Poundian poetic being promulgated at the time by anthologies of American writing. The twin pulls in the title of this collection, as well as its opening section, show Adamson defiantly continuing that process of bringing a foreign style and form closer to native fauna and geography. "Black Water" itself, something of an elegy for the poet Robert Duncan, recalls a trip in his grandfather's skiff across Mooney Creek. Lines in the poem reveal a self-consciousness about poetic artifice that is also an acknowledgement of indebtedness to Duncan, among other mentors. Yet, running counter to this, Adamson sustains also an attention to the transformative power of experience and its ambiguously premonitory quality: "the river was never the same / that night Duncan gathered the southern stars / into his being the black water plopping with fat mullet." A similar sense of revelatory fullness and possibility towards which language can only gesture resonates across other memorial poems and across the poems about birds that make up a large part of the book. Again and again, the poet's responsible attentiveness to the limitations of his medium shows him the better able to celebrate the uniqueness of the species he describes. The "Arctic Jaeger", for instance, "cuts out descriptions . . . its white plumage a flying page / written in a language not endangered". Adamson's poetry of rejoicing derives directly from his sense of human vulnerability before the world around him. Black Water is more successful than some of his earlier collections in persuading us that its alertness to the insufficiencies of language mirrors the hollowness of his own early experiences. Staring into the toxic blaze caused by his father's perpetual burning of scrap, Adamson recalls conjuring images of the new Ford Thunderbirds which were arriving in his suburb, but also that he "found no meaning in my father's fire". Such failures of inheritance galvanize the wonderful avoidance of anthropomorphism, and the exuberant doubled-edged urge for "dancing with words in particular" (as he admires Zukofsky for doing), in this strikingly various and vivid collection.