The Bulletin March 20, 1971


The Bulletin March 20, 1971

Quality of hurt


David Rowbotham. The Makers of the Ark. Angus & Robertson. $2.00. Robert Adamson. Canticles on the Skin. Illumination Press. $2.45.

DAVID ROWBOTHAM has come close to a central Australian stance in the poetry of "The Makers of the Ark." His concern is, in general, with heroes — "the manifold/Hammering men at ceaseless work," the poets who "build . . ./Old new vessels," the perpetual "makers of the ark." His poetry points in this classic direction, but a new strong movement in his verse is pulling it back away from romantic postures into a state that we sense is critical, obsessive, and in its own way moral. His new book has a stark, hurt quality to it that wins respect for the quiet kind of drama that Rowbotham has a feel for in ordinary Australian experience. This is why his book seems central.

He reminds me of George Johnston, with years of newspaper work giving his lines an unmistakable tone of fact and a bedrock feeling. So spare are his effects that his poems at times seem translucent, almost as if they weren't there on the page. But, as with George Johnston, there are real problems for the role which Rowbotham assigns to himself in his writing. The author himself seems to be the least likable creature in the world he has made. It seems to be a condition of the way Rowbotham makes things that he cannot stand outside himself and see how he belongs in the situation.

This comes out most strikingly in a series of poems which are called "A Little Bestiary," and which give "The Makers of the Ark" the uniquely hard quality of Australian experience. It is here that Rowbotham involves himself deeply in the life he is talking about. He finds that he hates the academic world, and offers in "The Mole," "The Porcupine," "The Magpie," "The Beetle," "The Fish," and "The Snake" a bitter farewell after a few years of university teaching. Rowbotham's lines on "The Porcupine" are his own self-portrait:

His whole communication is his hunch
Beneath which eyes withdraw
Hotly and teeth crunch,
Rodent, on every possible touch as prey,
He is a deep minute Vesuvius
Fastened to the ground that he erupts.

Imagining this kind of existence is also participating in its qualities, and when Rowbotham concedes elsewhere that he is "destructive when hate creeps in" he is missing the point of his own creativity. His stance is dramatic in these moments of hate, and his verse succeeds not in spite of his intentions to destroy but because of them. There is something totally honest and active in Rowbotham's make-up that comes through more broadly in these poems than elsewhere in his, and other people's, work.

"Canticles on the Skin" comes at this experience of hurt from a quite different way. None could tell Bob Adamson that Australia is a lucky country. He seems to have been born hurt and accepts his lonesomeness almost with a gaiety. He has been the Huck Finn of the Hawkesbury, coming by way of the reform school up through the drop-out society to be the new strong voice of lyric and critical feeling among the city poets. "Canticles on the Skin" is a stunning performance. It is as though Adamson has leapt, almost fully armed as a poet, straight from the heads of Villon and Arthur Rimbaud. He must live for his imagination.

Perhaps there is not a complete maturity with rhythm in Adamson's lines as yet, but there is such activity of feeling and awareness to his writing that one simply feels glad to be one of his readers. His tight two-line stanzas are his best, but something very human and authentic comes across in the Lowell-like "Through a trammel of lives" when he recalls his grandfather "still at the rudder":

Three generations ago he took
to the Hawkesbury. Blood cold as fishes'
he lived right on the river — while his wife camped
in a lean-to he'd built for nets on the shore.
They say his first son was born
in a sand-fly cloud one morning on the floor.
The daughter worked a smoke-house for his mullet,
and never married.
I watch him at the stern of his boat
feeding out mesh. The corkline hissing softly, floating
across heaven — and his leadline dragging the silt of hell . . . I come astern
dripping, with my end of tackle snared-up . . .

Accepting his own personality so freely puts Adamson at an opposite pole from Rowbotham, where the discovery of personality is being slowly and painfully made. But both poets hold out the possibility of some real character being found in the centre for Australian poetry.