Photo of Robert Adamson by Sahlan Hayes

Photo: Sahlan Hayes

reviews

The Age, March 20, 2004

Inside Out: An Autobiography

Reviewed by Lisa Gorton

Adamson's grandfather introduced him to the patient craft of fishing and the art of keeping birds and these, far more than school or family life, came to constitute the real world for Adamson. Take his description of fishing trips on the Hawkesbury, for instance: "It was always spectacular out on the river. There was birdlife everywhere - wild teal fluttering along the shore with their wings just hitting the surface of the water, the echo of owl and curlew sounds haunting the dark escarpments ..."

What other renegade could boast first prize in wedding-cake decoration at the Royal Easter Show? From fishing to pastrycooking and poetry, Adamson was dedicated to the idea of craft. And this is a finely crafted autobiography, which gives each chapter in his life its own theme. The chapter describing a stint at Mount Penang Boys' Home, for instance, is called A Bittern by the Dam: "In photographs, bitterns look solitary and rigid, their head feathers plastered down as if they are wearing hair gel. They look like miserable creatures. They always remind me of weekly swimming days at Mount Penang."

Adamson uses imagery to carry these themes through the chapters until each episode in his early life has a kind of dream resonance; an apparent, internal logic. Adamson started his criminal career in typically idiosyncratic fashion, stealing an exotic riflebird from the Taronga Park Zoo. From that point he spent what you might loosely call his youth in boys' homes, then prisons. It was a life of casual and organised brutality, but things really turned nasty when he got out and took up poetry.

For Adamson joined and came to lead the "generation of '68", that group of young poets who turned to Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, drugs and America for inspiration. In doing so, they came into conflict with the older generation of Jindyworobak poets, for instance; poets who saw it as their role to define a peculiarly Australian scene. And this large culture clash or clash of generations found its focus in Adamson's conflict with his erstwhile mentor, Roland Robinson, when Adamson stacked a Poetry Society meeting and wrested control of Poetry Magazine.

Perhaps you can find a more measured account of the situation in Patricia Dobrez's study, Michael Dransfield's Lives: A Sixties Biography. But for an insight into its viciousness - its alliances and betrayals - you can't beat Adamson's story of calling in on Robinson one night when Robinson's partner, Joan Maas, was just serving up dinner. Robinson stayed in his study while Adamson sat down to eat.

Maas "served up rare fillet steak, mushrooms, tiny new potatoes and fresh green beans"; she was just getting Adamson a second helping when Robinson emerged from his study, carrying an armful of books: " 'Here's your imperialist, false-tongued, self-centred prophet from California!' He flung Charles Olson's Archaeologist of Morning at me - it narrowly missed my head and smashed into the wall. 'And here's your Donald Duck Allen from Hollywood!' The New American Poetry hurtled past and crash-landed on the table, capsizing Joan's Spode gravy boat and splattering its contents across the linen ... 'Take your treachery and false poets! Take your foul soul and lying tongue and go back to Balmain!' "

So Adamson's story is also interesting for its glimpses of other Australian writers: Michael Dransfield; Dorothy Hewett; David Malouf; Robert Gray; and John Tranter, who "wore dark glasses, drove a red MG sports car and had a glamorous and formidable wife, Lyn".

Adamson's account of visiting Francis Webb in a psychiatric hospital is also hard to forget. After talking about Thompson, Slessor and so on for a while, Adamson asked Webb who his favourite Australian poet was. Webb replied with deliberation, Douglas Stewart. "Douglas Stewart!" exclaimed Adamson. Because, said Webb, "his eyes wide and serious, his tone confidential, 'he once lent me five pounds'."

Readers of Adamson's poetry will enjoy tracing how his life, and how much of his life, goes into his poetry. It may, for instance, affect your understanding of the controlled menace in "Action would kill it / a gamble" - that love poem set entirely on a beach - to learn that it was prompted by his friendship with a fellow prisoner in the Maitland exercise yard: "The seemingly endless beach held us firm; / we walked and walked all day / until it was dark." Or take the last lines of Adamson's poem, My Granny: "she said the prawns will eat you / when you die on the Hawkesbury River".

They take on new resonance when Adamson tells the story of discovering a dead body in the river on an early morning fishing trip with his grandfather: "Fa-Fa held up the jutting arm and the body rolled towards us, almost touching the bottom. Then he jumped out and carefully turned the man a bit more, saying calmly: 'Look.' Underneath the floating body, hundreds of prawns had gathered - all clinging, feeding and swarming ... 'The net,' Fa-Fa said ... I handed it to him and he started scooping under the body, catching dozens of prawns with each scoop ... Fa-Fa went to the co-op first, to get some ice for the prawns, then walked over to the police station to tell them what we'd found."

Or so Adamson says. The autobiography ends on a teasing note, quoting his mother: "I don't know what Robert's told people ... But I'd take it with a grain of salt if I were you. He's very loose with the truth."

This article reprinted from The Age website, with permission. © The Age 2004