JAS Review of Books, Issue 23, April 2004
Reviewed by Debra Zott, Flinders University
Reading an autobiography never fails to raise questions in my mind: is the author telling the truth? How much of what s/he writes is the truth? Is this a confession? A catharsis? An attempt to set the record straight? To reveal oneself? Or to reconstruct one's life story?
What, I wonder, is left out; and why? How reliable is the author's memory? Will the author, looking back through decades, succumb to the nostalgic practice of sentimentalising, of romanticising the ordinary and not so ordinary details of his or her life? Who, in fact, is the (real) 'I' of autobiography? Is there a real 'I'? And: What is 'truth' anyway?
Then there are the inevitable questions regarding audience: Does the author have an audience in mind when s/he writes? And, indeed, will this autobiography find an audience?
The autobiography in hand is Robert Adamson's Inside Out. Adamson is a passionate, committed and accomplished Australian poet, with seventeen books of poetry to his name. Born in 1943, he grew up in Sydney's Neutral Bay area, and on the Hawkesbury River, but this autobiography is larger than the remembered details of a writers' life.
Inside Out presents Adamson's life journey, from early childhood, through adolescence, up to his first book launch (for Canticles on the Skin) in 1970—although it does make occasional reference to events in the 1980s and beyond. The fact that it ends more than three decades short of the present prompts a further question: is there another volume waiting in the wings? What of his collaborative work with partner Juno Gemes, for instance?
What makes this journey greater than an account of the details is the way in which it connects past, present and future, and forges them with the 1950s and 60s Australian backdrop, with the universal struggle of soul, the spiritual quest, and with the poet's manipulation of language, driven by a desire to express and understand the unknown of imaginative experience; to approach mystery.
In terms of poetic influences, Bob Dylan, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Arthur Rimbaud, Augustine, Sappho, and the language of the Bible are all drawn into Adamson's present. What inspires him about their work, and their use of language—'Dylan's absence of sentiment' (p. 217), Hopkins' appearance of being 'in nature', and his ability to write about bleak subjects in an uplifting way (p. 218); Augustine's 'lowdown on guilt' (p. 219), and Sappho's timelessness (p. 225) for example—mingles with the influences of Adamson's contemporaries, to contribute to his own poetic development.
Adamson conveys a humble attitude toward his beginnings as a fledgling poet, rather than leading the reader to believe that he flew fully-formed into the world of poetry. For the new generation of poets who might read Inside Out, it is reassuring to hear that this widely published and respected Australian poet has suffered the disappointment of rejection and felt, initially, that he stood outside a charmed circle of published poets.
As Adamson recounts his personal journey, what is revealed is how innocence, love, desire, and need can each lead to a 'season in hell' (to borrow from the title of a work, by French Symbolist Rimbaud, which was influential in Adamson's poetic apprenticeship), and how the human spirit can rise triumphant from its descent.
The first chapter is titled Paradise (an irony?), but is not free from the language and imagery of Hell as it describes Adamson's family background and his earliest memories, in which tea-time is a 'dark satanic ritual' (p. 4) with his alcoholic father cast as demon, the atmosphere tense with the threat of verbal abuse. Yet, there is beauty in it and he remembers 'sunlight and water, throbbing waves of sound—cicadas in peppercorn trees—and the early morning air around the shores of Sydney Harbour' (p. 11).
The first half of Inside Out deals honestly with Robert's incarceration in boys' homes and in gaol. Urged by his editor, Chris Edwards, to 'spill the beans' (p. 341), he does not hold back from describing the most intimate and humiliating of prison experiences, and I found myself wondering what these revelations must have cost him, emotionally, in the writing, while also feeling thankful for being given the opportunity to look inside a world of which I knew nothing, and to do so from the prisoner's perspective. Here is a brave man who, it seems, has shone a light into the darkest moments of his soul's experience; who has not been afraid to confront, and, perhaps, to accept and integrate them psychologically.
The second half of Inside Out shares personal accounts of moments in the history of Australian poetry, in the late 1960s, and of the journals Poetry Australia, and Poetry Magazine (later New Poetry Magazine), of which Adamson was an editor. Adamson also describes a memorable meeting with the poet Francis Webb, in Callan Park Psychiatric Hospital, and other poets such as Roland Robinson, who he considers 'the first real poet I ever met' (p. 278).
The author introduces his many selves—the sensitive child enthralled with the natural world; the lover and keeper of exotic birds, who dreams of becoming an ornithologist; the petty criminal; and his emerging 'female self'. As well, he is the hardworking pastry cook who takes pride in his creations and his industry; the adolescent in love, on an edgy and wild road trip to Queensland with his girlfriend, Carol—survival testing their resourcefulness, spurring them on to more and more acts of petty crime; and the young man with a poet's soul, thirsty for knowledge of the great writers and their techniques for expressing what he feels building up, and taking shape, inside himself.
Inside Out is a beautifully produced hardback edition, from Text Publishing in Melbourne. It contains twelve leaves of black and white plates, which include a delightful and revealing character portrait of Adamson's grandfather, Fa-Fa, with whom he shared fishing on the Hawkesbury River. There are a few minor typographical/editorial errors, but the quality of the whole overcomes them.
Readers of Adamson's poetry will find that his autobiography illuminates many of the poems and provides access to dimensions that, perhaps, were not previously detected or understood. For example, the poem 'Action would kill it / a gamble'—a poem about deep and intense friendship on many levels—is set on a 'seemingly endless' beach, but was inspired by a meeting that occurred in prison. They might also find themselves on their own journey—discovering, or revisiting, the many books, poems, poets, songs and songwriters acknowledged by Adamson as being influential in his long writing career.