Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum Weekend Edition, April 3-4, 2004: Books


Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum Weekend Edition, April 3-4, 2004: Books

Free from chains, it's a fortunate life

Inside Out
by Robert Adamson
Text, 342pp. $45

Reviewed by Peter Craven

In his extraordinary memoir Inside Out, poet Robert Adamson looks back on his wayward youth.

Robert Adamson is one of the most striking of the generation of '68 poets who refashioned Australian poetry by making it reflect the whole pattern of speech and dreaming that turned its back on the well-made British or colonial tradition.

This is the man who wrote poems of the Hawkesbury aflame with birds and silver with fish, who made for himself a post-symbolist direction out of the inspiration he got from Rimbaud, some Bob Dylan records, and a selected Hopkins lent to him in prison by a kind Jesuit.

He is also the poet John Ashbery can rightly describe as "one of Australia's national treasures". Adamson is to Australian poetry what the great American Robert Duncan is to his country's.

Last year, when I edited the first of the Best Australian Poems annuals, I remember thinking: thank God that we have a poet, a late romantic who can speak on behalf of the dream of nature and landscape with this degree of cleanliness and accuracy.

You might also thank God that in Robert Adamson we have an artist, like his friend Brett Whiteley, who can speak rhapsodically of common things in a language everyone can cotton onto.

Inside Out is Adamson's latest attempt (there have been a number of sketches, fictional and factual, along the way) to come to terms with the pretty catastrophic circumstances that preceded the emergence of the muse and led Adamson through a purgatorial circus of juvenile detention centres and prisons.

It's an extraordinary story – at once cautionary and ecstatic – told breathlessly with a wonderful evocative sense of the naive boy, at once cunning and 'sauvage', who ends up in such a ghastly amount of shit.

Adamson seems always to have been wild, for no better reason than temperamental affinity. In the midst of his normal working family – initially at Neutral Bay – Bob's the boy who's getting out of bed at the dead of night and making his way to Taronga Park Zoo to admire, then steal, some magnificent bird. I know of no other book that traces with greater clarity or poignancy the connection between the eye of the observing child and the eye of the artist creating out of what he discovers in his head.

It's a story of consistent delinquency: a child (whatever his age) who can never say no to himself and who, at various points, accidentally maims a girl he loves in a stolen car (she loses a leg); a teenager who has technical 'carnal knowledge' with a 15-year-old girl, a whole theatre of initial loveplay (very credibly rendered) that falls short of full consummation.

Inside Out is an Australian memoir with a peculiar power, a clairvoyance that will work its magic on every kind of reader. For much of the book we are presented with the image of this rather dreamy chap who seems a sweet, acquiescent type who for some reason is forever dropping the job, hitting the road, robbing a shop.

This book is a slow enchantment because it captures, quite rivetingly, the naivete of the self in the face of its own blunders. This may be a partial consequence of the author's 'innocence' which, God knows, seems radical enough, though there is a curious moment, late in the piece, in prison, when someone, quite cynically, gives him a copy of Machiavelli's The Prince as if to suggest Adamson has lived out its stratagems in advance.

Not that it matters if Adamson has at different times been two-parts idiot savant and one-part Richard III. In the light of what he went through as a kid, who can blame him? The representation of prisons, juvenile and adult, is horrific and utterly believable. The physical cruelty, the mental torture, the humiliation and abiding unkindness. At one point Adamson, naked in solitary confinement and total darkness, manages to read the seven seals section of Revelation through a tiny sliver of light beneath the door. Later, he eats the page.

Inside Out is an extraordinary story. Adamson describes, quite vividly, the process of being raped (by two men of Maltese background) and then, later, the process of deciding to become a prison 'girl' with appropriate hair and walk. It amazes me to discover that Adamson's florid calligraphic handwriting comes from the Belgian pastry cook who admired his natural artistry and employed him as his assistant time after time.

It's a book where you never quite know where you are because the most momentous things (self-mutilation, official claims to homosexuality) are being presented to the reader as strategy – pure Machiavellianism – but you can only wonder at the whirlwind of pain and self-forgetfulness they must represent. So much of this fine book is a monument to how brutal Australia can be (or life can be), that we ding to the nameless acts of kindness that punctuate it. The process by which the delinquent with the eyes of an artist becomes a poet is baldly told, as if in summary, though it's marvellous to know that when Adamson read The Windhover he saw the bird, not just the words.

Inside Out is one of the most remarkable autobiographies since Bert Facey's A Fortunate Life. Like Facey's book, it is written by a man with no particular talent for self-analysis and, like Facey's, it has an extraordinary authenticity as if the author is breathing down your neck or asking you to give him drugs.

Kids should read Inside Out in high school. It will discourage delinquency, it will encourage prison reform and it will also show them, with the glitter of diamonds, what a heartbreaking and heroic thing it is when someone cares more for the things that soar through the air and swim in the deep, than all the coercive power of what chains them down.

Bob Dylan once asked whether birds were free of the chains of the skyway. Bob Adamson has long been free of the chains and torments of the prisons he seemed to fling himself into and it's to his credit that he writes about the paradise he saw – and lost – and the hell he endured with such simplicity and candour.

This is a book about a convict who not only comes good but who becomes a poet and learns the language of the gods. It's an emancipist's book and it connects, like a dream, with our deepest tradition.

Peter Craven was the founding editor of Best Australian Poems (Black Inc).