The Times Literary Supplement
8 October 2004: Poetry
Reading The River: Selected poems
223pp. Bloodaxe. Paperback, £10.95 1 85224 606 5
Inside Out: An autobiography
342pp. Melbourne: Text. Aus$45.00 1 877008 95 8
The Australian poet Robert Adamson's self-confessed obsession with birds has taken many forms. His autobiography recalls the pigeons and rainbow lorikeets he kept during childhood as "a refuge", and the mixed-up motives leading to his first delinquent act (among many), the theft of a rare riflebird from Taronga Zoo. Shelley's skylark and Hopkins's windhover were his initial poetic inspirations, while the birdlife and landscape of his home territory, the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales, have given him fabulous subject matter over more than three decades. His Reading the River: Selected poems culminates in a rich sequence of recent work observing birds both real and metaphorical: parrots ("their colours ink for a new language"), kites, the dollarbird, gang gang cockatoos, rednecked avocets, and rainbow bee-eaters "turning on axles of air; / each crescent beak / delicately coloured, / a scissor-powered talis". In his typically Romantic vein, these birds become symbols of imagination and memory. But Adamson also has a wry humour, summoning up another bird out of his past:
The skua flew into our heads in 1968 –
a new kind of poetry, a scavenging predator. . .
Although the skua breeds on Black Mountain
it is migratory and dispersive, its call
a series of low quacks and thin whinnying squeals.
("The Southern Skua")
Having embraced American pop culture from an early age and later enjoying friendships with Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, Adamson was a key figure during turbulent years for Australian poetry from the late 1960s onwards, editing the Poetry Society's magazine for fifteen years, after a power struggle between conservative nationalism and modernism, and renaming it New Poetry. Achieved by stacking meetings with his newly enrolled supporters, the victory of the "Generation of '68" meant the painful deposing of the President of the Society, his mentor Roland Robinson who angrily threw The New American Poetry at him, shouting "here's your Donald Duck Allen from Hollywood!". Adamson has, however, turned out to be far more than an Aussie Black Mountaineer, and more Bob Dylan than Bob Creeley. His work shows plenty of nervous tension and a Creeleyesque thinking about love and intimacy, but these are outdoors poems, formally loose and emotionally expansive. He has plenty of other American affinities, with Robert Lowell, and with James Wright, the poet of the Ohio River, whom he read while attending Sydney University workshops run by David Malouf; and his life story of anguished family and sexual relationships, spells in prison, alcoholism, drugs and alienation, and an eventual creative solution to his problems, inevitably brings Charles Bukowski to mind.
Never one to pass on self-dramatization, Adamson refers to "the several levels of hell" he had to descend and negotiate in order to write his autobiography. Inside Out is a survivor's tale, simply and evocatively written, with some truly horrible episodes. He grew up near Sydney, increasingly disturbed: trips on the river with his grandfather took turns with stealing cars; after a car crash his girl passenger had her leg amputated. On the run with his first love Carol, he messily killed a lamb for food and collected a jail sentence for under-age "carnal knowledge". In prison he suffered a double rape and protectively adopted a transsexual role; after punishments and self-mutilation he was straitjacketed in darkness within the notorious "Black Peter" solitary confinement cell. In extremis, he managed to read a page (perhaps too aptly) from the Book of Revelation: "I'd been stripped of everything, even my name, but I still had language, I still had a voice . . . Then it occurred to me that, given my situation, this was a black joke."
Adamson's salvation through poetry began with work in the prison library, encouragement from a Jesuit priest, and his discovery of The Ilex Tree by Geofiey Lehmann and Les Murray. The fist successful poem he wrote while still in jail, "Jerusalem Bay", is reprinted as an appendix, but its homage to Hopkins and Shelley gave way on his release to passions for Rimbaud and Bob Dylan. Moving to Balmain with like-minded writers such as Michael Dransfield, Tim Thorne, Vicki Viidikas and Robyn Ravlich, and the painter Brett Whiteley ("who could afford better quality smack"), he experienced the full effect of the "derangement of the senses" through drugs. He has survived to elegize a number of his friends, as in "Sonnets for Robert Duncan", and addressed a series of verse letters to them in Mulberry Leaves (2001), including James McAuley and Tom Raworth. Reading the River takes up his story where the memoir leaves off, with the publication of Canticles on the Skin (1970), and contains extracts from twelve subsequent collections. Its first poem is written as a youthful ex-con: "I've looked around every inch / of the jail & dug my own groove in yellow / sandstone, & searched without sleep / & searched again / back on the street in the rain – searched for / some kind of rebel angel, / some kind of law".
Adamson began to move towards maturity in Swamp Riddles (1974) and Cross the Border (1977), with outstanding poems such as "The shining incidents" with its ghostly visions of night parrots and crabs, and "Dead Horse Bay" capturing the adrenalin rush of fishing:
to the jumping cords,
ice-packs over bad burns
and the catfish venom,
rock salt against gut-slime
. . . When the bream are running
like that, nothing can touch you
and everything matters.
Where I Come From (1979) exorcized some of his family conflicts, and Wards of the State (1990) came to terms with his prison experiences (also fictionalized in Zimmer's Essay). His most recent collections seem his most assured, especially Black Water: Approaching Zukofsky (1999), the bird poems achieving a marvellous exactness of description as well as paying tribute to his poetic masters. Now turned sixty, the former "rebel angel", drug-taker and alcoholic has mellowed into a kind of Gilbert White of the Hawkesbury River area, concerned for its conservation. Having come through so much, Adamson addresses his wife, the photographer Juno Gemes, who supplies the cover's sunset image of Mooney Creek, in "Flannel Flowers for Juno":
The sounds of the river are softened
while you carry the rest of the world in your head
And I empty myself of memories one
word at a time.