Australian Book Review April 1997


Australian Book Review April 1997

A Sumptuous Book

Tom Shapcott

The Language of Oysters
Poems by Robert Adamson, Photographs by Juno Gemes
Craftsman House $49.95hb 168pp, 90 5703 10 19

THIS SUMPTUOUS book from Craftsman House seems almost a steal at $50. Not too many poets in Australia have had their work so thoughtfully and elegantly presented as Robert Adamson in this large and beautifully bound format, with quality paper and splendid layout.

The substantial sequence of photographs by Juno Gemes, reproduced with firm clarity, is not merely a decoration. These seventy-one images are essentially a visual essay to counterpoint the forty-seven poems of Adamson that bring the volume to its essential focus.

As if these offerings were not enough, the book is prefaced with a short Foreword by Rodney Hall and a long Introduction by John Kinsella. If Hall, a former Chairman of the Australia Council, is counted as one of Australia's senior literary figures, Kinsella (who received one of the last of the Keating Grants) is undoubtedly seen as the most electric of the newer generation of poets. Robert Adamson, if one needs to 'position' him in the current literary heirarchy, is certainly one of the towering figures midway between the generation of Hall and the generation of Kinsella.

It is obvious that this book makes a statement over and above the actual contents. The poems themselves are an adroit selection that cover Adamson's writing career from the 1960s on. They constitute, therefore, a consolidation and a synopsis. This book brings together poems that many people feel are the central focus of Adamson's achievement: his meditations and observations on the Hawkesbury River of his childhood and his more recent residence. Robert Adamson has truly claimed this territory and this book celebrates his achievement in truly handsome style.

The intimate and telling Juno Gemes photographs sometimes give us disarming and truly affectionate visual records of the poet himself — on boats, with a catch, being himself, not a literary performer. But these reflections serve to draw the observer's eye more fully to the larger presence of the river, the mangroves, the water itself, and all those people and things that draw sustenance from the locality. For myself, the mangrove photographs were the most utterly memorable.

The larger 'statement' of the book is its claim to be an integrated work, an object of fine finish and something deeper than a coffee table production or a regional affirmation. This is a book to be considered, and considered with both delight and seriousness.

It is true that the concept of handsomely presented volumes of poems-and-photographs by one author has been done before. Ted Hughes perhaps gave the concept a particularly vibrant impetus and, in Australia, Mark O'Connor has made something of a whelter of it. But The Language of Oysters, I think, achieves its larger intention. You are drawn into the poems, they are not merely decorations or variations, word-spinning around the images. They grow and resonate through their positioning in this format. The photographs are not additions, they are signposts.

Only a fine lyric poet could sustain this sort of presentation. Robert Adamson holds it together and makes it memorable.

Tom Shapcott's latest book of poetry is City of Home.