The Age 20 April 1997: Agenda: Books

The Age 20 April 1997

A poetic meeting by the river of the inner and outer worlds

The Language of Oysters
By Robert Adamson and Juno Gemes
Craftsman House, $49.95

Review: Larry Schwartz

WHEN the American poet Robert Duncan wrote in an early poem of being "permitted to return to a meadow", he was not referring to some geographic location but, as he put it a few lines later, "an eternal pasture folded in all thought".

Another Robert (Creeley), who considered Duncan a mentor, quotes these lines in an essay in which he says: "The sense of a poem — that place, that meadow — has echoes of so many things that are intimate to my own sense of the reality experienced in writing".

Now to a third poet called Robert. In his acknowledgements to his collaborative work with photographer Juno Gemes, Robert Adamson notes the influence of the two Americans, Duncan and Creeley, "who taught me how to listen".

'Oysters' is a book about listening, attending as much to the inner imaginative world as the outer. Rodney Hall has written a preface in which he describes the book as a celebration of "the charm, the hardship, the grind and the tenderness of life on the Hawkesbury River". So it is.

But as Hall himself notes, it is not a scenic book or gallery of characters. Instead, it reflects both the external world encountered at the river and the inner ear and eye that transform it in the creative act.

Gemes has worked extensively with Aboriginal communities. Her work has graced releases from Paper Bark Press of which she is a co-director with Adamson and writer Michael Wilding. Her strong photographs of oyster fanners, local Aborigines, boats, fish, rock carvings and more are drawn from nine years in the river community.

Though he grew up on Sydney's north shore, Adamson's grandparents lived on the Hawkesbury and he would return again and again until settling there some years back. He writes of visiting his grandmother who, close to death, tells him to stay away from "this foul river . . . It will wear you down".

Of course, he doesn't and it does not. The river nourishes his work. "As the Bunya of New South Wales is to Les Murray's verse," West Australian poet John Kinsella writes in a lengthy essay included here, "so the Hawkesbury is to Adamson's."

Adamson's verse records a world of more than mullet, mudflat and mulloway in eight new poems and others from 'Canticles on the Skin' (1970) to 'Waving to Hart Crane' (1994).

It's about process. In one poem here, he summons the memory of another American mentor, Charles Olson. Juxtaposing imagery of river and writing, he has Olson sorting through a sheaf of papers, "each word/ an oyster, culled from the fattening grounds/ of talk".

From the striking photograph of the oyster hut on the front cover, this handsome book raises inevitable questions about the relationship between photographic and poetic processes. Perhaps they are not too different. Kinsella quotes Henri Cartier-Bresson: "I have never been interested in the documentary aspect of photography except as a poetic expression''.

The book shines with affection not just for the community but between its creators. Gemes has included photographs of Adamson including one in which he proudly displays a huge king mulloway he has caught. In another, they share a chair at a campfire at dawn. Each leaning up against the other, cigarette in one hand and look of contentment.

Adamson has a series entitled 'Songs for Juno', the fifth and last of which says only: "The new list begins". 'The Language of Oysters' is an imaginative account of a river as "an eternal pasture folded in all thought".

Larry Schwartz is a Sunday Age journalist.