Cordite No. 2 1997


Cordite No. 2 1997


Dorothy Hewett

The Language Of Oysters
Robert Adamson & Juno Gemes
Craftsman House and G+B Arts International 1997
ISBN 90 5703 10 19 $49.95 pp168

The LANGUAGE OF OYSTERS is a celebration of one of the most beautiful river landscapes in Australia. Anyone who has been a passenger on the light Cessna that used to fly from Sydney to Newcastle will remember that catch in the breath when the great shield of the Hawkesbury, shaken with light, suddenly lay beneath them. This book, a hymn of praise to that river, must be the culmination of one of Robert Adamson's dreamings – the book as beautiful object: it is without doubt the most physically striking collection of poems and photographs ever published in Australia.

Every thing about it is in harmony; the cover, the typeface, Juno Gemes' memorable photographs and the poems selected across 27 years of Adamson's writing life. But this is not just a romantic picture of a great river. Its strength is in its grounding in realism. Just as Adamson never flinches from the bloody underside of the natural world and the harsh, poverty stricken lives of the river people he has intimately known since boyhood, Juno Gemes, while exploring the shifts of light and shadow on its mirrored surface, also documents the hardworking fishermen and their families without sentimentality.

The photographs can be roughly divided into landscape, character studies and work, and there is an extensive index which meticulously locates place, people and time. Sometimes the index helps to anchor the images like reflective visions, such as the cover photograph of 'The Serpent's Breath' or the mangrove estuary on the title page. Sometimes they signify the importance of the work, as with the back cover photograph of a hand shucking oysters, or the continuing life of families caught in moments that unselfconsciously reveal their characters. In these photographs she manages to create for us the indissoluble link of the generations with the ancient genealogy of the river.

In many ways The Language Of Oysters can be seen as another Adamson selected. There are only eight new poems in the book, but the new context illuminates poems as far back as Canticles On The Skin (1970). Swamp Riddles (1974), Cross The Border (1977) and Where I Come From (1979). It is also interesting to note differences in technique, the paring away of language that Adamson has developed. Compare the looser romanticism of 'The River' or 'Sunlight, Moonlight' with the new, introductory poem 'Meshing Bends With The Light', a poem about the making of this book, written with that spare economy of phrase where run on lines suddenly leap into the magic of seeing. This is a style that with maturity Adamson has made his own:

The last riverboat mail-run
scatters letters across
the surface, the ink
runs into the brackish tide.

A stream of light pours
from the sky into the mouth
of Mooney Creek, the river
flows in to the memory of all those
who look into these frames.

In these lyrics the river is often a metaphor for writing a poem and can embrace everything from Charles Olson as an oyster fisherman to Mondrian and Robert Lowell.

Just as Gemes locates her photographs by place so Adamson uses his own methods for reconstructing the landscape by placing the poems in actual locations; Windy Dropdown Creek, Parsley Bay, Dead Horse Bay, Snake Island, Jerusalem Bay. These names, plus the naming of the fish, the birds and the river characters resonate throughout the whole book; mulloway, mullet, ribbon fish, catfish, stingray, bream, the prawn bird, the bee-eater, the goshawk, the night heron. His river of characters include the mythic figure of the grandfather, with the eggs of the sacred kingfisher hatching in his brain, the grandmother dying:

She said the prawns will eat you
if you die on the Hawkesbury river.

Joan Hunter is his 'first proper girlfriend', his cousin Sandy is his secret lover:

We thought we had probably
committed mortal sin even more
times than Mandy Kerslake.

Mandy Kerslake surfaces again in that brutally mysterious poem 'What's Slaughtered's Gone', where Mandy, the black crow and the dynamited fish coalesce in a surreal collage.

The collection begins with a short preface by Rodney Hall and a lively critical essay by John Kinsella which I would have preferred to read in another context, thus letting the poems and the photographs stand alone on their considerable merit. The text is divided into six sections and opens with a panoramic view of Mooney Creek winding like a rainbow serpent through the wooded hills, an ancient rock carving, a Koori warrior, an ageing hulk, an empty anchored fishing boat. The poems in this first section apotheosise the river. In the second section, 'River Looking Back', the poems are a complete contrast – tough, realistic colloquial pieces largely drawn from the collection Where I Come From. The third section marries photographs of the river's social life with brief, powerful lyrics like 'Fanning the Oysters', where you can feel the tug of the tide in the pull of the verse. There are also poems of angry protest at the senseless trashing of the environment, the killing of native animals and the filling in of the mangrove swamps.

In the next two sections, 'Converging River Cultures' and 'Where Everything Matters', the photographs cover themes of family history and fishermen with their catches. The poems change into longer, meditative and reflective lyrics and love poems, sometimes using the myths of metamorphosis, where even a breath can become part of the tidal atmosphere. 'Where Everything Matters' opens with 'The Mullet Run' I and II, one of Adamson's first heartbreaking narratives to explore the troubled sexuality of adolescence. 'The Mullet Run II' is one of Adamson's close-knit work poems, like 'Gutting the Salmon' and 'Dead Horse Bay'.

The photographs in the final section, 'Farming the Oysters', illuminate 'the gear, tackle and trim' of the oyster trade, thus binding the collection together under its title. Adamson's new poems, most of which are grouped here, take on a particular resonance as he plays with almost outlandish metaphors, but never outlandish to him who continually equates with the hard work of the fishermen with the hard work of constructing a poem. In the title poem he mythologises Mooney Creek and the oyster fishermen while still keeping the poem squarely on the ground. This is one of Adamson's greatest skills, the ability to set the realistic groundwork of the poem and then transcend it; Australia as a goshawk in 'Silva', or a sudden historical time shift when a red-eyed explorer crashes out of the bush.

Adamson's imagination is full of foreboding and a refusal to accept the pleasant subterfuges. It is a side that Gemes, with her emphasis on the positive virtues of life, work and the family, seldom touches on. She does not follow him into this dark, redemptive vision, although there are hints of it in several photographs – in 'The Dragon's Breath' with its metaphysical subtext, the ancient mangroves with their primitive roots pushing up out of the mud, and in the two full length studies of Adamson with his catch, taken in the wild light of feral triumph. As a fisherman from a fishing culture he understands the psychology of the hunter, whether bird, fish or human, and in these photographs she has caught the ambivalence of that position. Her great strengths, however, are humanistic. Gemes can catch a fleeting moment in her lens and link it back through the generations into a timeless history.

There are few poets in Australia or anywhere else who have a background remotely like Robert Adamson's, who is able to draw from such a wide spectrum of tough experience and amalgamate it with the reading and writing of poetry. It creates an extraordinary body of work only faltering when the mythic aspects tend to overbalance the poem. This seldom happens now. As his work has developed he has learnt to shuck off the dead wood of over-romanticised language. Eros, Oberon and the twin anima disappear as he goes, he would say, 'straight for the throat'. 'No River, No Death' is a perfect example. In this final poem he attempts a great deal and it is fascinating to watch him walk the tightrope of craft – 'what to leave in, what to leave out':

Now from the jetty, souls go where souls go;
and the world's a mudbank in a dank westerly –
and there's nothing to hand, nothing to hold,
death's all around streaked in the afternoon air.

In sections 4 and 5, however, with their overlay of rhetoric, the analogies of war and the atom bomb become strained. Only in the last section does he regain his balance and redeem the poem. 'No River, No Death' ends with a rhyming couplet. Written with deceptive simplicity, the last lines 'tear the heart' and imply the hope and the violence that lives on in the natural world:

The Afternoon's last light has gone under now,
a flying fox swings in through a star

and the catfish are pecking the stingray's wing,
the larrikin prawnbird starts to sing.

In the unique collaboration of river, word and image, this is the final signature.