Australian Book Review May 2001


Australian Book Review May 2001

A Slippery Power

Martin Duwell

Robert Adamson
Mulberry Leaves: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2001
Paper Bark Press, $32.95pb, 325pp, 1 876749 48 2

PRODUCING a new Selected Poems is always an opportunity for poets to re-evaluate the shape of the history of their work, just as it gives readers another extended exposure to the poems themselves. In the case of Robert Adamson, Mulberry Leaves: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2001 is not the first opportunity: there are two earlier Selecteds. The first (Angus & Robertson, 1978) was probably too early and, instead of selecting, rewrites and reorders, so that all Adamson's work seems to be directed to Cross the Border, surely his least successful book. The second (UQP, 1990) is a much more formidable volume and an extensive enough collection to adequately represent the things going on in the first twenty years of the career.

This new selection, made ten years after the UQP one, is so radically different from the other two that it almost feels as though Adamson's work were rich enough for quite different versions of it to be made. Some of this difference is inevitable. Adamson published six books in this decade and a number of them, like Waving to Hart Crane and Black Water, are substantial. So, inevitably, Mulberry Leaves is severely pruned: a mere five poems from Adamson's first book, Canticles on the Skin, as opposed to the sixteen in the 1990 Selected, for example.

Some of the other changes are, however, matters of interpretation and evaluation. I have always had a soft spot for the large Adamsonian set pieces, for example, poems in which a lot of material is aired in a carefully thought-through symbolic setting. Few of these have survived: poems like 'The Imitator' ('Dirty hypodermics rattle in the glovebox') in Canticles on the Skin and 'Beyond the Pale' from The Law at Heart's Desire ('the fine and burning line of art, the fence') are great poems I would be sad to see slip from view. 'Creon's Dream' from Black Water survives, but that is probably because it is from a recent, generously represented book.

Of all major Australian poets, Adamson has perhaps the most difficult poetic personality to describe. Reading the poems, we continually enter a peculiarly Adamsonian world of river, words, relationships, memory, self and poetry. Yet none of these is privileged, none is, in itself, the ground of the poetry. The Hawkesbury, for example, is the most frequent site, but it is an error to see Adamson as essentially a poet of place and the act of habitation. One's impression is that there is a continuous, revolving interaction between mind, poetry and world—no one of the three elements having sole or permanent mastery. What a recent poem says about myth, may have a wider significance: 'We move in and out of / the myths, becoming figures from them' ('Juno & Eurydice'). He is not a poet of the self or his place or his art (as the impressive blurbs on this book come close to suggesting) but a poet of movement between all of these elements, a poet of transformation. Perhaps that is why, of all Australian poets, the magian image sits best with Adamson, with its combined implications of power and slipperiness.

As a result of all this, the pleasures you get from Adamson's poetry—and they are intense—are always edged with nervousness. You are not sure that you have exactly got the point and have not missed a characteristic Adamsonian displacement. That poem that seemed to be a brilliant 'capturing' of the essence of some Hawkesbury owl might just, by an application of Robert Duncan say, really be a poem about poetry; that poem about words and poetry may really be a fairly autobiographical poem about a lover.

One thing this new Selected does is represent the recent poems generously. Adamson's new genre of the bird poem, which is often comically an allegorical attack on contemporary poetry and which was inaugurated in Black Water with poems like 'The Whimbrel' and 'The Southern Skua', is continued in the thirty-odd new poems by 'The Upland Sandpiper', 'The Hudsonian Godwit' ('It is a bird for objectivists'), and 'The Cow Bird' ('pure joy to / confessional poets').

The new poems also contain an impressive series of letters to living, dying and dead poets. It is an interesting development, although Adamson has always talked to other poets in poems. These aren't so much desperate communication in the Bruce Beaver/Letters to Live Poets sense—firming up the sense of self by making it into a speaking self—as un-nostalgic revisitings of the past (or in the case of the letter to McAuley having the past revisit you as the process of black memories). There are letters to Brennan, Tranter, Viidikas, Creeley, Raworth and Bob Dylan, and a brilliant letter simultaneously to Ashbery, Tranter and Forbes:

We loved your front, your wall of words,
and the fact that snatches made sense
to the professors.
Ashbery days,
when poets were drunk on code within code,
when language cracked open and showed us
the power of whimsy and a dark abyss
that said 'perhaps' as it echoed.

David Malouf's introduction to Mulberry Leaves: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2001 speaks of these poems representing a thirty-year journey, a life in poetry which is endlessly new because 'each return, each revisiting of a familiar scene, yields a fresh view, a renewed lyric order'. He is right, I think, to emphasise process. It is a powerful book by an immensely powerful poet, apparently part of a conscious or unconscious decision to produce a Selected Poems every ten years or so. But you are going to need the originals to supplement this selection, which is so rigorous that, with the early poems, it is really a redefinition. Since early books like Canticles on the Skin, The Rumour, Swamp Riddles and Cross the Border are probably unobtainable, there may be a case for a very large Collected Poems—about ten years from now.