The Age 13 October 2001


The Age 13 October 2001

A poet's bittersweet mix of pleasure and pain

Ivor Indyk

Mulberry Leaves: New and Selected Poems 1970-2001
Paper Bark Press, $32.95

ROBERT ADAMSON'S Mulberry Leaves comes hot on the heels of his previous collection, Black Water, published in an elegant edition by Brandl & Schlesinger in 1999. Adamson's own publishing house, Paper Bark Press, has consistently produced poetry books of a high standard of design and quality, and Mulberry Leaves is no exception. It has been judiciously edited by Chris Edwards and carries anintroduction by David Malouf that homes in on Adamson's "anarchic sensibility", clearly an important element in understanding his work.

Some of the poems from Black Water are reprinted here, though as Mulberry Leaves is "new and selected", it aims to give an overview of the different aspects of Adamson's poetry as they have shown themselves in the course of his career. At times, it ignores really good poems in a genre that is already well represented, in favor of those that might give a wider sense of his achievement or craft. All of his previous collections are covered, sometimes at the expense of what could be regarded as his real area of strength. I would have gladly given up the "new-romantic" selections from Cross the Border, or the meta-poetic "pepper-mill" poems from The Brutality of Fact, or some of the new poetry in the "post-modem" ironic mode, for a few more of Adamson's characteristic "river" poems, even though these might give the impression that his range is more restricted.

In fact, as Malouf points out in his introduction, Adamson's really compelling subjects "are few": the experience of prison life and, in general, the tension between lawlessness and constraint ("I can't imagine anything if I'm not up against a law'', he writes in the third of his "prison sonnets"). There are also the portraits of his family, nearly all of which are tinged with a primitive quality, or an air of barbarism; the Hawkesbury River "scenes", with their birds and fish, and water presences, again in terms of primitive energies and illuminations. And his poems of personal relationship, caught at moments of crisis or absence or betrayal, with their intense combinations of desire and guilt and pain.

There is also another, heroic, side to Adamson, amply represented here, in which the act of writing is seen as basic to the life of the world; Ar conversely, the poet strives to decipher the world as a poem. Adamson can claim distinguished precedents for this, from Percy Shelley through Stephane Mallarrne to Wallace Stevens, Duncan and Michael Palmer. It has also made his Hawkesbury home a first port of call for younger poets with a sense of mission, such as John Kinsella and Peter Minter. It's not for me to judge the professional appeal of these high poetic aspirations. Adamson seems most convincing to me when he mocks his own pretensions, as in The flow-through:

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.

But in those areas Malouf refers to, in which Adamson deals with the raw edge of experience, in a way that heightens its rawness and drama, its bittersweet mixture of pleasure and pain, his achievement is unique and unsurpassed. There is a cost: a suspension of the intellectual power, so that the elements of experience impinge upon consciousness with a kind of primal intensity, of terror or wonder. There is also a certain moral evasiveness, which allows a situation to be savored for its defections even as they are condemned (as in, for example, The home, The spare room or The gathering light). Yet you accept these limits for the sake of intensity as you welcome the constriction of range to a few square kilometres of the Hawkesbury River. In a way, it is essential to narrow the focus to the familiar, the intimately known detail, for the sting or allure of life to be felt in all its immediacy.

Adamson's most powerful poems are often paratactic numerations of charged detail - like Spring Night, Toward Abstraction, Night Heron, Meaning or Coda, with its lovely sounding opening, "Fishing skiff in the light/ at Mackerel Flats, mud-caked, sun borne/ by the old man caulking cracks." The combination of light and color and sound and movement in such scenes conveys the energies at work in them. It also offers a sense of ceremony or ritual, though the underlying order may be demonic, half-guessed-at, or surreal. You can think of Adamson's Hawkesbury as the setting for a spiritual drama and there's a specifically Australian line of influence to be drawn in this respect, through Christopher Brennan, Kenneth Slessor, Francis Webb and James McAuley, all of whom Adamson acknowledges.

True, Adamson's spirit is apprehended in a particularly physical, even visceral way, and there's as much drama in the apprehension as there is spirit itself - perhaps more, given the source is often absence, darkness or death, But it is compelling, urgent and in its primitive qualities perhaps more traditional than we care to admit: Charles Harpur and Henry Kendall come to mind.

Mulberry Leaves has been short-listed for the Victorian Premier's Literary Award (Poetry). Ivor Indyk is the editor of HEAT magazine and a senior research academic at the University of Newcastle.