Mulberry Leaves - cover


JAS Review of Books, Issue 9, October 2002

Mulberry Leaves: New & Selected Poems 1970-2001

Reviewed by Angela Gardner, Griffith University

Robert Adamson’s Mulberry Leaves: New and Selected Poems collects work from his impressive thirty-year career and succeeds Selected Poems 1970-1989. This beautifully presented volume starts rightfully with his most recent work then takes the reader on a chronological tour of poems. Beginning with his earliest published book Canticles on the Skin (1970) and ending with selections from Black Water (1999), the cover artwork of each book has been re-used to define sections, elegantly placing them within a history of his publications. In addition, Adamson’s ‘Daybook for Eurydice’ is published here for the first time, alongside the etchings by Gary Shead that inspired it.

Some of his recent poems seem entirely embedded in the natural world and yet the touch is so light that there is mystery in how they contain such solid substance while the words themselves fly seem to in air. The structural style is often spare yet the word pictures are rich and perfectly judged. This is the world of a patient observer who distils experience and returns with the essence of what he has seen and, as Dorothy Hewitt observed, with each book he develops and his precision increases.

The Upland Sandpiper only ‘scrapes into the list of Australian birds on the strength of just one record’. Yet in the recent eponymous poem ‘The upland sandpiper’ the bird gains presence. This is a playful poem, where a tantalising final glimpse of song could change the entire meaning of what goes before. And then there is the exquisite ‘Coal & Candle Creek’ dedicated to fellow fisherman and poet Peter Minter. This poem, while ostensibly about the pursuit of the elusive and beautiful hairtail, gives time and space for the fishermen themselves to contemplate the criteria for catching and returning, within the immediate context of the small hours of night but also harkening to deeper cultural meanings. He intimates the sweep of Christian metaphor and requires readers to search their own life for light. Even Saint Augustine’s wife gets a mention, and all this in just eighteen perfect pared down lines. Contemplation in Robert Adamson’s poems, though never out of touch with the personal, often spreads outwards like ripples from a well-placed pebble. Each touches on wider implications, moving beyond the self.

For Adamson, fishing provides contextual location and contemplative space. It provides continuity with his childhood; a connection with grandfather and to stepson: ‘and for that split second of communion between us, utter wonder.’ The poetic landscape rarely strays from the Hawkesbury River. ‘Does Sydney Harbour still exist?’ enquires one poem and in another ‘I go deeper/into my head, I see the Hawkesbury/flowing through Budapest’. Remember the hairtail? It is seldom seen during daylight hours and chooses the Hawkesbury as its specific habitat. Yet Adamson’s world of the Hawkesbury is rather like a Mandelbrot image: the closer the poet looks the more there is to see. And he presents images from the naturalistic to the metaphorical.

Robert Adamson establishes an explicit link between poetry and fishing in ‘Clear water reckoning’ with ‘I have strewn words around the living room,/taken them out from their/sentences, left them unused wherever/they fell; they are the bait -/I hunch over my desk and start to row’.

Yet for all the quiet contemplation that fishing provides, big public events don’t pass him by. It is interesting to look back at the bicentenary through poems written at the time by someone as clear and reflective as Adamson. I myself returned to Australia in 1988 and although the poet’s sure voice is rightfully dismissive of a ‘year of cock and bull/celebration the TV goes unwatched/upstairs, I hear it congratulating us for making Australia what it is’ he is able to articulate some of the many other meanings of Australian identity. He does this, from the shameful deaths in custody in ‘Canticle for the bicentennial dead’ chosen from the much-awarded The Clean Dark (1989) to the pathetic poignancy of childhood memories in ‘The Australian Crawl’ from Waving to Hart Crane (1994).

It is as if Robert Adamson invites the reader into a new dimension. In the curiously titled ‘Action would kill it/a gamble’ he says ‘our walk covered time rather than distance’ while in ‘Card tables covered with dice’ the narrative voice declares ‘I live in space that travels’. Both of these poems are selected from Rumour (1971) and due to their honesty they are still fresh today. There is a concern with truth and lies and with identity. Adamson slips easily between his borrowed personae, homosexual, prisoner, sibyl, trying each skin for fit. The luxury of sloughing off these skins at will was not always there in reality as he spent much of his early life in corrective institutions.

Adamson broke away from what seemed to be a pre-determined path to nowhere through his education in gaol. That he is now a successful poet and publisher is a tribute to his abilities and his determination. For the introduction to the title poem ‘The rumour’, he aptly quotes Wallace Simpson saying, ‘In the long run the truth does not matter’. While in ‘Songs for Juno’ from The Clean Dark (1989) Adamson says ‘my lies are for you, take them utterly’. Strangely, this shape-changing lends an authority to his lies so that the reader shouldn’t be surprised if, as in his poem ‘Sign this’, Wards of State (1990), it is an impostor’s name that eventually is put upon his grave. His early life is another fractal dimension, providing continual subject matter. Two of the most moving and illuminating poems for me are the recent ‘Letter to Tom Raworth’ and a poem of twenty years earlier ‘Rimbaud having a bath’ from The Law at Heart’s Desire (1982).

When subject matter is fabricated, albeit in implied comparisons to living, as in the five poems selected from 'The Pepper Mill' cycle in The Brutality of Fact (1993) it seems least effective. One poem entitled ‘Concern that the pepper-mill is an excuse’, leaves the reader in no doubt that the author is well aware of the ironies, but even so the poems rarely get beyond this contrived device. Maybe I am just missing the point, or maybe I am getting it: the brutality of fact.

Also interesting are the different forms Adamson has chosen over the years and how attuned they are to the subject matter. The short lines and staccato rhythm of ‘The Artemis letters’ and ‘The Literary life’, both from Cross the Border (1977), work well to accurately portray an interior monologue in chopped thought-forms. The concrete poem ‘Lozenge for Mondrian’ coming as it does almost immediately after the reproduced painting by the artist in Waving to Hart Crane (1994) creates a resonance between cover artwork, subject and stylistic expression. The powerful caesura in ‘Francis Webb 1994’ forms a river that flows down the poem. The poem gives an opportunity for an alternative visual reading that may refer to the changing boundary between wave and sand, but it was Adamson’s ever present river that I immediately saw. In ‘She speaks, language falls apart’ from the sequence ‘Daybook for Eurydice’ in Black Water (1999) the poet says ‘All I am is words. Human song, a noise that edges in’, but these words, this human song, is finely nuanced.

This is a book to be enjoyed, to be read and re-read. Mulberry leaves are used for raising silk worms and for papermaking. Looked at through this light, ‘their yellowish cocoons seeping transparent blood from injured larvae’, a vignette from his childhood recalled in the title poem may tell a very personal story on such paper.

This article reprinted from the JAS Review website, with permission. © API-Network 2002