Cover: Reading The River


Reading The River: Selected Poems

PN Review, UK, June 2004

Reviewed by Peter Riley

In Australia Robert Adamson is a celebrated senior poet, but hasn’t become known in the northern hemisphere, perhaps partly because he isn’t much given to travelling, and has for instance only visited the U.K. twice as a poet. Both his life and his poetry focus on his home ground — he comes from a fishing family on the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales, which he returned to after a “mis-spent youth” which is reflected in some of his earlier poems, and has remained there since, combining fishing with literary activities. So whereas the pastoral poetry of Les Murray or John Kinsella leaves them free to trot the globe, perhaps because in both cases it is heavily involved with a sense of the past, or with conditions which if not memories are the outcome of a long maintained stability, Adamson is tied to the equally rural arena of the great river in a continuing exploration in the present tense, writing out of his own life as it unfolds before him. And what it presents him with is the life-blood of his poetry.

We live here by this
sliding water, brown by day
black at night

flecked with bats
and the blue powdery stars.    (‘Folk song’)

There is great unity and sense of purpose. From early to late, in many different formulations, the self as a wild, damaging and self-damaging thing, focused on its own cruelty and pain, is held against a contrasting and controlling serenity, for which the river is his principal image. And yet life on the river is itself deeply involved in violence — he happily refers to fishing as “killing”. These are basic tensions of the human condition, played out many times with a virtuosic musicality and strength of figuration in poem after poem, always most dignified and symphonic when directly contemplating the great river itself, which becomes kind of scripture, something he reads to reveal the structures of existence—

to let love go forth to the world’s end
to set our lives at the centre

though the tide turns the river back on itself
and at its mouth, Ocean.    (‘The river’)

Other things too, especially birds, become items of a language by which the world is read and speaks itself through the poet. It is typical of him to thrust his way through a poem declaring and questioning the physical realities, swooning at the beauties of sense and nature, to conclude in his own absence, where the objects of perception are finally left there as their own meanings, simply there in the language. His major poem ‘No river, no death’ ends with, unusually, a rhyming couplet which instead of a summation of the poet’s declarations, concludes without any message at all beyond the fact of what exists before the eyes—

The afternoon’s last light has gone under now.
A flying fox swims in through a star,

catfish are pecking the stingray’s wing.
The larrikin prawn bird starts to sing.

But it is not any old scene; it is itself an objective confirmation of the poet’s wish, a story of how things unfold. It is indelibly Robert Adamson, as in his rather fantastic figure of the inescapable identity of experience — “My mother the belly dancer, my father Silence / my house that repeats itself wherever I go.” (‘Meaning’).

This central process is manifested in a dozen major poems through the book in which he really achieves depth and serenity in his own terms, and a mass of very impressive supportive work. But there are also flights into other zones and different modes, such as, in an autobiographical sequence, the wit with which he contemplates a parental domesticity so fixed as to seem to defy mortality—

death comes on the television
and mum laughs

saying there’s death again
I must get those jeans taken up.    (‘My house’)

and there are poems or passages of direct and pointed comment on matters of history and poetry, or the sudden thrust into politics—

                        the Unelected
President’s on the radio again,
laying waste to the world.    (‘Thinking of Eurydice at midnight’)

which comes at the end of a stanza beginning “My Siamese cat’s left a brown / snake, it’s back broken, on my desk.” So it is all integral, forms of destruction near and far played against each other.

It is obvious that Adamson has a tremendous technique, but it is never one which becomes so definitive that it over-rides morality (as Pound’s did) and so he never stops watching himself, and is constantly concerned about the nature and propagation of harm, by and across the self, which surfaces in the most innocent detail and is endemic to his entire experience of settlement. The niche he inhabits and the ordinary routines of life there are worked into a figure of the containment of these contraries, in a final active simplicity—

our songs mention
mulloway kills and at night
we eat the rich cream-coloured flesh.    (‘Folk Song’)

This selection is substantial, and overdue, and it is hard to find a weak moment in it.