Cover: Swamp Riddles


Australian Literature Resources website; first published in New Poetry, vol. 22 no. 4 (undated: 1974)

Swamp Riddles

Reviewed by John Tranter

Robert Adamson’s earlier books were received with the acclaim that marks the discovery of an impressive poetic talent. Adamson is a central figure on the local scene, and his impact has been both potent and refreshing. His third book is therefore worth more than a casual glance, as it relates to his earlier development, his current preoccupations, and the future directions his work is likely to take. The Rumour, his second book, was considered to have fulfilled many of the promises made by his first, Canticles on the Skin, and now with the publication of Swamp Riddles as Adamson enters his thirtieth year to heaven, a distinct yet complicated pattern of poetic development emerges.

Canticles on the Skin featured epigraphs from Saint Paul and Rimbaud, and the two themes of a religious sense of nature and an irreligious outlaw persona were the most important sources of energy in the book. The poem ‘Jerusalem Bay’ set the scene for many later poems:

I walked through a solitude of mist by a river...
... like waiting all through a night to see dawn
climb over mangrove mountain, wearing saffron sandals
that left her footprints in the mist —
and all through the next night I read Shelley.

A violent counterbalance was provided by poems such as ‘The Imitator’, with its images of hypodermics, morphine, taking red lights at sixty-five, madness and prison homosexuality. ‘The Rebel Angel’ synthesised the opposing urges to break the law and to find an acceptable sense of order in a private reality, and stands as a symbol for the tensions that hold this volume together.

The Rumour was more than just a development of the considerations of the earlier book, even though some of the poems in it re-worked the ideas of drugs, prisons, homosexuality and the redeeming power of natural scenery. Its chief claim to originality was its attitude to technique, and the shift of focus from autobiographical to conceptual gesture.

The book opens with a quote from Shelley, arguing for technical freedom: ‘...every great poet must inevitably innovate upon the example of his predecessors...’, and while some of the poems are in more or less conventional stanza forms, the most ambitious and valuable piece, ‘The Rumour’, takes the form of a broken-line field poetry. The book as a whole implied a movement away from landscape and portraiture (less nature poems, less criminal persona poems) toward a more complex and thoughtful scale of values. This willingness to move into an open poetic is important – few Australian writers nave been prepared to abandon the well-charted local harbours in favour of a risky voyage into international waters, and fewer still have made such an attempt with any degree of success. Many readers who see ‘The Rumour’ as the beginning of such a venture will expect this writer’s third book to provide a strong vindication of the ‘new poetry’ in terms free from local limitations. If so, they are in for a long and difficult period of readjustment, for the key to understanding Swamp Riddles lies not in a modernist reading of ‘The Rumour’, but in the quasi-Romantic rhetoric of self that underlies Canticles on the Skin and that — in the larger perspective provided by all three books — can now be seen as both the aim and the justification of Adamson’s oeuvre to date.

The book itself is printed in a limited hand-set edition and gives the impression of professionalism and high quality that we have come to expect from Island Press. The book is divided into five sections: ‘After Me, Sleep’, ‘The Fire Master’, a short section of four poems in the form of an elegy for Michael Dransfield, ‘Some More Experiences’, and ‘The Crossing’.

The sixteen poems in ‘After Me, Sleep’ are mainly set in the Hawkesbury River landscape of ‘Jerusalem Bay’, and the roles adopted are those of fisherman, poet, observer of nature and boy-friend. The general effect is rather like that of Lowell’s ‘Life Studies’: the poet meanders through the landscape (‘wander along the river bank...’) considering the interplay between his emotions and the observed vectors of nature.

The man and bird are fishing from the headland’s reef:
Seen through glass, distortions of my grief . . .

An interesting undercurrent to this section is provided by a few poems which deal in neo-surreal mythic images. From ‘Sibyl’:

Then with my white sails and bad luck
with the wind I am beautiful...
So again I depart from the side of the planet
the boy who sleeps with me
Why speak

Another poem, ‘When all the rivers turn back again...’, has the flavour of a delicate science-fiction:

even into our dreams their pursuit continues
and watching a chemical glow
beam from caves we will not dream . . .
and the new animals will move about carefully in moonlight
taking it in like students

The section as a whole is different from the general concerns of Canticles on the Skin in two main ways: the rhetoric is more controlled and skilful, and the range of interests has broadened and become less fervid.
‘The Fire Master’ is the only section in the book which can be related directly to the concerns of ‘The Rumour’. It deals with art, language, poetry, the Journey, and the ‘contaminated field’. Less than three pages long, the poem ‘Apres Moi le Sommeil’ refers to Max Ernst, Dante, Blake, Pindar, Eluard and Rigaut. As an interpretation of surreal art it is personal, refreshing, quirky and, finally, interesting. Its compass is restricted, its ambition small, but as a short feature piece it is a thorough success. The other poem in this section. ‘What does the Worm work in His Cocoon?’, is an unhappy attempt to write a poem about the effect of the death of a famous poet on the writer. The great poet is Ezra Pound, and the windy rhetoric (‘O filled with sunfire...’) builds up to the predictable bombast of

... it is his death that has
awoken in me, the great pride;
a dance of flame and song...

Such inspiration is little more than self-inflating. The ubiquity of such verse is an unfortunate feature of the local scene — for which of course Adamson is not to blame — and the prospect of poets waiting for an opportunity to publish yet another vulturine elegy is a dispiriting one.

Yet in the next section — the four elegies for Michael Dransfield — are slippery enough almost to escape this condemnation. They veer back and forth between the self-dramatisation common to such gesture and a sly awareness of the deceit involved in acting out grief:

The sentimental images compile themselves...
the easy images flow in...
And you would have expected an elegy or so
from me...

And a line that must give nervous pause to all those poets who have written ‘Dransfield elegies’:

... This elegy follows all its
horrible predecessors, calling out in public
and sobbing...

In effect the poems undermine themselves with a mixture of gaucherie and cunning. If art is a beautiful deception, the surface of the poems is an image of grief utilised. Where the conventional elegy ‘pretends’ to honesty, this sequence deceives itself in public, and discovers a new centre to the work: the act of dismantling an artificial untruth. The two surfaces constantly shift focus back and forth: ‘I am grieving’ and ‘I am writing a poem for publication’. The solution to this artificial problem is finally valueless, yet the act of working it out is interesting. It is like a blind man walking through an art gallery: the virtue lies in the exercise itself, not the ostensible purpose; the worth is in the means, not the end.

The next section, ‘Some More Experiences’, opens with the six ‘Sonnets to be Written from Prison’. The roles of self-conscious poet and criminal are integrated with a sure and flexible control. What could be cleverness becomes a relaxed intelligence; what might have been a tricky cynicism in a lesser poet’s hands becomes a wry awareness of the dangerous usefulness of Adamson’s roles. They are probably the best poems on the poet-criminal theme that he has written, and stand as the summing-up of his previous apprentice work in this area. In the way that they reach beyond any narrow conception of ‘subject’ to gather in a wide and complex field of references they are too impressive to attempt to summarise, and their authority underwrites the fulfilment of Adamson’s promise in this field.

The last section, ‘The Crossing’, returns to the concerns of the opening poems in the book: fishing, tides, the river, the swamp, the woman-muse wandering through the waters (‘She wandered / into a swamp and slept on dead waters . . .’), mist, moonlight, mangroves. The final poem, dedicated to Robert Duncan, continues the water theme, but in a rather loose-minded manner.

Adamson’s faults and virtues are both present in good measure in this section. ‘The wobbly jetty . . .’ gambles with the idea of the poem that questions itself as it goes along, and falls into a coy garrulity that is hardly redeemed by the occasional good image. ‘The Crossing’, a poem dedicated to his wife, betrays the sentimentality that is often a risk with this writer:

When I return to hold you again
finally there will be sleep;
just to stroke your hair
and the coldest star will relent.
Then we will watch the sun rise...

The four untitled poems that focus the aims of this section deal with a vision in and of the world of the swamp, and have most claim to the book’s title.

Three characters form the boundaries of the action — the poet persona, observing and being acted on by the others, the woman-spirit-muse figure, and the swamp itself. The approach aims at dream or vision: ‘the mind swims / out from its body...’, ‘The mind moves ahead of my / body...’, ‘I look down at my body...’, and so on. As the poet moves through the swamp a female figure appears fleetingly — ‘I heard the sound of my love...’, then ‘she returns to me ... a complete woman...’ The vision of nature embodied in water, light and sound surrounds them, leading to one of Adamson’s most haunting images:

... we hear fugues impossible to
perform, sound under dead water.

In the last poem the vision fades, the woman eludes the poet, the transforming power of moonlight ebbs with the tide, and a silent morning light returns the swamp world to its everyday state.

The parallels with ‘Jerusalem Bay’ are too obvious to ignore — water, mist and moonlight, the unidentified girl inhabitant of the swamp, even the key bird image, specifically a kestrel in both poems. Where, in the poem of four years ago, the poet says ‘I feel unsure of what I own’, in these swamp explorations the only uncertainties are conditional, and a subtle part of the constructed image. The differences mark how far Adamson has travelled. ‘Jerusalem Bay’ is his first and most florid attempt at the Romantic approach to the mystery in nature, and for all the echoes of Dylan Thomas, the impetus is toward a fin de siècle decadence of theme, image, rhetoric and thought-pattern:

I see hoopwound in my poetry a swirl of Sappho
as selfgod to my girl form...
...Can this soft mist stir
the pools of a poet’s indolence...
...river spirits
freewheel down the span of moonspun mist...
hovering fairies of moonbeam...

The four swamp poems in the current work are simply better in every way — the restraint and accuracy of language, the refinement of the persona’s role, and the complexity of the awareness behind the poems all work to invest the vision with a quiet and unselfconscious assurance, and a more relaxed tone allows the reader to work his way through at his own pace. Like the six prison sonnets, these poems sum up many year’s work, and are probably the definitive form of Adamson’s preoccupations with water, moonlight and the muse.

The book as a whole reflects the pattern of Adamson’s earlier work, though with two salient variations — a more practised, mature and flexible technique, and a concentration of focus onto the two major themes that have occupied his energies.

These are now evident as the main currents flowing through his work, and are worth outlining in some detail. One, beginning with ‘Jerusalem Bay’ and finding its apotheosis here in the opening and closing sections of Swamp Riddles, is built around a type of pathetic fallacy based on his personal interpretation of the early Romantic view of nature. Wordsworth, Coleridge and particularly Shelley come to mind as the images assemble —

mist, river, stars, tide, moon, dreams, secret hearts, girl, beauty, dawn,
ghost, Pan fan-dances, river spirits and fairies
(from ‘Jerusalem Bay’, 1970)

flow, tide, moon, dancing, starlight, marshes, water, river, water, swamp,
sunlight, dew, shallows, mist, dancing, tide, the dawn, moonlight, sun
(from ‘I flow back into myself...’, 1974)

The setting is placed in a particular Australian locale, most often in the Hawkesbury River district, and the aim of these poems is to describe the magic, mystery and beauty of natural water settings, and to translate these descriptions into images that reflect the poet’s persona as a mystic initiate: ‘As I walk / I create a new legend here...’, ‘awaking / we’ll see ourselves again, / and taste the brackish river on / our lips...’, ‘reflected stars ... Then I rose from my reflection also / heroic in silver victory...’

The other main theme revolves around the persona of Poet as Outlaw, and involves fast driving, drugs, scenes from prison life, emotionally ambiguous attitudes toward authority and homosexual relationships. From the autobiographical ‘The Imitator’, where it is interestingly fused with the nature theme, to ‘Some More Experiences’, the theme is treated in a variety of ways and with a growing complexity.

A sub-theme is interwoven with these two ego-related scenarios — the (again Romantic) postulate of the female as alter-ego, innocent young girl, woman, companion and muse. She is seen flitting through the swamp, singing, elusive and bathed in moonlight, and in another role as companion to the city rebel, dreaming in a darkened car, trapped in a hurtful relationship with the outlaw poet. Seen in the frame of reference of the nature theme, it is difficult to tell whether she is a living presence metamorphosing into a Romantic cliché, or vice versa; this use of what is often merely a fabricated marionette is one of the clear weaknesses of these poems. The setting is more functional and the female construct more ‘real’ (even if still tenuous) in the criminal poems, though the paradoxically greater potency of the homosexual presences here is worth noting. The Muse is female, and often becomes weaker in poetic terms when the receptive nature poet adopts the more aggressive stance of outlaw.

The fourth and final subject of Adamson’s concerns becomes more hypothetical as its influence fades in his current work. In Canticles on the Skin two poems in particular demonstrated his interest in exploring the deeper problems of poetry itself. In ‘Between the Silver and the Glass’ the accuracy of thought, image and language succeeded in pointing the poem in the direction of a strong, personal, Romantic-related modernism. ‘The Harbour Braces Itself’ pushes nature poetry through a modern imagism to reach and explore an area similar to that inhabited by Robert Bly, and succeeds in building an ego-free artifact that, in the context of the early book, was an intriguing off-shoot from the more personal poems.

Earlier in this article I mentioned how ‘The Rumour’, the major poem in Adamson’s second book, declared a program of technical and conceptual innovation. There are references to contemporary or proto-modernist practitioners — Schoenberg, Mallarmé, Hart Crane, Robert Duncan, Zukovsky, Jack Spicer, Olson, Ginsberg, Carroll, Stevens, Ashbery and Rimbaud. One critic who looked behind the modernist drapery was James Tulip, who saw the poem as ‘the manifesto of the new romanticism’, and this is as good as a label as any for its real function.

In its nineteen pages, ‘The Rumour’ plays about with a style that grows into the ‘Open Song’ sketched in the first part of the poem. Yet while the syntactical scaffolding is built of fractured prose and free-field verse, the images — song, music, myth, flame, thief, angel, prophet, muse, Christabel, Shelley, Coleridge, truth, lies, freedom — this magpie collection of Romantic paraphernalia makes up a heavy ballast that tilts the poem into a circular path. The voyage veers close to the shores of a contemporary poetic, but steers back finally to the vision of Poet as the thief of fire, as Rimbaud had it, and as an anarchist Holy Singer, after the manner of Blake and Shelley.

The nearest thing in the new book to this flirting with conceptualism is the ‘Fire Master’ section, which I have suggested already is inadequate for more than a purely idiosyncratic reading of a neo-surreal ethic. It does not pretend to be a personal and serious exploration of current poetics, as ‘The Rumour’ in some ways seemed to do; it is content to pun, to amuse and to intrigue.

A reader searching in Adamson’s recent work for evidence of conceptual rather than merely technical advances might conclude that the apparent inefficacy of his attempts to grapple with current experiments in the ‘new poetry’ has led him to retreat to his earlier and no doubt more personally rewarding themes. On the other hand, the obvious success of the best poems in Swamp Riddles indicates that Adamson continues to find in the roles of fisherman and outlaw a set of gestures that, although conditioned by an anachronistic Romanticism, provide him with fruitful material for the expression of his most telling private, literary and mythic impulses.

As a vital force in the local arena, his place is best seen in the context of what we might as well call the ‘Australian Tradition’. The persona involved in the outlaw poems is a private one, and the style follows no obvious local line of development. There are some links with the work of Francis Webb — the hospital and the prison can be viewed as similar theatres of suffering, and both poets use a rhetorical approach to a species of testing experience that aspires to religious redemption — though the role — le grand criminel, le grand maudit — as far as it relates to literature, involves itself with that outlined in detail by the most brilliant French poet of the late nineteenth century. The Hawkesbury poems, on the other hand, are most accessible in terms of a tradition that is so common as to be almost obsessive in this country. As heir to Slessor, Adamson shares both his youthful faults — the limp-wristed triviality of Slessor’s ‘Pan at Lane Cove’ and ‘Realities’ finds an echo in lines such as ‘Pan fan-dances around a southern Cross’ in the early Adamson — and some of his mature achievements, where parts of Swamp Riddles reach close to the power and the beauty of Slessor’s ‘South Country’. In his individual way Adamson belongs to that long and varied list of Australian poets who have attempted to forge a personal Antipodean mythology in our bush setting.

It is equally clear that he has chosen not to involve his writing with either the ‘Brisbane school’ — mainly serious, almost Georgian, sometimes academic, and tracing its lineage to the English ‘Movement’ poets of the 1950s — or the ‘Sydney-Melbourne axis’, a loose group of recently-emerging poets and magazines whose interests embrace a type of conceptual experimentation with connections ranging to London, New York and, more recently, California. Adamson’s professed admiration for Robert Duncan should not be mistaken for a commitment to current American experiment. It is the Duncan of ‘The Museum’ that Adamson looks to for the ‘example and encouragement’ mentioned among the five dedications at the front of Swamp Riddles, an elder figure who intones ‘O Muses, aweful and brilliant ... The poets whimper in their sheltering shadows, and, from their altars, poetesses advance to sing once more as Sappho sang from the lyric strain that Love that breaks us from what we are...’ (Robert Duncan, ‘The Museum’). This apostrophic rodomontade is light years away from, say, the Frank O’Hara of ‘Second Avenue’ (‘going underground is like discovering something in / your navel that has an odor and is able to fly away...’), but it is not so far removed from the posing of Slessor and the Lindsays.

Adamson’s emotional and technical gestures in the direction of rebelliousness have, in the past, tended to blur the outline of his basic accomplishments. Swamp Riddles should clear the water, and bring a welcome reassurance to those readers who feel that the Australian Tradition is being left behind as the tidal wave of avant-garde experiment surges into the future. They will find in this book a skilled re-working of what are basically Romantic themes, an idiosyncratic exploration of a familiar Australian landscape, and a reaffirmation of faith in a personalised mythology that is as fruitful and energetic as it is essentially conventional, anachronistic and ego-centred.

From a slightly different viewpoint — one that sees this book as possibly a turning-point in Adamson’s career — the collection may be hypothesised as the summation of his youthful obsessions in preparation for a journey into new and unexplored territory. Those holding this view would regard it as unfortunate if Adamson were to find himself unable to shake off the roles of criminal and nature-boy that he has exploited so thoroughly and so well in his work to date.

The basic need of every artist to mature, to develop and to innovate will no doubt pose a further set of riddles for him to solve. These questions are likely to be crucial to the larger implications of his oeuvre, and lie in the future choices that he must apply to his verse, in the risks that must be taken on the necessary voyage through the unwritten poetry of the future.

This article reprinted from the Australian Literature Resources website, with permission.
© Australian Literary Management 2004