The Age 28 March 1992


The Age 28 March 1992

Vanished world comes to life

Gary Catalano

Wards Of The State
by Robert Adamson
(Angus & Robertson, $14.95)

A GOOD many readers are likely to be puzzled by Robert Adamson's 'Wards of the State', for the book contains what appear to be two sepa- rate works of literature.

One is a sequence of 14 prose sketch- es that runs to slightly less than 100 pages. The sequence, which shifts back and forth in time, reads like an accurate memoir of Adamson's childhood and delinquent youth in the 1950s.

The second work could not be more different. Running to just under 70 pages, it consists of 40 poems Adamson wrote while compiling the prose sequence. Both works, we note, bear the one title: 'Wards of the State'.

Ever since he appeared on the literary scene in the late 1960s, Adamson has insisted on the primacy of imagina- tive truths over literal or documentary ones. "The Rumour", the long poem he published in 1971, was nothing less than a justification of exactly this point.

The prose sketches in 'Wards of the State' seem to qualify this position quite severely. After all, they appear to form a memoir. And they terminate in a copy of the confession Adamson made to the police on 2 December 1958.

The confession is suspect on a number of counts. If its date is compared with those given at other points in the text, it emerges that the crucial event Adamson relates takes place on three separate occasions.

Adamson's prose has an unobtrusive oral quality and lulls us into believing everything he has to say. Before we know it, a vanished world has come to life.

He makes names do a great deal of work. When he comes to evoke the environs of Neutral Bay and those of the Hawkesbury (the two places in which he grew up), he does so largely by making us conscious of the strangeness and the magic of place-names like Chowder Bay and Juno Point.

But other places also figure in his emotional geography. One is the Mt Penang Training School for Boys, in which he spends an unspecified length of time after being found guilty of stealing exotic birds from the zoo. He initially wanted to be an ornithologist.

Another is Queensland, about which the other boys in the reform school talk incessantly. On the basis of these rumors, Adamson comes to believe that it forms a sort of earthlv paradise Some time later, his attempts to enter paradise will land him in jail.

A third is America, whose influence now "seeped in through the jukebox and the screens at the Southern Cross and the Orpheum". In some measure, Adamson's prose sequence is a bitter-sweet homage to an earlier, pre-Americanised Australia. It makes us feel what the country was like before it turned into Austerica.

Needless to say, almost everyone in it is an expert in some sort of craft. Adamson even suggests that he became a poet because of his relationship with his two grandfathers. One was a carpenter. The other, known as Fa-fa, was a fisherman.

I must admit that I looked on this with some scepticism. Largely because the poetic impulse is itself mysterious, poets are able to trundle virtually anything out of their memory-shed and claim that it inspired their art. What can impede their little red wheelbarrows?

But Adamson's claim is lent some credence by the decidedly naturalistic quality of the 40 poems at the back of 'Wards of the State'. Unlike his previous poems, which were often conceived as springboards to the spirit, these indicate that he is now content to render sensations (often tactile and aural sensations) with the utmost accuracy.

If initial impressions can be trusted. "Night Lesson" and "Blood Sport in the Half Light", which are both about fishing, are the best. But all 40 have real interest.

Adamson. who will shortly turn 50, is still growing as a writer. 'Wards of the State' may well be his best book to date.