The Bulletin 25 February 1989


The Bulletin 25 February 1989

The Arts / Review:
Patricia Rolfe's Book Bulletin

The poet as publisher

Poet Robert Adamson, with six books launched at next month's Adelaide Festival, must create a record. Three are his and three are from his publishing house, Paper Bark Press. His books are Wards of the State, the paperback of his poems The Clean Dark and the definitive edition of Christopher Brennan's poems for which Adamson has done the introduction. All are from Angus and Robertson.

Wards of the State, Adamson tells his audience at the Festival of Sydney, "is the story of my life and I made it all up". Perhaps it is not all made up but it has been carefully put together. There are 100 pages of prose and 65 of poetry, linked by photographs, some of them constructions by his wife Juno Gemes of how things might have been. It is about growing up in Neutral Bay on Sydney's lower north shore in the early '50s when you could still keep chooks and when his father stabled his horse Dobbin in the backyard and collected bottles to sell to a glass factory.

Wards of the State began as a film script with Dorothy Hewett which was going to make them a lot of money. "Dorothy was full of enthusiasm," Adamson says. "I was drinking a bit and every time I'd go there there'd be a bottle of whisky and every time we sent in a new treatment the film commission would give us a bit more money. Then I sobered up and decided to do it my way."

Both Adamson's grandmothers were full of poetry and song. His maternal grandfather was a carpenter. His father's father, a lamplighter as a young man, is commemorated in the book with the poem Boatman of the Glow. He later became a Hawkesbury fisherman.

Adamson's stories and poems easily held his audience at the festival, even in the gloomy theatrette in the State Library which looks eerily like a crematorium, but some listeners were unnerved by his story of going fishing with Fa Fa and coming on a dead body. His grandfather pronounced "Drowned" and carefully collected four boxfuls of the prawns which were swarming under the body before, with the same care, marking the position for the authorities. Adamson lovingly describes how each grandfather handled his tools of trade and believes they may have taught him all he needed to know about craftsmanship.

"How can anyone own a bird?" his friend Rick the Trick would say. "They are part of nature. If anyone owns them it would be God, if he exists." But Adamson spent time in a boys' home: "They're as bad now as they were then. Prisons may be better because adults have action groups but no one cares about kids." The book ends with his jail term after taking off for Queensland with Carol, with lots of mascara and seven petticoats. Adamson's mild gaze grows stern: 'The last interview I gave, I talked about how I'd studied Mallarmé for 15 years that got one paragraph. The rest was about jail."

In jail, he began writing what he thought were Dylan-type songs. "They are not songs, they're poems," a visiting Jesuit told him. Soon, he knew he was a poet but no one else did. He and a friend, painter David Rankin, heard that things were happening in Balmain, and in the late '60s they were. They began visiting pubs there until they found the right one and milled around with Rankin murmuring, "Bob's a poet," at suitable intervals. By 1970, he was enough of a poet to become president of the Poetry Society and editor of Poetry Australia.

His Balmain days were the start of his friendship with Michael Wilding, with whom he and Juno Gemes run Paper Bark, dedicated to well-designed poetry books. Paper Bark did the hardcover of Adamson's The Clean Dark which won three major poetry awards. Its books for Adelaide are Lily Brett's Unintended Consequences, Robert Harris's Jane Interlinear and Norman Talbot's The Four Zoas of Australia.