The Age 4 February 1995


The Age 4 February 1995

Orpheus in the postmodern world

Kevin Hart

Waving to Hart Crane
By Robert Adamson
Angus & Robertson, $16.95

LIKE Wallace Stevens before him, Hart Crane intensified the Romantic strain of North American poetry. His two collections of verse, White Buildings (1926) and The Bridge (1930), show him living deep inside a vision, seeking through a dense and dazzling lyricism to uncover the mythic meaning of his self and America. Alcoholic and homosexual, Crane left New York for Mexico.

But his sojourn in an old culture of death trying on a new politics of revolution only exacerbated his bouts of depression, and he decided to head back home. Sailing north in the Orizaba, Crane found he could not face the return. Some 300 miles north of Havana, he walked to the stern of the ship, removed his coat, and leapt. He was 32 years old.

The waving in the title of Robert Adamson's splendid new collection is an ambiguous gesture of greeting and farewell. Can a poet today welcome Crane's dark lyrics, commune with them, and write in the wake of their highly personal Romanticism? Or must the poet recognise that Crane was perhaps the last writer able to affirm the redemptive power of myth, and turn to make sense of a postmodern world whose best image of itself is the Internet? Adamson's is a poetry that lets these questions engage one another. Sometimes an affirmative answer to the first question is so strong that it almost silences the yes of the other, while sometimes the two answers compete to be heard. And so we move from admiration for a fellow poet, Michael Palmer, "who writes new words" to a recognition that No sonnet will survive/the fax on fire.

Yet Romance exercises the quieter, stronger pull on Adamson. It is a Romance older than Romanticism, older even than the Arthurian cycles that seduced him in Cross the Border. Like Crane, Adamson is an Orphic poet whose deepest belief is that true art is praise and that this praise has the power to transform nature. "Nature", here, is his beloved Hawkesbury River, and his project is the transmutation into song of that river, its people and the manifold ways of being it offers. Loss, cruelty and suffering are not bypassed or reduced: the "serifs of death" are seen. We sing, he writes,

of the mulloway, our
mauve-scaled river cod. They
rise breaking the surface,
our songs mention
mulloway kills and at night
we eat the rich cream-colored flesh.

There has never been any doubt that Adamson has abundant lyric gifts. In the past, though, his self-mythologising, especially the stagey line of "poet as outlaw", has blocked his vision. With his last book, The Clean Dark, he made a remarkable recovery, having learned that "experimental writing" is not a matter of breaking form but of regarding poetry as experience: a groundless exposure to the unknown. While The Clean Dark has several striking lyrics, it also suffers here and there from failures of feeling and imagination. To my ear, Waving to Hart Crane has a wider, calmer authority than anything Adamson has yet given us. In poems like Folk Song, The Sugar Glider and the brilliant The Pepper-Mill he speaks with confidence, elegance and resonance. And can anything be more tender than these lines in imitation of Miklos Radnoti?

As you close

your eyes your lashes
net tiny shadows,
our breath becomes

light disappearing
into your eyes.
A petal drifts into

a tender somersault
on a breath
light plays with . . .

Waving to Hart Crane concludes with a quotation not from the American poet but from the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. Art, for Mondrian, is an expression of the spiritual life exclusively by means of the fundamentals of line, plane and color: a conviction that resonates with these spare, meditative poems. The sentence Adamson cites is the barest and simplest expression of hope, The light is coming. But the reader who reaches that final page of this memorable book will already have experienced a radiance, a warmth, and a sparkle.

Kevin Hart is director of the Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies at Monash University.