Cover: Where I Come From


Australian Literature Resources website; first published in The Age, Saturday 5 January 1980

Tense orchestrations of the Poetic Life

Where I Come From by Robert Adamson and Greenhouse by Dorothy Hewett, reviewed by John Tranter

Big-Smoke Books is the creation of Robert Adamson, who designed, typeset and published these two volumes of poetry.

Though printed by a cheap instant print firm in downtown Sydney, the production quality is high and, at 80 and 108 pages respectively, Adamson’s and Dorothy Hewett’s books are not “slim volumes”. Hewett’s book is dedicated to Adamson, among others, and features a long extract from an Adamson review on the back cover; Adamson’s is dedicated to his wife, Cheryl, and to Kate, Dorothy Hewett’s daughter, a young poet with several good poems to her credit.

Apart from design and familial dedications, the books share other similarities: they are both mainly confessional — that is, they relate incidents from childhood through to adult life in a deeply personal manner, though the craft employed by the poets colors these “confessions” with the high tonal values of art. The process of ageing is a recurring theme with both writers; as are the various processes of sex, and behind these dramas of conflict and change can be heard the tense orchestrations of the poetic life.

Robert Adamson’s Where I Come From is very different to his earlier volumes; though, as in all his writing from his first book onwards, the material is drawn from his own experiences. He does not ruminate on history, philosophy or nature, unless it is to search for a mask that he can use to dramatise his life, and he sketches his environment as a backdrop against which he can act out a ritualised search for experience made meaningful in poetic terms.

In this book his focus has become less obscured by poetic images, and the Romantic filter is at last absent from the lens that catches brief and telling moments from his life. The persona in these poems is clearly meant to represent the writer himself. The reader is persuaded to believe that the stories are real, and that the ouija board that called up the spirits from Camelot in his last volume Cross the Border is the new Truth Table of a more honest emotional appeal. The verse is lacking in flamboyance and rhetoric, and goes straight to the point; the lines are short, and the sentiments blunt, as in this extract from his poem ‘My Granny’.

and I sat there the afternoon
she died and heard her say her last words
and I sat there not telling

maybe three hours
beside the first dead person I’d seen

I tried to drink some of her gin
it made me throw up on the bed
and then I left her

she said the prawns will eat you
when you die on the Hawkesbury River

Yet Adamson in his earlier work has warned the reader to beware of poetic trickery. Is this his most sophisticated game yet, where the bare truth becomes the ultimate lie, and the beautiful deceit of his earlier styles can hide behind the perfect cover of his new transparency?

The mood the poet adopts in these poems is mainly one of passive recollection. This, and the concentration on realistic subjects, indicates a seriousness of intention, at least. The tales of his childhood are those of a delinquent Huck Finn on the Hawkesbury River, those of his adolescence a blend of Fonzie and Darcy Dugan, and those of his adult life a tormented montage of ageing and physical decay, women gained and lost, and booze and dead animals. These traumas have an intensity that is reinforced by the deliberate limitations of his tone:

I can’t do anything in the mornings
with women anymore

I am taken from place to place
as I pretend
to be good about sex

then quite drunk
I lie back in the folds
of their particular sheets
face buried in fear near shame

Yet, paradoxically, where self-revelation seems to be the central concern of the poetry, the documentary truth of these experiences hardly seems to matter. The poetic effect is so right, and the poems finally work on their own terms in an area where truth is the substance they feed on, yet replace by the valid fabrications of their art.

“In the middle of my amazing life / I couldn’t stop talking,” Dorothy Hewett admits in one of the poems in Greenhouse, her third book of poetry. And we should be grateful. It’s a book full of amazing events, written as forcefully as Adamson’s and with a more evident literary panache.

As with Adamson, the main theme is the reflecting self: “I can’t write autobiography because there is no me,” she says, and then contradicts herself by creating (or recreating) several personas, from innocent child to guilty adult. Again, as with Adamson, the potency of the subjects demands the reader’s attention: love and betrayal, death, travel (“O these metaphysical voyages,” as she says), politics and passion.

There’s an imaginative reconstruction of the last years of the Russian poet Mandelstam, a moving poem about the death of her small son, and a collage of reminiscences about her childhood on a country farm. But main source of energy in this book is sexual:

In this romantic house each storey’s peeled
for rapists, randy poets and their lovers...
Tired of loving men who love my daughters
I wrinkle waiting for a Prince . . .

This is from the first poem in the book, and neatly catches the refrain that runs through many of the following poems: the romantic locale, the naughty goings-on, and the fairy-tale solution to a sentimental hunger that in places becomes explicitly sexual.

With their shifting emphasis on ageing, literary myth and raw experience, many of these poems read like a permutational coupling of ‘Gerontion’, ‘Camelot’ and ‘Deep Throat’. She can shift from hot sex to cool sentiment without missing a stroke, from “Sodomised in the love hotel / we suck off to rain”, to “how sad this city has become for me / all love is mortal as all things must pass”. In a lesser writer, mere pornography and bathos would ruin lines such as these. In Hewett, ruthless self-exposure and tight technical control underwrite her attacks on good taste.

In both these books some of the poems are stilted or over-written, and are clearly not as successful as others. I dislike the note of hysteria in parts of Greenhouse, and the occasional slightness in Where I Come From. A firmer editorial hand would have made their assaults on the reader’s expectations more effective and their claims on behalf of their various personas more convincing. But these are minor criticisms.

Robert Adamson and Dorothy Hewett are working in the modern Romantic tradition at the full stretch of their talents, and their poetry gives a feeling of vitality and power under the control of a thoroughly absorbed craft. Greenhouse develops the modes of Hewett’s earlier work, while Where I Come From marks a welcome turning-point in Adamson’s varied career. Both books advance their already considerable and justly deserved reputations.

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