Australian Book Review November 1994
Waving to Hart Crane
A&R S16.95pb 0 207 18402 X
IS ROBERT Adamson Waving to Hart Crane, or drowning? He is certainly calling for help. In 1930, Hart Crane turned his back on Eliot's Wasteland and built The Bridge, a poem 'to launch into praise', to span across despair towards some brighter shore. But Adamson does not like what he finds on the other side, 'No sonnet will survive/the fax on fire', he warns.
The Clean Dark, the 1990 volume that won several national awards, was Adamson at his most meditative, gliding through his riverscapes like a boat at high tide. This time, Adamson is having an argument; with poetry, with other poets, and even with himself. His verse is peppered with questions, with question marks and exclamation points. He is a shape changer, who breaks down his lines into new forms from poem to poem, and erases his own syntax as he goes along.
Like Cynthia Nolan, Robert Adamson is a kingfisher of the spirit. Although I borrow the phrase from Patrick White, I mean it slightly differently. Like the bird he often celebrates in his verse, its feather stuck literally in his cap, Adamson is a restless scavenger. He darts all over the riverbanks for bright ideas and shiny symbols.
Here is a poet who admits his influences gladly1—Mallarmé, Robert Duncan, Michael Palmer, Kevin Hart, Lou Reed. Oh my, if some poets insist they write purely from the silence in their own heads, Adamson composes verse with the radio on, the television blaring, the book open and the riverbirds screeching above his head as the bushfire crackles in the distance. This is a noisy book.
To read him this time round is like trying to watch the flight path of the kingfisher. He goes in several directions at once, and the effect is both dazzling and confusing.
Other poets have their farms and forests, but Robert Adamson is a river poet, perhaps the river poet. Ever since he ran away from Sydney and settled on and upon the Hawkesbury, he's been messing about in boats, his poetry a net full of fishand fisherfolk, inscribed with the wild calligraphy of riverbirds. But he's no pastoralist, he's not one to bliss out in a waterlogged idyll. 'In Randolph Stow's language you can die of landscape,' he snorts in The Australian Version, part of his hilarious Pepper Mill series. Adamson's landscapes serve language, not the other way around. 'This river/could be anywhere' he tells critic Imre Salusinszky on a fishing trip. They fish, almost biblically, for symbols. Later, Adamson tells a book editor
... I use the lake
as an inkwell, draw
Part One of six parts begins with the familiar, folksongs for fellow poets and artists, rich with the bird life and fish flesh of the Hawkesbury. Can the anthology of elegies for Robert Harris be far off? Adamson's entry is a fine example of a growing sub-genre of Australian poetry. Two 'lozenges', for Brennan and Mondrian, intrude into this world of natural forms and found objects - sharply defined squares of abstract thought that hark back to the Mondrian on the cover.
Part Two, Hart Crane, and Adamson losing heart with it all. Especially poetry. He strolls through the state of the art like an appalled tourist, taking snaps of the desolation - especially in the vignette Walking in America with Federico Garcia Lorca.
Throughout Part Two, poetry seems impotent: 'false epiphanies, strung together and thrown onto the page' in Outside of Delacroix. He suffers the wordsmith's envy for the painter when Garry Shead expunges a crucifix from his painting, which
the new philosophy
We go back to the water's edge in Part Three, but this time the tranquility of river life is stained by disappointments. Addiction, alcoholism, failed love affairs and frustrated ambitions - all these things float like scum on the surface of a river that is still full of bright birds and swift waters. The versemaking is at its simplest here. There are nods to those mournful masters Montale and Stramm but the lines are steady, almost sombre here, and there's no fooling with the poetic structure.
Part Four contains two poems of startling conflict. Sometimes Adamson seems like a poet who loathes his own clarity. He romances the Language poets like Douglas Barbour and Michael Palmer, who free the word from the constraints of meaning. But frankly, Adamson is not a natural babbler. His exercises look mannered next to their loping abstractions.
There is also The Australian Crawl', a glorious poem,
I watched your body fluttering across
the pool, your hands little buckets
chucking water on the flames.
Simple, simple, simple. An offering of home, and homely images on the edge of the bushfire. (A bushfire that creeps on the edge of all these poems as 'background music', a metaphor for anxiety perhaps).
Part Five, The Sugar Glider, is an essay in verse. He's wrestling with a few demons of the poetic landscape, especially Les Murray who 'thrives on naming things', but also word processor poetry. '-check, check-/fix, fix'. He turns poets into animals. Phillip Larkin is an aardvark, John Ashbery is a numbat and the, confusing, bemusing American poet Michael Palmer, unquotable and undecipherable, is the sugarglider, leaping free. Adamson does not (cannot? will not?) define himself.
The finale is a very funny exercise in fin-de-siècle poetic acrobatics, considerably more effective than the sum of its sleight-of-hand parts. Adamson takes a subject (any subject), the pepper mill, and composes a cycle of seven poems which use this household object as their central motif. He concludes that yes, we can make poetry from anything—a positive ending to a book full of doubts.
'The light is coming', says Mondrian in the end-quote. I think the light was always there, in the clean, dark verse of the Hawkesbury, muddy with emotion and littered with urban refuse. Surely there's life in that language as long as the current is strong.
And yet—its good to see the river poet set out to explore the sea of words. True, a boat can get lost. But everyone should try to expand their horizons beyond their own languagescape.
Michelle Griffin is a Melbourne reviewer and journalist