Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Robert Adamson, Reaching Light: Selected Poems
Edited by Devin Johnston
Flood Editions, 2020, $19.95

Robert Adamson is a poet of place. For most of his life, he has lived on the Hawkesbury River, which as Devin Johnston tells us in his Introduction, is “an estuary just beyond the incursion of Sydney suburbs.” Adamson and his wife, the photographer Juno Gemes, “live in a house on the end of Cheero Point, outside the little town of Brooklyn. Their kitchen windows look out on Mooney Mooney Creek—really a broad river—which meets the larger body of the Hawkesbury a little south. Subject to tides, the creek withdraws to reveal mudflats, and sometimes its channel carries a bloom of jellyfish or a bull shark. Pleasure crafts mix with fishing boats, old oyster leases with freshly built jetties.” Adamson’s grandfather was a fisherman on the Hawkesbury, and his poems are full of references to the wildlife and local geography. This imagery, and his experiences of the natural world, are fundamental to his poetic vision, sometimes movingly juxtaposed to the ups and downs of his personal life:

On the river the bowerbirds
dart through the mangroves in little troops
the females trailing the colour

of their olive backs in streaks,
panting the air with olive-ribbons.
Whirring bowerbird light in quick curves
around their bowers flecked with

the blue tokens of their sex, the bits
of jagged indigo, the pegs of ultramarine,
spikes in cobalt and the dilatory
lapis lazuli of a male’s eye

a pure blue deeper than cold blood
in a blocked vein. I remembered heroin’s
white abyss and couldn’t speak...
         (“Windy Drop Creek,” 127)

Adamson’s poetic compass points to the United States rather than to England. He met both Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan on their visits to Australia in 1976, and the openness and immediacy of the New American Poetry is fundamental to his aesthetic. American music is equally important. Adamson is a great fan of Bob Dylan and has been reviewing his concerts and albums for many years. His poem “Swimming Out with Emmylou Harris” is a dark, glittery gem, with Harris’s songs accompanying “the meaningless joy of living / the random punishment of birth” (118). Likewise, in “Elegy from Balmoral Beach,” the music of Doc Watson becomes the focal point for an act of mourning: “Music coming from a house, an exquisite guitar. / Tonight, there’s nothing more bitter.” The poem concludes:

A light flickers, a newspaper floats. Doc Watson’s
playing sounds like a waterfall, almost gentle.

Tonight the harbour’s incandescent.
You arrive in an empty boat. (178)

Note, by the way, the subtle rhyme of “floats” and “boat.” Like Duncan before him, Adamson will often embed rhymes within his lines rather than at their ends, sometimes with quite a few intervening lines between. Almost imperceptibly, they carry his music forward.

Adamson is also a poet of mythic resonance. In “A New Legend,” an early poem, he walks through a clearing cataloguing details of the natural world, aware of the ashes of campfires and the human presence which precedes him: “A brown kestrel flits // between the sun and the ancient / dwellings, its shadows a moth / wandering below the mist’s surface. / Everything has been like this / for centuries” (25). Yet even as he walks, “I create a new legend here,” and thus “Wherever life emanates / it’s born from my careful presence / here, treading: mushrooms bloom / in my footsteps among the ashes” (26). The younger poet recognizes his capacity to transform the world around him into a new myth. Much later in Adamson’s career, the older poet engages an ancient myth fundamental to his identity, that of Orpheus and Eurydice. In “The Floating Head,” he tells us that he “wrapped a scarf around my headache” and recalls “an ebbing memory leaving with the tide.” After his death at the hands of the Maenads, the archetypal poet’s head and lyre float down the river Hebrus, still singing. Adamson writes that “I scribble // a few lines, pass my fishing rod off / as a lyre” (157). Likewise, in “Thinking of Eurydice at Midnight,” the poet broods over political disasters and personal failures, while “A possum eats crusts on the verandah” and “The cold mist falls, my head floats in a stream / of thinking” (161, 162).

Very little in Adamson’s immediate surroundings escapes his attention, and his ability to transform these acts of attention into lyric detail is one of his greatest strengths. Sometimes this transformation involves metaphor, as in “Garden Poem”: “This day has taken our lives to arrive. / Afternoon swings open, although // the mechanics of the sun require / the moon’s white oil” (191). Sometimes we are given striking images in rapid succession. When Adamson brings these techniques together, strung taut over finely balanced lines, the result is writing of extraordinary beauty and tension, as in “Looking into a Bowerbird’s Eye”:

Untamable, fluttering, a feathery
cold pulsing in my hands—
a mature male bowerbird.
House-glow, the night outside,
here the kitchen light reflects
electric splinters, uncountable
shards clustered in a blue eye.
Everything flares to a beak
pecking at fingers, claws
raking the palm of my hand,
alembic depths of blue eye-tissue.
He was trapped in a cupboard at 3 a.m.:
the cat’s voice woke the house.
Fingers flecked with specks
of blood now, the eye
a fiery well of indigo cells, cobalt,
ultramarine, cerulean blues. (186)

The extraordinary variety of avian life that is found along the Hawkesbury has long been one of his favorite subjects, and poems of this intensity punctuate Reaching Light, making it a virtual catalogue of Australian birds. But unlike traditional bird poems in the English canon, Adamson’s poems, although they do not entirely eschew symbolism (think Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” or Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”), often have a modern self-consciousness that differs from that of the Romantics. Here are the opening lines of “The Stone Curlew”:

I am writing this inside the head
of a bush stone curlew,
we have been travelling for days

moving over the earth
flying when necessary.
I am not the bird itself, only its passenger

looking through its eyes. (114)

As a “passenger” inside the bird’s head, the poet comes to the realization that “words have meanings, / that Australia is no longer a wound / in the side of the earth.” Without losing the focus on the curlew, the poem shifts into a political register and comes to an end:

I think of the white settlers
who compared the curlew’s song
to the cries of women being strangled,

and remember the poets who wrote
anthropomorphically as I sing softly
from the jelly of the stone curlew’s brain. (115)

The implications here are worth unpacking, for this poem proves to be an excellent example of how deceptively complicated Adamson’s apparently direct approach to his subject can be. Having given himself over the curlew, experiencing the world from the bird’s perspective, the “jelly” of its brain, the poet separates himself from the “white settlers” (from whom he has descended), perhaps aligning himself to an indigenous Australian viewpoint as well as that of nature itself. Like the settlers “who compared the curlew song / to the cries of a woman being strangled” (were they frightened of attacks by indigenous people resisting British colonization?), “the poets who wrote / anthropomorphically” represent a worldview which Adamson refuses to accept. And indeed, Adamson’s writing, despite its long and deep engagement with the natural world, is remarkably free of the pathetic fallacy, and, as I mentioned, resists symbolism. Adamson’s American orientation, particularly his connection to American modernist poetics, makes him our Australian cousin.

I can’t conclude this review without mentioning that I’m friends with Robert Adamson on Facebook and spent some time with him and Juno Gemes in Paris at the Robert Duncan conference last year. The photos Adamson posts regularly of Australian birds are beautiful, and he has chronicled his and Juno’s rescue of the injured bowerbird they’ve named Spinoza, who has since become part of their household (and the subject of one of Adamson’s late, visionary lyrics). Adamson has regularly kept Siamese cats (the two he has now are the poetically named Emily and Percy), and one of my favorite poems in Reaching Light is an elegy for a lost Siamese. Unlike most cats, Siamese are unusually affectionate, loyal and social, more “dog-like” in their behavior (as is true of our Siamese, Kitzel). Here are the opening stanzas of Adamson’s “Death of a Cat”:

Siamese seal-pointer, ghost cat.
My familiar and killer,
sleeper under covers.
A true carnivore
devoured hundreds of pilchards,
maybe thousands,
and many baby brown snakes.

That pair of kingfisher bodies.
First the pale female,
jumped and tortured.
Then the male
who returned to help his mate
and met death by tooth and claw. (180)

The rare use of allusion (Tennyson’s nature, “red of tooth and claw”), employed with only a touch of irony by this extraordinary nature poet, leavens this witty, sad, and quite unsentimental poem for what the poet’s wife deemed “a demented prowling beast,” but which the poet himself names

My darling and terrible
King Tut, who prowled here
for eighteen years before The Mower
cut out his kidneys.

Human or beast, who could ask for a better memorial?

Post by Norman Finkelstein on 10/24/2020 at 1:00 PM