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ENTERING THE NEW CENTURY THROUGH GLASS' - the poetry of Bob Adamson
Review by Anne Kellas

Waving to Hart Crane ||

Category: Poetry

Bibliographic details: Waving to Hart Crane, by Robert Adamson. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1994.
ISBN 0 207 18347 3
AUD$ 16.95

 

'We enter the new / century through glass, / black oceans
/ and black winds, / thin fibre funnelling / poetry out / of
existence' ...

So says Adamson in the poem that gives this collection its name. A lover of poetry, of words, of images, of the river that has been his home, Robert Adamson, or Bob Adamson as he is known among his contemporaries, lives and breathes his poetry into crystalline shape.

Robert Adamson was born in 1943 in Sydney, but ran away as a young teenager to live as a fisherman on the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales. He is no stranger to the spotlight of literary acclaim. In 1989 one of his collections of poetry, The Clean Dark , won all three of Australia's most prestigious literary awards for poetry.

Adamson has exerted a great influence on Australian poetry not only through his own work, but also through his activities as a publisher and editor - he manages and edits Paperbark Press along with his wife Juno Gemes and fellow writer and academic, Michael Wilding. His influential magazine New Poetry even after its demise still draws poets to its pages. He is also one of the 140 Australian poets to have found their way into the Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry edited by Ian Hamilton, and his work's been translated into seven languages including Russian and Chinese.

In 'Waving to Hart Crane' Adamson is, says the critic Imre Salusinszky, at his most experimental. Like glass each poem is a clear, imagistic piece of art that seems to need no interpretation, at least on a superficial level. This is not deliberately abstract or 'difficult poetry' masquerading under a guise of philosophical ingenuity - it is poetry that deals with issues of difficulty - difficulty in relationships, in conversation, in art, in poetry, in poetic style.

Wrestling with this difficulty the poet has achieved that particular freedom which 'comes to us when we trust / what we truly know. / What we know now is poetry / a power as difficult as a bow / with an arrow / going off to kill, / even though we don't want blood / on our hands.' He knows the 'wonderful, clumsy sort of foxtrot' of other poetic movements some of which he is not ashamed to decry - 'Like a long line / of false epiphanies, strung together / and thrown onto the page. (Looking out Sideways, for Barrett Reid)

It is when you read these poems on a deeper level that they move or translate themselves into that transcendent state or quality which elusively defines poetry as poetry and not mere strings of words. His words are never 'thrown onto the page' and his tone is never that of deadening ennui. Adamson greatly admired the American poet Robert Duncan (1919-1988) who was part of the *San Francisco Group* of poets in the 60s.

His own brand of scepticism cuts sharply across all boundaries one might wish to draw around him. Adamson was one of the founders of the so-called Australian 'Generation of '68', if one can use that phrase with impunity, but I think he has successfully escaped its confines.

The freedom he finds in this collection also comes from a writer who has an understanding through and through of not only human nature, but his craft.

Here the poem, distilled from and born of the poet's off- stage struggle with complex feelings, becomes in itself the means of escape for the poet as it comes to life, whole and fresh, from 'our / hearts locked in their / cages of singing muscle' (Cornflowers).

Each poem carries allusions to other poets as wide ranging as Michael Palmer and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Charles Olson and Francis Webb, Les A. Murray, Kevin Hart and Kevin Gilbert, traversing landscapes as different from each other as Tasmania (Sugar Glider) and Eastern Europe (Flower Song, Hungary 1942) We go from 'Walking in America with Frederico Garcia Lorca' to 'Language Poetry in Saskatchewan' and on the way we touch the nerve of feeling in 'Addiction' and in Hawkesbury Bushfire, or 'The Australian Crawl' where 'sequential meanings drift into meltdown.' His images don't bite, they come to life under the pen of a highly skilled and humorous observer of human nature, and they search out the recesses of the human heart.

Each poem searches for and finds a closure that satisfies. A poem like 'Alcohol' (p 50) has dips and loops that chart a jagged path from life with awareness to life with numbness and back again - 'It ends with a lightness of eyelids.' Behind this poem moves a presence that is as innocent as a suffering child, something that comes from the soul itself, affronted by some cruelty in the world. Behind many of the poems is this poetic intuition - 'In the green beach-light / you said you'd make / the moon sing, / the surf purring / and you beating the sand / with the shreds / of your voice.' (The Written Moon).

Many of the poems are imbued with this intuitive quality, easy to miss under the surface irony. 'I use the lake / as an inkwell, draw / invisible serifs... I cannot tell you where I am - / somewhere in the bloodstream / is all I can say. My voice / is parched as ink hits the air, / day itself is the only page.' (A Future Book) .

So too, many are dogged by depression, and themes of drugs, illnesses, sorrows, fears, but these never dominate the poems, I think because of Adamson's determination to celebrate life and celebrate nature. Coincidentally, Hart Crane set out to celebrate America in 'The Bridge.' In the poem 'Waving to Hart Crane' Adamson decries those who 'expunge / the message, nothing's / praise. If gestures / appear they fold in fade out.'

To read these poems is to experience an encounter with an extraordinary talent which is all at once restrained and disciplined, exuberant and celebratory, ironed smooth and imaginative, tender and scalpel-sharp.

Review by Anne Kellas