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A poet dreams of childhood & youth

Douglas Barbour reviews Robert Adamson

Robert Adamson, cover of Inside Out Inside Out: an autobiography, by Robert Adamson
Text Publishing 2004 AU$45.00 342pp 1-877008-95-8

Mulberry Leaves: New & Selected Poems 1970-2001, by Robert Adamson
Paper Bark Press 2001 AU32.95 327pp 1-876749-48-2

Endnotes are given at the end of this file.
Click on the note to be taken to it; likewise to return to the text.

This piece is 3,000 words or about seven printed pages long.

Everything that matters comes together
slowly, the hard way, with the immense and tiny details,
all the infinite touches, put down onto nothing —

each time we touch
it begins again, love quick brush strokes
building up the undergrowth from the air into what holds

                   — Robert Adamson ‘On not seeing Paul Cezanne’

These lines from one of the new poems at the front of Mulberry Leaves state both the poetics of Robert Adamson’s major poems and the operative desire driving the prose of Inside Out, his latest, stunningly generous, work of the imagination.

Robert Adamson has long been considered one of the major poets of the 60s generation in Australia, perhaps one of Australia’s major poets of the past century; Mulberry Leaves: New & Selected Poems 1970-2001 makes a strong case for such an evaluation. A generous selection, with a large group of new poems written since Black Water (1999), and continuing the various new directions his poetry took in the 1990s, it is one of those books every lover of poetry should have.[1] Its early selections become even more interesting than usual when read in the context of his latest book, the wondrous Inside Out: an autobiography, a prodigious work of memory, and a story exciting and comic to read, but which was hard, complex, often frustrating to live, containing as many sad downs as delightful ups.

In fact, Inside Out: an autobiography deals only with the first 20 or so years of Adamson’s life; it’s an epic evocation of his childhood and youth. It tells the story of how a rather wild, dyslexic, imaginative and adventurous but too often care-less and unthinking, boy eventually found his way to salvation-through-poetry. Not your usual tale of poetic apprenticeship, it is a life I read with delight and empathy but am glad I did not have to live through. So it is really only a partial ‘autobiography,’ more a restricted memoir of early life, for, as Adamson more than once confesses, memory can’t be entirely trusted with facts even when it may serve truth. Indeed, I think he would agree that memory is fiction, a telling of stories to oneself, and sometimes to others. Many of the rich and dark tales he gathers in Inside Out he told to his new friends on the outside when he first began to write and enter the exploding world of Sydney poetry in the early 60s. The following little anecdote provides a context for reading the whole book:

Maggie told me I was very quiet the first evening I came to dinner — until about 2 am, when I started to relax and they couldn’t shut me up. I told them stories until dawn about my adventures with a girl called Carol that they thought were hilarious. I remember those stories. They were influenced by The Grapes of Wrath [which he had just read]. I’d often weave elaborate variations as a way of explaining why I’d ended up in prison. I’d tell people it had been for carnal knowledge — in other words, for love. (258)

Some of Adamson’s readers will remember that he has told that particular story, ‘about my adventures with a girl called Carol,’ once before — in Wards of the State. In Inside Out he retells it, shortened, slightly altered, and now fitted into this expanded and expansive reflection upon his whole young life. Perception and perspective change as time goes by, and stories adjust to new contexts. Whether or not a reader knows the Wards of the State version, the version here will catch the heart.

But it comes rather late in a volume full of incident and insight, and I think it belongs to the moment of Adamson’s translation from Innocence to Experience — to utilize the Blakean categories I believe provide the foundations upon which this work stands.

Indeed, its opening sentences suggest as much: ‘“The cistern contains,” wrote William Blake, “the fountain overflows.” I sometimes think that’s not a bad description of how I came about.’ Following which, he tells the story of his parents’ courtship, and of his different grandparents, all of whom influenced him in various ways. The Songs of Innocence, and Innocence-slowly-torn-away, may strike the heart most in this rich and evocative narrative, yet the Songs of Experience, especially the experiences of Mount Penang Training School for Boys and, later, of prison, tell, all too deeply, of wounds only art will close. Inside Out reads like a high octane Bildungsroman crossed with a particularly acute ethnographic study of Australia in the 40s and 50s, a culture so close to us in time yet irretrievably lost to the changes of the past half-century or so. Adamson looks back on his own behavior and that of the world into which he flung himself with such abandon with an admirably hard-won non-judgmental clarity of vision.

The early chapters, ‘Paradise,’ ‘Birds and Fish,’ and ‘On the Trail of Ptilorus magnificus,’ introduce us to a youngster suffering through school, partly because his dyslexia (undiagnosed and undiagnoseable in the late 1940s) made him feel stupid. Nonetheless, he could achieve highly disciplined work and study on something he cared about: in his case fishing and keeping birds. There’s a copy of one of his drawings of Ptilorus magnificus, the rare bird he became obsessed with, and it’s amazingly precise. His many drawings, as well as his obsessive willingness to read everything he could on birds, to build cages for his pigeons and other birds, even to join an older friend in stealing them, reveal a sense of craft and devotion to it that would eventually power his writing. I have long admired the way Adamson melds personal experiences with a highly acute sense of language-as-material-presence in his poems. What is new in Inside Out is a prose that carefully uncovers both actions and the emotions that engendered them while remaining clear, clean, and utterly without any laying of blame or self-justification. He does not blame others; there’s not a single whinging word in the whole book.

There are, however, many moments of high comedy, even if our protagonist is often the unwitting butt of the jokes he has, once again, somehow played upon himself. One of the best such set scenes is when he steals a Ptilorus magnificus (riflebird) from the local zoo, although the tale of the little newspaper for his street, which he created with a school friend, and the story of the bats he gave to his first girlfriend are right up there. These opening chapters capture his own burgeoning intellectual interests, however eccentric, and a sense of place and time that seems both idyllic and improbable. Yet, the verisimilitude of his rendering makes their reality felt. Adamson’s prose manages the very difficult construction of a childish perspective within a mature and sophisticated style. The wit is sly, yet also endemic to the situation and in no way imposed from outside; there is no condescension from age to youth here, just beautifully crafted recognition.

Nor was there any such condescension from the various mentors the young Adamson found in his wanderings. His fisherman grandfather was always there to teach him; but there is also the man he saw in his early morning jaunts, who willingly passed on all he knew once the ten year old proved he was serious about learning the discipline. He never gave Adamson his name, just his knowledge. Adamson’s grandfather, who lived to 97, was always there for him, on the Hawkesbury River where he now lives, and fishes — and writes of it. What they taught him still pervades his life. Fishing, as Yeats also knew, is akin to writing, an ongoing practice, a way of being in the world.

In many ways, Adamson’s ‘criminal career’ is entirely haphazard; he does not plan to do wrong, simply to do something that, at the moment, means everything to him. This is why Inside Out is a comedy and not a tragedy. A kind of comedy of errors that eventually led him toward a world in which his desires and obsessions will not be errors but the materials of art. Indeed, early on, his desire to make his ‘confessions’ neat and whole narratives unconsciously points the way. Not that his story couldn’t have become the usual petty ‘tragedy’ of a small-time crim forever in and out of prison; he was well on his way to that before he finally managed to take an old lifer’s advice:

The Skull at Goulburn wasn’t like that — this one was naturally bald and must have been at least seventy when I met him.
One day he gave me some advice. ‘If you don’t want to come back here,’ he told me, ‘there’s a simple decision you have to make. If you can do this, you can break the cycle. Never go back. Forget your old friends. They’re why you ended up in prison. Start out afresh. Go somewhere nobody knows you. Become a stranger, make new friends, get a job as the bloke from out of town. Do this and you’ll be free — and stay free.’ (168)

He heard the man but he didn’t listen, that time. It took one more stupid mistake, and one more time in prison before he got it. His life in prison, while sometimes pretty good for such a place, especially when he did use the sense of discipline he’d learned fishing, baking, and keeping birds to work the system, also included beatings, a rape, and much else that many people might not survive. That Adamson did survive, and eventually even turned many of those experiences into poetry, says something about the power of the imagination to overcome the worst. Indeed, it was after the rape that he first ‘became a stranger,’ enacting a queen in order to evade further horrors, and perhaps learning long before he read Rimbaud that ‘I is another.’

Inside Out offers a rich tapestry of significant events in Adamson’s childhood and youth, all of which can be seen as preparing him to become a writer, but only because the potential — the imagination, the integrity, the clarity of vision — was already there. Thus, many of the most striking moments in this narrative have to do with the discovery of imaginative possibility. Eventually those discoveries would come in books, but at first he found them in fishing and birds, especially the art in the bird books.

As a young man in his car, or in prison, he found much saving grace in music, and his replay of the first time he actually heard Bob Dylan singing one of his songs is a classic moment of artistic awakening. But discovering a set of The Great Books of the Western World, and later certain novels, as well as finding a collection of contemporary Australian poetry in an abandoned cell, really started him on his way to writing. His is a singular case; being inside, and having no formal education, he fell in love with Shelley and Blake and others like them, and eventually with Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poetry he received from a priest. As he says, some of his early poetry, like ‘Jerusalem Bay’ (printed in Inside Out, but not included in Mulberry Leaves nor the Selected Poems of 1990) is highly influenced by Hopkins.

It was only after his final release that he met some other writers, and began to think that he could become a poet. He had proven he could work in a factory, and had become a fine cakeshop baker, but such jobs failed to fire his imagination, and that lack usually then led him to commit some foolish crime, not thought of as such until done. The final chapters of Inside Out provide a too brief view of his new companions, his first lovers after the disaster with Carol, and his first attempts to write and publish. To me, they feel like a prolegomena to another volume. Entertaining, and full of details about some of the poetry battles between the new young poets and the elders resisting change, they will probably mean more to Australian readers who remember those times than they will to others. Certainly, they reveal with what enthusiasm he threw himself into reading all the poetry he could get his hands on: contemporary American and Australian poetry, Rimbaud (a revelation at first) and Mallarmé, anything and everything grist for his imaginative mill. I remember reading his poem about a visit with Frances Webb in The Law at Heart’s Desire (1982), but the fuller story here fills in many details necessarily stripped from the poem (not in Mulberry Leaves). Nevertheless, such brilliantly rendered moments only whet one’s appetite for more detail, more story.

And I definitely want much more. As an example of the way in which Adamson seems to be just skimming the surface of his memories here, he recalls Brett Whiteley talking to his mother at the launch party for his first book, Canticles on the Skin — not having bothered to mention his first meeting with the artist who was to become such a close friend. What he does tell us is fascinating, for, just as he had with baking, he threw himself into writing, editing, and production, learning everything he could about the craft of each. But, as far as I’m concerned, we need a volume two, Outside In perhaps, which will bring us up to date.

I want him to tell us of his later work, his encounters with Robert Duncan (whom he helped bring to Australia, publishing one of his long poems in a special Australian edition), Robert Creeley, and many others, his various publishing ventures, his friendships with so many important artists, his ongoing life on the Hawkesbury River, his poetics. I can only wait, hopefully, while recommending Inside Out to everyone interested in good writing, vivid tale-telling, and a young life seemingly destined for disaster that turned out better than anyone, especially Robert Adamson, might have expected.

While reading Inside Out, I got out my copies of Adamson’s early books and read them too. What strikes one about Mulberry Leaves is how many of the poems from these early volumes have been culled. What remains are the poems that show the least amount of direct influence, what Auden would have called ‘counterfeited’ works. At the time, they were new and fresh, especially to the writer, who was able to take in everything he read and turn it to his own purposes. Thus Sylvia Plath, Francis Webb, Rimbaud, Robert Duncan, Allan Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Bob Dylan, and many others jostle one another in these early poems, none of which remain in Mulberry Leaves. Rather the poems from the early books still included are those solidly based in personal experience, however transformed by imagination’s fictional power. The fish and birds he first loved as a child continue to inhabit the poems to the present day; they mark his nationality while all the reading that also enters the poems marks his internationalism, his utter refusal to remain parochial in the world of art.

That transformative power has only increased over the four decades Adamson has been pouring out poems. I confess to especially liking the Robert Duncan influenced Cross the Border most among the early books, but agree that many of its poems are deeply embedded in the time of their writing. The selection from that volume in Mulberry Leaves, like the other selections, keeps only the strongest, most complexly riddled poems, ones that do not demand a particular kind of poetic nostalgia. What remains of interest, so many years later, is how each book takes on a different poetic quality, even a whole different mode, as the extreme plainspoken minimalism of Where I Come From follows the richly Romantic rhetoric of Cross the Border, for example. Yet both books are clearly by Adamson; they could be by no other.

The later work, which I find excitingly innovative and continually exploratory, is given greater play in this new Selected. We know artists tend to think their most recent work is their best, but this selection makes a strong case for this approach in Adamson’s case. The new poems are especially interesting in the way they evoke his present personal locale in the Hawkesbury and simultaneously engage with materials of his autobiography. The letters to McAuley, Brennan, Tranter, Viidikas, Creeley[2], Raworth, and Dylan often look back to his early meetings with them. But they also remind readers that Adamson’s engagement with other artists continues unabated, an imaginative encounter with what Robin Blaser calls one’s ‘companions’ that bespeaks a tradition kept alive by each writer who continues the ongoing conversation.

Mulberry Leaves is a big book, necessarily so. Like Whitman, Adamson is large and contains multitudes, most of whom at some time or other gather beside him on the banks of the Hawkesbury. As one expects from Paper Bark Press, it is a beautifully designed volume, with illustrations of the covers of his various books, many Juno Gemes’s extraordinary black and white photographs, plus a set of etchings by Gary Shead, to which he wrote a poetic sequence. Reading all these poems again, I’m astonished by their power. Mulberry Leaves is a great work, a necessary volume. So, in fact, is Inside Out. What gifts.


[1] especially those who may not own all the early books (and they are often hard to find; not many turn up in the second-hand bookshops in Australia, as I have discovered).

[2] Who presents fine comments on the covers of both Inside Out and Mulberry Leaves. He offers a sharp, quick insight to the latter that precisely catches its essence (and the essence of the autobiography as well): ‘Robert Adamson is that rare instance of a poet who can touch all the world and yet stay particular, local to the body he’s been given in a literal time and place. He is as deft and resourceful a craftsman as exists, and his poems move with a clarity and ease I find unique. He has savoured his life, felt it at each moment, and what he has written is its vivid and enduring testament.’

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