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   Jacket 34 — October 2007        link Jacket 34 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Douglas Barbour reviews
The Goldfinches of Baghdad
by Robert Adamson
Flood Editions, 2006, US$13.95, 103pp, 0-9746902-8-7

This review is about 5 printed pages long. It is copyright © Douglas Barbour and Jacket magazine 2007.

A mature poet at the top of his form

You can read two poems by Robert Adamson in this issue of Jacket.


As Robert Adamson’s first US publication, The Goldfinches of Baghdad offers readers new and old a startlingly wide ranging and full example of his poetry today. Long considered one of the major poets of the 60s generation in Australia, even one of Australia’s major poets of the past century, Adamson has had only a small, if definitely serious, audience in North America, including such luminaries as Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan. Indeed, the poems in The Goldfinches of Baghdad beautifully match Creeley’s encomium on the back cover: ‘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.’

Robert Adamson with his wife Juno Gemes, Sydney, circa 1990, photo John Tranter

Robert Adamson with his wife Juno Gemes, Sydney, circa 1990, photo John Tranter

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In some ways, Creeley’s remarks say everything that needs to be said; the rest of this review will just expand on his comments. Despite its title, the poems in The Goldfinches of Baghdad clearly focus on their own present place, which for Adamson has long been his home on the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney. From there, the poems (the poet, even in what appear to be distinctly I-centred poems, defies the ‘confessional’ stance, and hides self in a variety of ways) can reach out to the wider world, torn by war and other disasters yet still full of mysterious beauty, found usually in the fish and birds he first loved as a child (as his brilliant memoir of a few years ago, Inside/Out continually demonstrated).


The Goldfinches of Baghdad is divided into three parts, each of which explores a particular poetic aspect of Adamson’s far reaching artistic interests. In Part One, the poems bring aspects of the world far away back to the Hawkesbury. He does so through making connections to local wildlife, as in ‘The Greenshank,’ where ‘Miklós Radnóti, marched from forced labour / in Yugoslavia back into Hungary’ slowly transforms through ‘fascists’ bullets,’ ‘[h]is written petals,’ more recent ‘news of war / here in a river sanctuary’ to


a lone figure that dashed across
the shore, stood on one leg, then, conducting
its song with its bill, came forward
in a high-stepping dance.


Part One has a number of poems which appropriate the myth of Eurydice to colonized Australia, here a poetic ‘I’ assumes, or oversees [overseas], the figure of Orpheus, as in ‘The Singing Head,’ where ‘I scribble // a few lines, pass my fishing rod off / as a lyre.’ Or ‘Singing His Head Off,’ in which ‘a ferrymen / at Kangaroo Pont before the bridge // was built and his horse and punt / decommissioned’ may be ‘all gone / into myth now,’ but ‘coalesces around the feeling of loss / of his wife in his stomach.’ So that it only seems appropriate that


Standing now with his back to the storm,
he straightens and begins to sing–
a deep low moan building

to a howl and a high elemental
keening — his song that could once
make rocks weep.


In Part Two, a series of poems on various birds reaches out to the wider world. They are sly and slippery, moving with quicksilver shifts from the particular observation to the wider implication, for self or world. ‘Gang-Gang Cockatoos’ reveals the malleability of the ‘I’ and demonstrates the kind of wit the poet can bring to bear on the wider world. ‘My state of mind’s stencilled on the / footpath, my footprints identical // to the gang-gangs’ . . . As for my tremulous / tone of voice, who’d believe such // flickering convictions?’ Later, the speaker, still dancing lightly, remembers New York, where ‘private schools [taught] them “Hello Cocky” / — it’s ‘Swell.” I’ve never used that word, / just wanted to indicate I’m familiar / with the tone used in the cages // of middle America.’ Adamson’s mastery of tone is but one of the delights of this book.


Adamson utilizes the birds to make points about poetry, often with wicked humour, as in ‘The Cowbird’:


Good students have fried their brains
contemplating the mating habits
               of the cowbird–they are, however, pure
               joy to confessional poets,

who weave them in as tropes as they write poems
concerning their wedding night, in which they
               consummate their bliss oozing
               the milk of what-seens.


The title poem does move into a Baghdad of the mind, history, and the TV image:


               A goldfinch with a slashed throat
was the subject of a masterpiece painted in the
sixteenth century on the back of a highly
polished mother-of-pearl shell — it burns
tonight in Baghdad, along with the living,
caged birds.


That final line break holds everything in balance, before it topples, regardless. A series of further balanced oppositions leads to a lament about how ‘[t]hose who cannot speak burn along with the / articulate,’ and finally to this: ‘We sing or die, singing death / as our songs feed the flames.’ And so Part Two ends.


Most of the poems in Part Three appeared in Adamson’s huge and wonderful Selected a few years ago, Mulberry Leaves. For many readers, however, they will be as new as the rest. These poems find a way to evoke his present personal locale in the Hawkesbury while simultaneously engaging with what are clearly autobiographical materials having to do with his life as a poet. The letters to McAuley, Brennan, Tranter, Viidikas, Creeley, 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 those necessary others Robin Blaser calls ‘companions’; Adamson clearly believes in a tradition kept alive by each writer who continues the ongoing conversation.


That such a tradition includes other artists, such as his old friend, Brett Whiteley, can be seen in his second elegy for that painter, ‘Elegy from Balmoral Beach,’ a beautifully modulated poem that demonstrates, once again, with what craft Adamson finds the right open form for every poem. The Goldfinches of Baghdad is a study of such craft, and the deep feeling craft can deliver. Although aimed mostly at a new audience in the USA, it is a book everyone who cares about Adamson’s poetry, or, really, who cares about poetry now, will want to own. His command of sound, of assonance and consonance, of rhythm, comes through in every poem. This elegy is but one example of how finely he tunes his lyre:


A beach. Small waves and a shark net.
Moonlight on a fig tree, the bay a black mirror.

Music coming from a house, an exquisite guitar.
Tonight there’s nothing more bitter.

Resonating chords float above the school yard,
night birds beat the humid air. The ebb tide

exposes the moon’s haul: squabbling seagulls
slicing open the body of a drowned rat.

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.

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