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In Australia there is a big river. Men and women live along it. Birds fly over it. The river flows down from the top of the world and is the source of all other legendary rivers. In the dusk charged air of down under, the river is known as the Hawkesbury River.
A river is nothing without one who sees in its flowing the image of all thought, of all appearances, without, that is, a cosmologist. Robert Adamson has worked for years to find in the coils of the Hawkesbury; first, as an organizing principal for his own turbulent life, and second, as a shape for the world. Early on his grandfather, himself half a spirit spawned by those waters, schooled him: the river is a text that one must learn to read — a hard truth for a child with dyslexia! Nonetheless, Robert Adamson did so. The triumph of learning to read in its fullest sense, to understand the world of the river and the river of the world, sounds in every line of his poems.
It’s hard not to approach The Golden Bird guided by Adamson’s autobiography. Published in 2004, Inside Out tells tales of the life with great energy and wit. [Reviewed by Douglas Barbour in Jacket 23] It also presents an irresistible way into the poetry, anticipating the arrangements of the poems in The Golden Bird, his new volume of selected and new poems. Inside Out is in many ways a classic narrative of rebirth through reading, a skill Adamson did not completely master until deep in his wandering through the Australian penal system. The book, part Augustine, part Fredrick Douglass, part any number of social mobility narratives, tells of the author’s conversion to the word. In this instance, the logos is Rimbaud. Even before Adamson discovers reading, discovers poetry, however, we can recognize a somewhat perverse pride of authorship already there, in regard to what may be Adamson’s first, albeit collaboratively, written work:
This was the first of a series of confessions I made to various
detectives over the course of the following decade. I remember signing
the finished document with some pride, not because of the facts it
related but because – with the assistance of the police, who added
their own jargon – I’d produced an official looking document that would
be read and taken seriously in court.
Inside Out, p40
And still, years later, in the prison-house of pre-poetic language:
He looked disappointed to hear this story and loaded me up with extra
charges. I played along, confessing to the theft of a number of items
(including fish nets) that had gone missing since my release from
Grafton and were cluttering up his books. Once again, I found myself
collaborating with the cops. I wrote a fairly detailed draft, which
Rockhopper then embellished. Feeling quite proud of his mentorship, and
proud too of the document we had produced, I looked forward to hearing
it read in the quarter sessions at Taylor Square
Adamson confesses to things he didn’t do just to prolong the delights of oral composition. His tale-spinning gifts, so admirably on display in Inside Out, his audacity and wit distract us from the lack of introspection, remorse, or sheer disorientation that one might expect from a life lived at any number of edges. This may be just plain pathology. There is an unnerving thoughtlessness around the way the poet describes his relationship to the world of propriety and law. He glides into crime and misadventure. He is so open to impulse as to make Dean Moriarty look positively deliberative. But it might just be that this is because Adamson’s true subject is the discovery of his own creative force, of reading and writing in a Manichean world of crims and screws, of a life transformed by the word, and a life long inquiry into what the meaning of that transformation might be.
His third retrospective collection since 2001, The Golden Bird is more that just a reshuffling of the deck. Adamson’s push here is towards an ever more cleanly perceived and rendered witness to the new life of writing. The dedicatory poem is a hymn to the river as the principal law of this universe and as the not uncomplicated source of all writing:
Through wild lantana as I step through into
The garden and, becoming part of the weave,
Notice the tide turn, its weight eroding mudbanks,
Bringing filth in from the ocean.A raft of flotsam
Breaks away, a duckling perched on the thicket
Of its hump. I use the murky river for my ink
Draw bearings on the piece of cloth, sketch
A pair of cattle egrets bullying teal into flight.
The river, in this instance the Euphrates, bears both riches and poverty, success and disaster. It is the ur form of both poetry and visual art, about which Adamson writes with marked sensitivity. The landscape that surrounds the river, that is brought into being by he river’s sanction of human arts, is notable for its wild bounty, the garden, the human artifice, the weave, and the forces of both destruction and predation that the poet includes in his hymn. One recalls a particularly stark and outrageous poem: a dying grandmother warns the poet in an image that will recur with memorable force in Inside Out to get away from the whole ancestral river culture his writing has so sharply rendered:
and I sat there the
she died and heard her say her last words
I sat there not telling
maybe three hours
beside the first dead person I’d seen
I tried to drink some of her gin
it made me throw up on the bed
then I left her
she said the prawns will eat you
when you die on the Hawkesbury River
All the poems in The Golden Bird are written in river ink. They are gathered in groups to show the growth of the poet’s mind, beginning in a near mythic rusticity. Parents. Grandparents. River. Fish. Birds. First girlfriend. It is an awakening to the world and is appropriately vivid in its perceptions. We begin with the elemental whirl of landscape and ancestry, and move outward through love and death and art and nature. Some of the finest poems in The Golden Bird evoke the visual arts. The poet’s life long interest in drawing, (see the impressive rendering of Ptilorus magnificus reproduced in the autobiography) no doubt lies behind this sensitivity and alerts us to what birds and lines, or poetic images, have in common: they mark the boundary of the visible. For all the vividness and particularity of Adamson’s poems, there is always the sense of forces behind the visual, perceptible world, a kind of heartless cosmic surge that brings loss as well as luck, that can set death before us with a cruel delight, that can intensify our own often predatory vision, which is bound up with our experience of beauty:
Do we see the
world we cannot see through art,
use vision’s virtue, particular
emotions creating sight---Drawn with light
so that the image perfects itself
in our seeing it---Drawn out from dark to make
Bright images of life in our living it
lucidity, clear fire.
Poems written years apart sit next to each other in this volume as if they were written at once. The poet’s devotion to action and immediacy create a kind of continuous present. But it is never a present we are lost in for long, in mythic chants or noun-laden undulations. Given the poet’s early taste of authorship in the police stations of the land, one can only imagine the transcribing angel in Adamson’s universe as eternally, as the autobiography would have it, part screw, part crim. The sentences leading always towards or away from a sentence: the syntactic and the penitential are intertwined. Sentencing, for such a writer, is a deliberative act, setting the conditions of a precarious freedom. Adamson’s syntax calls for discrete bundles of agent and action in brisk succession. This is as true of the earliest poems as of the latest. There is simply no time to spiral off in an elaborate relative clause. No digressions, no asides. Someone is always watching. One of Adamson’s early masters, Bob Dylan, caught the underlying fear that propels Adamson to keep imagining the dialectic between confinement and freedom long after, as Genet once promised a judge, his crimes have been limited to literature:
Sometimes I think this whole world is
one big prison yard
Some of us are prisoners, the rest of us are guards.
— “George Jackson” by Bob Dylan
But for Adamson there is always some way to be outrageous. In those police confessions, as in the poems, truth and lie are reconciled in legends. The Golden Bird offers many: the naïf, the punk, the Rimbaudian autre, the James Dean outlaw car thief greaser, the canny criminal, the jailhouse femme, the working stiff, the offspring of hard- living folk who seem almost the embodiment of primordial gods. It’s an assiduously gathered compendium of modern mythic poses. And the one that seems least mythic is the most essential: Adamson the hobbyist, the bird watcher, though the word quickly fails to account for Adamson’s lifelong obsession with birds. Birds are both objects of fantasy and a means of ontological speculation. They are associated with artistic mastery, with craftsmanship, and with the mind’s love of order, with angelic presence and fellow workers of the river, with the freedom denied to prisoners, with pure imperial hunger that swoops down as fast as Zeus. And, as Inside Out memorably narrates, they are even preside over early crimes. As a child, the poet broke into the town zoo and stole a precious bird. He in fact assembled, if this can be believed, an entirely clandestine aviary. A lifetime later he is still meditating on the meaning of these messengers so crucial to the life of rivers and of poetry. In the 21 birds gathered for our viewing in a section titled “The Stone Curlew,” we see the poet searching out a series of analogies to human life. The first things the birds offer us is perspective: “I am writing this inside the head of a bush stone curlew,” he tells us.
. . . I hang in a sling of light
between the bird’s nocturnal eyes.
The heavens make sense, seeing this way
makes me want to believe
words have meanings,
that Australia is no longer a wound
in the side of the earth.
Throughout this particular conference the poet both identifies with the birds and finds in them analogies to human types and conditions. A certain parrot, for example, resembles the Minister of Defense, whose face turns as red as the birds belly, while a former friend, down on his luck, making his living serving writs, becomes an uncanny simulation of a Grey Whistler. And what else would show up at the reading of a will but the Dollarbird? (Is there actually such a creature? Is Adamson breeding new species on the sly?) Yet the poet also asserts the distance, the alterity of these creatures, associating them with poetry in all the uncanniness of its origins and effects. In fact these poems are a sequence where the poet can investigate the essence of his art: song.
For a poet, the ultimate bird would have to be the lyrebird:
In these parts, the lyrebird must carry
its own cage on its back
through swamps—I once believed this.
But yesterday the bird suffered a stroke.
‘It keeps falling to the ground,’ the ranger
said, ‘nothing can be done.’ It’s time
to commiserate with this creature,
all songbird but not quite lyre.
Were these lines not from a poem dedicated to Eurydice, we would still see in its mingling of mortality and music the central figure of Adamson’s river world, Orpheus. It’s no coincidence that the most assuredly Orphic poet in the postwar period, Robert Duncan, rises up before us in these pages, associated with death, song, and the crossing of ambiguous water. Duncan, along with Rimbaud, Hopkins and Shelley is a key figure in Adamson’s visionary entourage. In The Golden Bird, Duncan rides out into the river in the boat and Adamson rows. Readers of Duncan recognize the trope as the boat of love and of poetry, which appears in a number of defining moments in Duncan’s work, most notably allied with what he calls the first poem:
The Golden Bird’s title poem, a meditation on mutability and art, is also a crisis of Orphic faith. Adamson begins the poem at the moment of transformation, not the joyous flights of Orpheus first song, here, but the agonistic, rending notes of violence and wounding at the heart of the myth:
trailing a damp cloak.
chilling the soft bones of my shoulder’s
in-grown wing – pain from
A new wound flickers out –
forking through the rapture of writing,
cold air seeking it.
The opening binds together the dwindling comfort of the seasonal world, the winged potential of the trapped soul, and the fresh pain of a wound that seems paradoxically inflicted from within, a blow against the unwinged body. The cold and dark cloak the sufferer with dusk. Only the rapture of writing can coordinate nature, body, and art. The poet’s lifelong avian devotion cues us that the pain is about wingedness, if only the wingedness of words. One body gives way to another.
Adamson evokes the Orphic myth as recently and complexly rendered by Nathaniel Tarn in his recent collections of essays, The Embattled Lyre. Tarn poses a far-reaching speculation about the Orphic tradition, locating a complex replaying of the Orphic myth in the very form of certain kinds of lyric. The Orphic myth directs our attention, Tarn suggests, to the simultaneous orientation of the poem towards the past and the future, to looking forward and to looking back. Adamson’s poem explicitly evokes Tarn’s essays, which seems at first set before us only to allow the poet to evoke his distance from Orphic concerns. But Adamson has invested considerable imaginative effort throughout his career in the story of Orpheus. If we were to look more deeply at the legend of the life that the autobiography and this volume together present, we might find Orphism everywhere, with the Australian penal system a vast Hadean world where the poet enters and is initiated into the power of song (over a prison loudspeaker in 1964, — could anything be more incredible? — Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in their Game.” )
Crucial to Adamson’s Australian orphism is his identification with Eurydice. The poet prefers not the light towards which Orphic poetry and thought tend, but the dark:
these days I prefer –
the dark, cold, and a clarity
of mind even when I feign confusion,
I hold tight to what keeps me alive
“The Golden Bird” finds in Eurydice a figure of radical doubt, in the tradition of visionary skepticism which summons up the scenes of Orphic belief in the modern tradition, as in Yeats and Stevens. Oddly enough, the third walking beside them here is Ted Berrigan, to interrogate what the life of writing could ever really be.
Sliding into a trance
I see the waxing quarter
moon as light across a cotton-wove page--
though now, what act of
imagining could create warmth,
from reflected light? Nothing
silence, blind-air, blank.
This is by no means Adamson’s final statement on the imagination, but it does alert us to a value in his world which is counter to that of sensation and pure song, and that is: clarity of mind. For all the exuberance and immediacy and action that his poems convey, one becomes increasingly aware, and the arrangement of The Golden Bird affirms this intuition, that Adamson’s poetry is consummately rational. The wild mishaps, the impulsive torments of the autobiographical legend recorded in Inside Out, are the chaotic opening of the ground from which the bride of discursive insight might be rescued. Part of Eurydice’s appeal is that she is a perceiving mind caught between worlds, free of earthly impulse, but not severed from life. She can cross and re-cross the river.
As Eurydice is the predominant figure of his imagination, it makes sense that the poet gather in tribute all her poems together in a single tableaux entitled “A Future Book,” which directly precedes the final selection of new poems (the title poem among them.) We see this complex figure from a variety of perspectives, from her own, as Rilke would have it, from that of Orpheus the husband in a domestic world as alien to poetic inspiration as that lampooned by Cocteau in his satire of married love. For Adamson, Eurydice is at times straightforwardly a biographically verifiable lost love, a subject for love lyric, a force of nature, and given Adamson’s experience of the tendering of gender roles in prison, a Genet-like dramatization of sexual role-playing. Eurydice presides over both an idiom of heartfelt exactitude, and of a kind of bristling obliquity one finds at moments in Adamson. His most opaque and difficult poem, uncharacteristically hermetic, perhaps impenetrable, occurs under the sign of Eurydice. Read “Daybook for Eurydice” and there’s a certain 16th century English epic you’ll never see in quite the same way again:
The Faerie Queen is a drag show
bedecked and scored
with synthetic cloth and acrylic glitter, they eat
the drumsticks of the bird of paradise . . .
The somewhat ghostly gathering of Eurydices in “A Future Book” casts a mythic light on the new poems, which following this catalogue of traumatic loss suggest the new poems occur late in the mythic day. The new poems pursue a radical questioning with the same ferocity with which they once proclaimed their poetic faith, their conviction that was itself beyond all prisons. The world has been Eurydicised, which means it is constantly stripped of its bride. In the new poems the myth now happens can at once or helter skelter, in bits, out of narrative sequence, but its always there, the fading into and out of being, the severance of the poet from the source of his song, the worldly scorn of poetic art, the lyrebird reduced to a hood ornament. The new poems present the emergence of a post-Eurydice Orpheus, who sings of purification and withdrawal and a new life. The magnificent opening poem signals Adamson’s return to his avian angelology, calling on a guide out of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Kingfisher.
I felt blank pages
indentations created by images, getting by
with the shapes I made from crafted habits.
You taught me how to weigh the harvest of light.
There was bright innocence in your spelling.
I learned to read again through wounded eyes.
These new poems summons the poet’s most enduring tropes and figures, as if to test what truth they still affirm. However chastened by death and desire, Adamson is still a poet of deep and warring antagonisms. The world is quick to respond to his newly reclaimed Orphic resolve, by reminding him of the odds poetry is up against in the modern world, but also offering witnesses to the endurance of poetic song. Ungaretti, Attila, Radnoti, Char, all poets notable for their vision of poetry in times of catastrophe, are summoned to Australia, quite possibly to the Hawkesbury.
Adamson, again, in the title poem, evokes a world picture the fainthearted might find fatiguing: “Today broken words gather / on pages in a broken time” (267) Yet Adamson’s energy and his music are by no means broken, defeated, or faltering. The flow of energy and perception, the keen hungry interest in the world, and above all, the clarity of mind cited as an ideal, seems real and is pervasive. And though clarity of mind as a goal for poetry is laudable, the test is what the quality of that clarity is. Does it come at the expense of the reality it contemplates, so that only what meets the criterion of clarity merits representation? Or does it recognize the limits of clarity as an aesthetic ideal, and the beginning of something other that blankness, or chaos, of mystery?
Perhaps my favorite poem among the most recent suggests to me this is where Adamson is now at, and it’s a good place to be. Again, we are crossing the water. Robert Duncan is no longer with us. It’s a simple boat ride, a simple arrival on some other, dreamlike side. He calls it the Quay, probably Circular Quay in central Sydney, but from this distance, from the northern hemisphere, it seems like a fully realized and populated totality, discovered in the course of a quest of which we await further news:
It was twilight in a rowing
boat on Sydney Harbour.
Out from Blues Point, I was pulling hard
on the oars of a hired rowboat to be
returned before the natural curfew of darkness –
This was over thirty years ago and memories
are complex things – one image is stronger
than the others, flying foxes moving in black files
across the sky above the harbor, flying
out from my childhood into their present
continuing for a million years or so . . .