Reaching Light: Selected Poems (Robert Adamson)

On the Poetry of Robert Adamson
— Devin Johnston

Robert Adamson has always been a restless poet, reinventing himself with each new book. His work abounds with redirections and experiments, from the nervy debut Canticles on the Skin (1970) through the bleak pared-down autobiography of Where I Come From (1979) to the rich and masterful late work. Yet through all the changes, a few place names recur like talismans, with their own particular weight and resonance. Returning to the same ground, the same waters, Adamson sifts through mysteries of the past, the traumas and “shining incidents” that accrete through long association. As Robert Creeley has written of Adamson, he 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.”

For most of Adamson’s life, his literal place has been the Hawkesbury River, an estuary just beyond the incursion of Sydney suburbs, even now. He 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. The far shore remains wild, much as it would have looked to Governor Phillip in the late eighteenth century, with sandstone escarpments rising above inlets of mangroves and thick, low vegetation. It is part of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, named for the Aboriginal people who once lived here. Nearby runs the Great North Road, hewn from solid rock by convicts in the 1820s and 30s. The forces of the continent’s history and prehistory are scratched on Hawkesbury stone, as colonial graffiti and Aboriginal petroglyphs. Such forces linger behind Adamson’s writing, slightly inflecting poems of an otherwise personal nature and occasionally, as in “Wild Colonial Boys” and “Canticle for the Bicentennial Dead,” coming into full view.

Near the creek’s mouth, on the peninsula of Mooney Mooney, Adamson’s grandfather “Fa Fa” lived in a cottage and fished the river for almost half a century. Adamson often sought refuge here, as a troubled youth growing up on the shores of Sydney Harbour. He felt alienated from the suburban, workaday world of Neutral Bay, and dyslexia hampered his progress in school. Meanwhile, as he recounts in his autobiography Inside Out, his grandfather taught him to “read” the river and advised him, “never stay away too long.” As Adamson later reflected, “I grew up fishing on the Hawkesbury River and during those early years it seeped in, beyond the reach of conscious memory. Once it’s in your blood it enters your life and you are governed by the tides, the fauna and flora, the mangroves and mudflats.” In later years he made his living for a while as a commercial fisherman, and he has been a regular contributor to Fishing World. In poetry, the river has given Adamson not only subject matter, but also a rich vocabulary and symbolic language.

Throughout Adamson’s poetry, fishing offers a figure for casting out into the landscape, drawing a line taut and reeling it in. The enterprise involves reading the tides and weather, an intimate familiarity with shifting conditions; like poetry, it combines technical facility, preparation, and good instincts. It entails intuiting a presence where nothing is visible, a sort of via negativa. In “Meaning,” a fishing net becomes the web in which he seeks to catch his own memories: “tonight I work with holes, with absence.” In the process, he moves not only outward but downward to psychological and instinctual depths. As he reflects in an article for Fishing World, “Memory is an active part of fishing, not simply the recording of facts but the deeper upper reaches of the subconscious river, the places where we once had to fish to survive.” Yet fishing brings with it a deep ambivalence, since what we catch we usually kill; it taps sources of guilt as well as joy. In poems of love and loss, mulloway, hairtail, ribbonfish, catfish, black fish, leatherjackets, whiting, and bream glide through a psychogeography. In the reciprocity between outer and inner states, “the whole river, and the landscape around it, reflected what was happening in my head” (Inside Out). In a few poems, such as “The Gathering Light,” ambivalence gets overwhelmed by a sense of awe:

I’ve just killed a mulloway—
it’s eighty-five pounds, twenty years old—
the huge mauve-silver body trembles in the hull.

Time whistles around us, an invisible
flood tide that I let go
while I take in what I have done.
It wasn’t a fight, I was drawn to this moment.
The physical world drains away
into a golden calm.

Beyond the act of violence, beyond the workings of time and desire, Adamson arrives at a stunned surrender to the natural world.

Then, there are the birds that flock through Adamson’s poetry, particularly from the 1990s onwards: whistling kite, Jesus bird, stone curlew, Arctic jaeger, yellow bittern, greenshank, rainbow bee-eater, too many to list here. For American readers, some of the very names may seem fantastical, and their sightings in these poems have surreal edges. Their songs and flight often bring a hint of euphoria, a flashing glimpse of alien life. They are always themselves, beyond anthropomorphic understanding, and never quite knowable in language. Yet paradoxically, perhaps, birds are also emissaries for poetry in Adamson’s work. As Francis Ponge puts it, poetry takes “the side of things” (Le parti pris des choses), or in this case, the side of birds. It draws a larger circle within which human creativity and animal behaviour are not cleanly separable. Playfully, the behaviours, codes, patterns, and ecologies of birds sometimes become those of poets. More earnestly, the kingfisher is Adamson’s daemon, a fishing bird and deep diver. “It hunts / for souls,” and yet “its life’s / an edge / you can’t / measure” (“The Kingfisher”). The entwining of wildness with literary sophistication proves one of many paradoxes in Adamson’s work. Like that of Yeats, his poetry is shot through with paradoxes, ironies, antinomies, vacillation, and ambivalence, full of “straight, bent signs” (“Reaching Light”).

We return often in these poems to a central tension between imagination and the real, between far-flung correspondences with art and poetry and everyday struggles, between resonances of myth and things as they are. The river flows through both worlds, sometimes as the Styx or Helicon, sometimes as the real Hawkesbury, but always the dark source of language and reverie. Its black water is often described as ink, the fluid substance in which poems get inscribed. Orpheus, in particular, recurs from the late 1990s onwards as a figure for the poet, sometimes appearing in murkily displaced autobiography during a period of personal turbulence. In the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, he seeks to bring lost love up from the darkness into the light. Yet the backward glance precipitates loss at the very instant it seeks affirmation. As with fishing, the myth emphasizes evanescence, the limits to what we can grasp in love. Sometimes, as in “Eurydice in Sydney” and “Reaching Light,” Adamson moves past this double bind by giving voice to the loved one, who has been nearly silent through the whole course of literature.

At other times, more oppressively, the space of imagination is a “head space.” Bunkered at the back of the house, shades drawn against the daylight, the poet writes through the night, scattering words as “bait” for poems, until he feels a “strange panic / for the real” (“Clear Water Reckoning”). The head is invariably dark, a cave or refuge or confinement, at once boundless and claustrophobic. In “The Floating Head,” he turns off the lights, unplugs the phone, “wrapped a scarf around my headache / and looked inside.” He invokes the death of Orpheus as a self-mocking image of the poet’s martyrdom: “I scribble // a few lines, pass my fishing rod off / as a lyre. Who needs this bitter tune?”

Writing poetry is a solitary activity, of course, and sometimes an isolating one. Yet with bookshelves close at hand, the poet finds company (to use Creeley’s word) with the living and the dead. As we read in “Creon’s Dream,” “the dead friends sing from invisible books.” Despite all the birds and fishes, Adamson’s poems are highly literary. He has never been afraid of absorbing influences, having taken to heart Robert Duncan’s celebration of “derivations” and joyful acknowledgment of sources. We can trace in Adamson’s work the Romanticism of Wordsworth and Shelley, alongside the Symbolism of Rimbaud and Mallarmé (there are many French allegiances in Australian poetry of the 1960s, to tack against the English modes). Hart Crane is an early influence and presiding presence, along with the Australian poets Francis Webb and Randolph Stow. The Americans Duncan and Creeley were friends and correspondents, and their poetics gave Adamson an early whiff of freedom and possibility. On the level of form and style, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell can be felt, particularly the Lowell of Near the Ocean (1967), “crafting / lines of intelligent blues, / his Jelly Roll of a self-caught mess / deep in spiritual distress” (“Clear Water Reckoning”).

These influences first took hold when Adamson was in his mid-twenties, a poète maudit recently released from a stretch in prison. He joined a blossoming counterculture in Sydney, including the poets of what came to be known as “the New Australian Poetry.” Literature, Pop Art, and rock music mixed freely in the flats and hotel bars of Balmain and Paddington. In 1968 Adamson took over editorship of the Poetry Society of Australia’s magazine, New Poetry, and edited it for more than a decade (and remained an editor of various publications, including Paper Bark Press, for the next thirty-odd years). He quickly took the magazine in an avant-garde direction, publishing some of the writing that defined his generation. His own early poetry often brings the cool of Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande á part or Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde into verse. There’s a thrilling insouciance evident from the outset: “Shit off with this fake dome of a life, why / should I remain here locked in my own / buckling cells?” (“The Rebel Angel”). Such toughness mingles with more vulnerable confessions and love lyrics. In some early poems, lines of free verse float like strands of cloud, sometimes underpunctuated. Elsewhere we find arch rhyming quatrains and sardonic sonnets. Arthurian legends mix with Customlines and Mallarméan poetics bump up against drug references.

Like many of his generation, a shocking number of whom did not reach middle age, Adamson struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol. By The Clean Dark, published in 1989, we get a clear-eyed assessment of the damage done—clean now, but still dark. Adamson became, by force of circumstance, a fine elegist for lost friends, including the painter Brett Whiteley. The dark recognitions of a survivor blend with the pragmatism of a fisherman in poems such as “Windy Drop Down Creek,” on Whiteley’s death:

It was a blustering winter. I saw his name
in headlines, flapping outside a shop
next to the chemist. Death turns up
and life goes on incredibly, what can

you feel if the day turns to stone?

Heartbreak wells up in the midst of daily life, fully felt yet tersely expressed, without sentimentality. Death is a persistent presence in Adamson’s major work from the late 1980s through the 1990s. Yet increasingly, in the last two decades, his poems have moved toward a tone of calm acceptance and plain statement, perhaps natural to late retrospection. In the recent poems for Juno Gemes, in particular, we find a hard-won sweetness and light. “I preferred the cover of night, yet here, I stepped / into the day by following your gaze” (“The Kingfisher’s Soul”).

For all of Adamson’s exhilarating variety and intertextual play, certain features have emerged over time to define his strongest poems. He modulates between literary and spoken registers, high and low, with exquisite sensitivity. His poems are largely built up out of phrases that fall into syntactical arrangements with ease, their clauses strung together with commas, artfully yet without fuss. Their tones adhere closely to those of talk, either to himself or to a loved one. The poems rarely make arguments, usually beginning with seemingly casual observations that locate us in the day: “In small skiffs before dawn” (“Berowra Waters”), “Morning before sunrise” (“Green Prawn Map”), “Winter afternoon” (“Ambivalence”), “Morning shines on the cowling of the Yamaha” (“The Gathering Light”), or “A black summer night” (“Meaning”). In this respect, they sound occasional, attentive as they are to the present moment. Yet line by line, such poems build toward memorable statements of clinching power.

Joseph Cornell’s Tools

Joseph Cornell used these sturdy tools
and instruments to create boxes,
time machines. Constructions
made from bits and pieces,
three-dimensional frames containing
fans, lace, feathers—other
once-ephemeral objects, including
a torn fragment of photography,
an image of Mallarmé’s
hands—one contains an illustration
of a hummingbird—it seems
to hover in the space between
the glass and the backing of the box.
In another, an etching
of a great horned owl—like the bird
I watched one night,
perched on a light-post in Boulder,
Colorado: it swoops from
memory, filling my study with silent
flight as I recall another
visitation. This afternoon,
returning from the post office
I drove ahead of an approaching storm,
trees shook and a black cockatoo
flew out of them, it sailed on
just ahead of my car for almost a minute,
a long time given the situation—
stroking the air before the windscreen,
following the road, so close
I could see details of its plumage,
two red patches across the tail feathers.
Something other than beautiful, fleeting.

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.
A pale moon slips through
tree branches outside—
the windowpane frames its quarter,
then a squall of refracted
light in eyes that a human
cannot read—opaque, steadfast.
Light-sensitive molecules, intricate
lenses, a blue cone of tissue.
Outside, bracing night air, the stars
clustered in the Milky Way—
my hands, opening, flicked by wings.

Windy Drop Down Creek

It was a blustering winter. I saw his name
in headlines, flapping outside a shop
next to the chemist. Death turns up
and life goes on incredibly, what can

you feel if the day turns to stone?
On the river the bowerbirds
dart through the mangroves in little troops,
the females trailing the colour

of their olive backs in streaks,
painting 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,
so turned with my little packet

from the chemist, walking out whistling
into the asphalt square of the car park.
Then I drove right around the block
to the grog shop: o vodka simplify the world.

While down in Calabash Creek the birds
whirred above their bowers trailing silky
olive ribbons, pushing time back and forth
uncovering and covering and calling up blue light.


O my soul’s friend
just once take

some advice
reach back

to myths of flight

a peregrine falcon’s
primary feathers

check semiplumes
for bird mites

then hold
your bearings

the law could
break by daylight

you can’t afford
this luxury

after inventing
your new lucidity

open Ezekiel’s gates

travel by light

through veins
and gelatinous

floating lenses
the packed neurons

the optic nerves

of a peregrine’s
four-dimensional sight

Feature image: ‘Robert Adamson at Tea Tree Bay’ by Juno Gemes

Reaching Light: Selected Poems by Robert Adamson, edited and with an introduction by Devin Johnston, is now available from Flood EditionsSmall Press Distribution in the U.S. and from John Reed Books in Australia.

Born in 1943, Robert Adamson lives with his partner, photographer Juno Gemes, on the Hawkesbury River to the north of Sydney in Australia. Over the past five decades he has produced twenty books of poetry. He has been awarded the Christopher Brennan Prize for lifetime achievement, the Patrick White Award, and The Age Book of the Year Award for The Goldfinches of Baghdad (Flood Editions, 2006). His most recent books are Reaching Light: Selected Poems (2020) and Net Needle (2015).