Writing the River: Robbie Coburn reviews Robert Adamson’s Reaching Light

Review by Robbie Coburn

I have been considering how it would feel to read Robert Adamson’s work for the first time through this book, remembering the first time I read him as a teenager, and how it changed me and my understanding of what poetry could do. In my initial reading of Reaching Light, selected and introduced by American poet and editor Devin Johnston and published by Chicago’s wonderful Flood Editions, I was struck by its depth, beauty, and the same power I felt on reading Adamson’s poetry for the first time. The sheer amount of ground and time the volume covers is immediately and acutely felt by the reader. There has always been a searching quality to Adamson’s work — Johnston describes him in his introduction as a ‘restless’ poet. Here, we witness a poet working at the height of his powers who has never stopped reinventing himself or his practice, who has uncompromisingly mined art and life for poetry and beauty, and who, in doing so, has found meaning in both the human and natural worlds.

There have been several volumes of Adamson’s selected (and New and Selected) poems published in the past, including Mulberry Leaves (Paper Bark, 2001), Reading the River (Bloodaxe, 2004) and The Golden Bird (Black Inc, 2008), but this selection manages to feel more seamless, thematic, assured and affecting than any before, standing as a definitive volume capturing Adamson’s outstanding career up until this point.

In Reaching Light, his precise use of language, his ear for the rhythmic music within the lines, and the arresting natural imagery and lyricism that has defined his work, remains unmatched, but the development and reinventions the work reveals through the arrangement of this volume from beginning to end are extraordinary. Divided into three, numbered sections spanning Adamson’s major collections of poems, this is a book that settles into the blood and stays with you.

If this Selected was to serve as a reader’s introduction to Adamson’s work, I can only imagine the joy and revelation they would feel, and have no doubt they would proceed to seek out his other books, as I did. This is not simply a volume for a single reading or a period in a reader’s life; this is a book to carry with you throughout the journey.

The past, and the informative impact of experience and influence, has long been one of the most enduring preoccupations of Robert Adamson’s poetry. Beginning with a childhood spent on the Hawkesbury river and progressing to a young adulthood spent in and out of institutions and boys’ homes, where the discovery of the poetry of Bob Dylan’s music precipitated a new life dedicated to letters, Adamson now stands as not only one of the finest poets of his generation, but one of the greatest poets Australian literature has ever known. 

From his earliest,  raw poems from Canticles on the Skin (Illumination Press, 1970), we are struck by the power and assurance of the poet’s voice, the anger and dreaming as the poet has no choice but to ‘remain here’:

why you have to stay put—reasons that say
         you can’t piss off anymore from
serving two and a half years straight: of knowing

         it’s lights out at ten every night…

(The Rebel Angel)

The atmosphere evoked from within the claustrophobia of this cell, both internal and external, as he ‘searched without sleep & searched again’, displays a longing that is a hallmark of the early poems as the poet seeks tirelessly until ‘some kind of rebel angel’ can be found.

Many of Adamson’s most-loved and important early works appear in this first section, including several poems from Swamp Riddles (Island Press, 1974), and an extract from The Rumour (Prism Poets, 1971), a challenging and visionary long poem beginning with everything ‘involving/ freedom now’ and questioning if the ‘pen is to be [his] spokesperson’.  It is quickly clear, in Reaching Light, that it is.

The stark, stripped back poems from Adamson’s brilliant collection Where I Come From (Big Smoke, 1979) are a powerful exploration of memory and the informative nature of early experience. In poems such as ‘My Granny’, ‘My Afternoon’, and ‘Growing up Alone’ we are thrown into the world of a child beginning to understand the harshness of life. ‘My Fishing Boat’ describes Adamson’s ‘blistered’ hands ‘rowing with blood’ out on the river to escape the sound of his parents ‘at it again’, arguing about his behaviour. The image of a child alone in a boat on ‘the black and freezing’ bay at night as it begins to rain heavily is startling, and the voice in these poems drives through the reader like a boat through the river itself:

all I catch are catfish here
and have them sliding
about in the belly of the boat

they are the ugliest-looking things
in the world

(My Fishing Boat)

The scarring, autobiographical voice, and the way in which Adamson can instil an image and evoke time and place is incredibly haunting and deeply effective. Adamson’s work explores many different states and forms, and sometimes dark experiences which only a poet of his calibre could articulate with such beauty and power.

It is undeniable that Adamson is one of the finest writers of place and time in the country, and the poems in Reaching Light return repeatedly to the Hawkesbury River. Stunning imagery of fish and birds run through the lines against a backdrop of the water which Adamson knows and loves so well, as the poems give life to memories of place and people.

‘My whole being’s the bay’ Adamson writes in the poem ‘Full Tide’ in the collection’s second section, the lyricism of his verse flowing with the river and the fishermen who work on it. In ‘Cornflowers’, a moving elegy to the poet Robert Harris, he searches for meaning in ‘something that might have gone unspoken’ between them. There is longing within this reflection of their ‘hearts locked in their/ cages of singing muscle’ as it becomes clear that such moments hold particular meanings which we are left to make sense of retrospectively:

I just want to know who
owns the conversation

we may have some day, who
owns the dialogue


Something that becomes apparent quickly in the reading of Reaching Light is Adamson’s deep love for language, as well his love for poetry itself and the presence of his influences, friends and contemporaries in his work. There are references and tributes to various figures including Rimbaud, Hart Crane, Beckett, Robert Creeley and John Forbes.

His work demonstrates that human experience is never finished as long as the mind continues searching and learning, each aspect of existence constructing the present and shaping the work of the poem; the title poem, which concludes the second section with ‘maybe memory sinks deeper’ in its ‘journey so far’, captures this sentiment perfectly and speaks to how that work has progressed.

and climbed towards the day, his turning head,
those eyes—strips of memory,

silver tides, moons rising over the
rim of the world —

(Reaching Light)

The third and final section of Reaching Light includes poems from Adamson’s most recent collection Net Needle (Black Inc, 2005), and exhibits the skilful control and total harnessing of his lifelong dedication to poetry and its craft. The language is rich and the invention of imagery astounding: in ‘Listening to Cuckoos’ he brilliantly describes ‘red-eyed koels with feathered earmuffs’ beside ‘words that don’t change’, mingling the personal with the natural to astounding effect.

‘The Phantom’ is a poem that analyses the distance between father and son, the son writing books of poetry that the father never read’. The ‘Phantom’ in question is the superhero of the long-running comic book series which his father ‘lay on the floor/ and read right through’, a reference which might also allude to paternal an absence. One of the most surprising and startling poems in this collection is ‘Spinoza’, with its short, dream-like lines of birds, night and rebirth speaking to ‘inventing/ [a] new lucidity’. It also contains one of the most stunning openings of any of Adamson’s poems to date:

O my soul’s friend
just once take

some advice
reach back

to myths of flight


Adamson’s love poems for wife Juno Gemes (to whom the volume is also dedicated) are some of the finest examples of the romanticism that has been an enduring quality of his work. These also stand as some of the most affecting and authentic explorations of human relationships one is likely to come across in verse. ‘Songs for Juno’ demonstrates the capacity humans have to create a ‘new language’ through which to commune and understand all aspects of their connection, allowing for reinvention and endurance:

Dressed up for the new ritual, we move
the circle more than dance it. Take the moment
hold it to you, the new, my brave and frightened
love is a sacramental kiss. Our dreams touch—
warm with light. Give me your nightmares too.

(Songs for Juno)

In ‘The Kingfisher’s Soul’, which closes the collection, the landscape of both the river and the soul are used to explore a remembered restlessness and reflect, as ‘a wave hits the shoreline of broken boulders’ before it ‘drops back onto the tide’. At this stage, the book takes us back to its beginning and, perhaps, reveals the journey’s destination. The poem, one of Adamson’s most important and affecting to my mind, concerns the poet stepping from a life of chaos into a life of security and love:

Clear birdsong was not human song, hearing became
nets and shadowy vibrations, the purring 
air full of whispers and lies. I felt blank pages…

(The Kingfisher’s Soul)

There is an overwhelming sense of hope throughout this poem as we see Adamson, in the course of reinventing himself, learning ‘to read again through wounded eyes’, as he does in his work:

Peace appeared and said: ‘Soon. A future awaits you’.
I preferred the cover of night, yet here, I stepped 
into the day by following your gaze.

The poetry of Robert Adamson is a poetry of place that manages to transcends place, exemplifying what poetry can achieve when it aims at the heart of what it means to be human. The importance of the volume is immeasurable; I cannot  imagine of a single reader whose life would not be enriched by interacting with the beauty of this work. Reaching Light is the distillation of the finest work of an extraordinary poetic voice, exhibiting the full breadth of achievement and impact of Robert Adamson’s incomparable career to date.  

Reaching Light: Selected Poems 
Robert Adamson

Flood Editions, 2020

Robbie Coburn was born in 1994 and grew up on a farm in Woodstock, Victoria. His poems have appeared in places such PoetryMeanjin, Westerly and Island, and his most recent book The Other Flesh was published by UWAP in 2019. He is working on a new collection of poems entitled Rodeo. Find more from Robbie on his  website.