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BLOOD AND GUTS —
poems from the bottom of the river

John Tranter reviews

«The Clean Dark» by Robert Adamson

Paper Bark Press, 1989; ISBN 0 9587801 2 9

This review is 1,200 words or about 3 printed pages long. It was first published in Editions no. 4 November 1989 (p.31).

The Clean Dark is Robert Adamson’s eighth volume of poems. It’s an attractive book, printed on a soft off-white paper, and typeset throughout in Bembo, an elegant and restrained typeface first cut for Monotype in 1929. It’s also full of blood and guts — fish guts — and in its various ways it’s a delight to read.

It’s 93 pages long, though a third of these pages are either blank or taken up with extraneous matter — fronts, contents pages, erudite epigraphs or photographs. I often find illustrations distracting in a book of poems, but the four photographs which introduce the sections of the book — mainly various views of an oyster-farmer’s hut — seem to harmonise well with the style and feel of the poetry. They’re by Juno Gemes, whom Adamson married recently.

So we have 62 pages of poems, all written in the last seven years. Poems about killing fish in the Hawkesbury River district of central New South Wales, poems about his new wife and stepson, poems about the city, four sonnets for his friend and mentor the recently-deceased American poet Robert Duncan, three sonnets about murderous bikies, two translations, and various others.

This initial sense of variety, though overwhelming, is something of an illusion. Under the spotlight of each poem, or waiting nearby in the shadows, is the figure of Robert Adamson.

And the concept of the poet’s work as a ‘role’ is what he’s always been concerned to explore. In our society a poet’s ‘job’ is an artificial thing; a peculiar way to address other people, like the vocation of a comic entertainer, a psychotherapist, or a priest. And writing and publishing verse can be a very marginalised occupation; not many people want to buy what you produce, and your status — compared to that of a stockmarket gambler or a newsreader, for example — is a very nebulous thing.

Well, no one likes being ignored. One way to get people to take notice of you is to write in a strongly personal way about startling and alarming events — blood, sex, love and death, say — and to link your role as a writer with that of potent and romantic figures from the past like Blake or Shelley.

Van Gogh self-portrait

Van Gogh self-portrait

Shelley’s role as vatic poet was as much a product of his own turbulent historical period as the development of the steam engine. And Adamson’s rehearsal of a similar role — notably in his previous books Swamp Riddles and Cross the Border — is perhaps as much a natural part of his 1960s Australian background as Indian beads and the musical Hair. Its un-naturalness is ‘natural’; its whims are adamant, its pose overwhelming.

And what are the themes suited to this bardic role? In this book, word-usage gives us a clue. The word ‘death’ occurs nearly a dozen times; and the word ‘blood’ almost as often. But, since many of the poems are about fishing, I guess that’s unavoidable. And this is real man’s fishing, not the sort of thing you might remember from your holidays. Here are some phrases from various poems in the book: ‘prawns are peeled alive’, ‘a man cuts the belly open’; ‘the blade touches the fish heart’; ‘the river’s torn entrails’; ‘the river hawks tear at the heart’s flesh’; ‘the fish buck under and die’; ‘the mullet are done, hauled to their death’; ‘the mullet in a heap and rotting.’ And there are plenty more where that came from.

What else made me uneasy? The book has a dated flavour that younger readers may find puzzling. Adamson’s tastes were formed in Sydney almost a quarter of a century ago — as he notes in the poem ‘The Distance Looking Back’ — and the cultural icons famous here at that distant time bob to the surface again through this book — Bob Dylan, Robert Duncan, Robert Graves, Wallace Stevens, Samuel Beckett, Robert Lowell, James Dean, Jack Kerouac, Francis Webb, Susan Sontag — even A.D.Hope!

But no Barthes, Bataille, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Gadamer, Irigaray, Kristeva, or Lyotard. The reader interested in contemporary literary fashion won’t find much in this book to identify with.

In fact post-modern theories are attacked in one poem (‘Lady Faith’) that sets up the religious role of the poet — ‘the faith that pure song must employ’ — in opposition to these inhuman, complex fads; though any poet who writes ‘The heart of language’s desire wants to see / its blood back on the page’ is fighting a losing battle, in my opinion. These operating-theatre heroics have about as much to do with the actual production of modern poetry as Kirk Douglas with a bandage on his ear has to do with modern art.

Kirk Douglas playing at being Van Gogh painting a portrait of Van Gogh

Kirk Douglas playing at being Van Gogh painting a portrait of Van Gogh

I’m glad to say that Adamson’s attitudes to these issues is maturing. In one poem he says ‘as if we / were the gods we have so relentlessly / tried to believe through others…’ which puts the issue of belief in a more complex perspective. His sonnets addressed to the memory of the great modern poet Robert Duncan are troubled, riddled with a very human doubt, and in the end more effective because of their restraint. And many times when he may have been tempted to people the Hawkesbury with fabricated spirits, he now takes a clearer view, rendering the natural details with lovely accuracy: ‘The lotus-bird’s signature / is slenderness, moving / without ring-marking water’s / skin-tight surface.’

Though I should warn you that a trip up the Hawkesbury with Adamson aboard is not likely to be a pleasure-cruise with champagne and cucumber sandwiches in the cooler. Quite the opposite, in fact: you’re bound to end up with blood and mullet-gut on your hands. It’s a serious business, extending from the fish markets all the way to the temple of the Muse — ‘I have strewn words around the living room / … they are the bait,’ says Adamson, as he waits through the night to hook another poem.

And he hauls up many a fine catch. The best poem in the book is ‘Dreaming Up Mother’, a brisk, vividly-imagined memory of his mother with dramatic surreal overtones. It impressed me greatly when I came across it in an issue of Meanjin earlier this year. To my mind it’s equal to anything he’s written.

I also enjoyed the hard-case local characters in ‘Farming the Oysters’, the sensual immediacy of ‘Gutting the Salmon’ — cleaning fish in technicolor — and ‘An Elm Tree in Paddington’, a meditative lyric which calls up the sad alcoholic ghosts of the poets Christopher Brennan and Henry Lawson.

The Clean Dark is an impressive achievement. Robert Adamson is now placing less emphasis on the wilful myths that have tempted him in the past. He’s building his poems solidly on the evidence of what his sharp eyes actually see. The Hawkesbury landscape and its cruel, morally-complicated lessons can now be understood as the true constant in his work, running through his life, his dreams and his poetry, like a deep underground stream, for the last twenty years.

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