Fireworks Below the River

by Anthony Lawrence

Swamp Riddles: Robert Adamson

SwampRiddlesIn 1978, my mother met me at the door and handed me a note, saying “This is what you have to do if you’re serious and want to be a real poet.” She had written a list that included:

– read everything you can get your hands on
– go to second hand bookshops and start a poetry collection
– write every day
– say no to your friends more often

I assumed that while I’d been at work, she’d had a major epiphany about poetry, and was now passing on this crucial news.

I’d discovered poetry at boarding school after finding Leonard Cohen’s Selected Poems and Richard Brautigan’s Rommel Drives on Deep Into Egypt. I stole those books and after leaving school took them with me to Yanco Station, in the Riverina, where I worked for a year or so as a jackaroo. It was here that I began writing poetry, inspired by Cohen’s romanticism and Brautigan’s surreal world view. I had no idea what I was doing, and the poems were terrible. If I’d known just how bad they really were, I might have given up, but the drive to write was far more important than any self-assessment.

Returning to live at home, I wrote constantly. My father gave me a portable Olivetti typewriter. After a few months, out of a sense of desperation, my mother went through the Sydney telephone directory, looking for anything to do with poetry. She found Poetry Society of Australia and dialed the number. When a man answered, she said “I’m worried about my son. I think he might be a poet, can you help him?” The man gave her a list of things her troubled son should know. He also suggested I come and see him, and gave mum the address.

I met Robert Adamson at his house the following week. It was a night of poetry and film. I had finally met a real poet. That night I also met Dorothy Hewett, Judith Beveridge, Nigel Roberts and Geoffrey Lehmann. They showed films on a big screen in the lounge-room: Ladies and Gentleman, Mr Leonard Cohen, and a film about Kafka. My head was reeling. At the end of the night, Nigel Roberts came to me and said: “You’ve just been cast head-first into Australian poetry – you’re going to wonder whether to thank or curse your mother.”

The next day I went looking for poetry. I caught the train into the city and spent all day looking in second hand bookshops. I found two that would travel with me all that year and beyond. These first edition, hardbound books would quickly change my ideas on how poems could be written, and would prove to be a major source of inspiration. One was Canticles on the Skin, the other Swamp Riddles. Canticles on the Skin amazed me with its poems about prison, drugs and city life, and how these details were aligned so effortlessly with poems about, and inspired by, the Hawkesbury River. Yet it was Swamp Riddles that captivated me, and challenged my perceptions of how a poem can be crafted from experience and a wild imagination. I knew nothing of line-breaks, and very little of stanza form. The idea of taking risks with language and ideas hadn’t really occurred to me. Cohen and Brautigan had set the scene. The lyric had been a serious part of my study, although in my hands it too often led to sentimentality and predictable rhyme. Now I was entering territory that, while unsettling and confusing, also forced me to reconsider my ideas on how to shape and transform experience.

The title itself was a poem. Swamp Riddles spoke of dark territory that puzzled the senses. This was back-country poetry. I felt that here was a book written under the influence of the tides. As I read these poems I felt drawn into a world where what’s left unsaid can be a potent force, and I tried to find a way into the poems. I memorised the first, untitled poem that begins the sequence After Me, Sleep:

And must it always come down on time
we are waiting in a bus shelter
for the thunder storm to pass soaked through in summer
all the city around us at 4am moving off

and we cannot shake ourselves
out of this dream of our lives spent waiting
even in love (8)

No title. No punctuation. A poem whose lines both conformed to and rebelled against everything I’d come to expect. Why would Adamson not break the third line after “pass” and the fourth line on “4am”? The poem works as both a very fine love poem and a great example of enigmatic understatement. I felt driven to find out why he’d not gone for the clear option, but the more I read the less I understood. This was a fierce education. Swamp Riddles indeed.

The second poem (also untitled) seems a natural extension of the first in that it deals with time and intimacy, here in terms of solitude and a palpable sense of (potential) loss. It’s also the first time I encountered water and tides as symbolism in Adamson’s poetry. Months of negotiating the tricky territory in Swamp Riddles eventually led to Canticles on the Skin, where water is central to many of the poems. Here, Adamson teases out meaning by refusing to order his syntax in predictable ways. The enjambment in the first six lines has the effect of creating a sense of calm that ends with surprise when the line goes on:

The things that are going out of my life remain
in its wake a few yards

behind following me asking to be retrieved like
cigarette packets bobbing
at the stern of a boat leaving
with the tide (9)

For a reader ill-equipped to deal with a poet who re-orders or transfigures syntax I was forced to examine every nuance of each line to try and break the code of what it was Adamson was doing. One effect was to amplify a state of confusion. The broken rhythm of “in its wake a few yards / behind following me asking to be retrieved” leads into

And it seldom occurs to me that they are not in
the water but could be falling
from my life

The poem concludes with

When I wake up mornings alone it is more disturbing
when I imagine the it could be
the living things
that are going out of my life (9)

There is a disarming immediacy to the first few poems in Swamp Riddles. The subject matter is not itself confronting, yet the way Adamson has deliberately played the lines out against anticipation forces us to reconsider what’s happening in the margins as well as what’s in full view. There is a confluence of ‘real-time’ and what appear to be stills cut from memory, skillfully placed to make an odd, demanding music.

“Sibyl,” “The Dunes,” “Completely Happy” and “Mondrian: Light Breaks Upon the Grail” work as curious, luminous links between the intensely personal, questioning poems that open the first section, and the final (untitled) poems that conclude it. The absence of punctuation means that we must negotiate the poems in terms of their line-breaks and rhythm, and trust in our intuition to lead the way. It’s in these poems that Adamson’s imagery takes flight: “they thread their red pebbles / and do not require / shadows” (“The Dunes”); “fish knife    flickers in the sunlight” and “Sun dries fishblood up my arms on / my shirt and the intricate fishing tackle” (“Mondrian: Light Breaks Upon the Grail”); “Campaigns rose from reflected stars,” and “And on the jetty / my catch, white as the planets and shining there / as inconstant as prayer” ([Untitled] p14).

Photo of Robert Adamson with Powerful Owl by Juno Gemes.

Swamp Riddles works as a cryptic, spiritual journey through the physical and emotional elements that the Hawkesbury River had instilled in Robert Adamson. Even when he wasn’t there, its essence was moving through him. Adamson is not interested in investigation for its own sake. It’s the peripheral details that move quietly to gain our inner attention and help us to understand the variousness of each poem’s focus:

The hawk tumbles for its balance in a pocket of air.
I hold the bird book tightly in my hands.
My whole life seems curbed with these demands
For order – I fling back the chair

Stride straight through the back door to the high
Verandah and stare directly at the hawk.
There is no order: just excuses for more talk.
I turn, instead of jumping from the rail I sigh – (16)

This is one of two poems that employs the abba rhyme scheme to great effect. It is also (after a fleeting mention of them in the previous poem: “flying birds / down through the valley in brief gusts” the first time in the book that birds are given prominence. As future books would reveal, birds appear as images that are salient to the metaphorical or metaphysical content of the poem. Rarely does their appearance rest exclusively on their description. So when he writes “My whole life seems curbed with these demands / for order” he is aware of the contradictory nature of the conflicted man giving over to intense observation while trying to define a species, and the need for control and order within the shaping of the poem’s formal style.

My favourite poem in Swamp Riddles involves the mystery and attention to detail that fishing demands, while knowing all the while that nothing is certain. The poem aligns the tethering of the spirit with an attendant need, or desire to break free, to “let go”:


These fish we cannot catch make our lives difficult
when there is no explanation
When we can’t even say for sure they are constantly
swimming around us (17)

The poem is in four sections, each one a slow breaking-down of defences until the fish (unseen, desired) connect with the human (in disguise, fearful) and a connection is made that relies on belief and imagination. Belief in the potential for redemption and intimate connection is one of the book’s most influential, pervasive themes, although Adamson weaves into and around these issues with a conjurer’s skill. What we think we see and hear can turn into something else entirely. Take these lines:

new animals bumping rocks in the moonlight
will remind us of their search
for watercourses that tumble to sea

even into our dreams their pursuit continues
and watching a chemical glow
beam from caves we will not dream

even truth raised in sadness will not help us (19)

Something as tactile and raw as “animals bumping rocks” leads to “their search / for watercourses that tumble to sea” and then we are shocked away from the scrub and the animals into something that could be (and why not?) some kind of alien interruption to the flora and fauna: “a chemical glow / beam from caves”.

In its lyrical explorations of bush and headland, river and ocean, city and friendships, life and death, Swamp Riddles might seem a heterogeneous collection. Its apparent disparate nature, however, is sharpened and refined by Adamson’s ability to define and link what’s in his viewfinder by its associative powers. The scene inside a poem fades and then looms. The surface tension of things is soon broken:

                   We escaped the city by listening to
endless popular songs

on damp nights through broken radios; fish
chips and Coke. Now the smell of cat’s piss
will always remind me of you, those
paperbacks gone with mould (41, 42)

These lines are from the elegy (For Michael Dransfield). It is, (with “Sonnets to be Written From Prison,” one of the book’s most personal, intimate, immediately accessible poems, and reveals Adamson’s ability to engage emotionally, and courageously, with difficult subject-matter.

An extended version of this essay is forthcoming in the monograph Fin, Feather, Sky, River: the Poetry of Robert Adamson.

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