Poet Robert Adamson was born and raised in the same locale where he still lives along “the Hawkesbury River, an estuary just beyond the incursion of Sydney suburbs, even now.” (xv) After some jail time for youthful petty crime he entered the Australian countercultural scene of the 1960s immersing himself within poetry and quickly rising to the “editorship of the Poetry Society of Australia’s magazine, New Poetry” (XXI) memorably hosting visits from such older, engagingly outside the mainstream, North American poets as Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan with whom he formed lasting friendships. Over the years he had his fair share of personal deliriums involving alcohol and drugs. Yet throughout his poetry it is the deep impact of his interactions with the landscape and wildlife surrounding the tidal waters where he has lived, both as a youth and for the last several decades with his wife, the photographer Juno Gemes, which makes most frequent appearance.
Devin Johnston editor and publisher of Adamson’s Reaching Light: Selected Poems remarks upon how spryly Adamson manages an unusual range of tonal flexibility within his poems “modulat[ing] between literary and spoken registers, high and low, with exquisite sensitivity.” (XXII) Such range is easily evident at first glance when flipping through Reaching Light, from the first poem’s opening line with its ardent juvenile angst that yet holds forth in a peculiarly mystifying aural quality “Shit off with this fake dome of a life,” (“The Rebel Angel” 3) to the softly concluding reflective last line of the final poem, “I stepped / into the day by following your gaze.” (“The Kingfisher’s Soul” for Juno 225) Much of the lyric arc of Adamson’s oeuvre is captured between these lines
Adamson steadfastly draws his own measure, satisfying his need to express what must be said from poem to poem, book to book, with the insistent clarity of focus instinctive to his poetic sensibility. Recurring patterns of nature readily present in the estuary locale in which he lives are indelibly ingrained within his memory. The rhythms of the water having been forged as one with his personal history. “My whole being’s the bay” (“Full Tide” 69) and again “I flow back into myself with tide.” (“The Ghost Crabs” 27) There is no questioning his claim that, as he states in a poem not included here, “I am bound by this / particular geography” (“Out Across the Ocean” (for Robert Duncan) Australian Poetry Library).
Like any poet, however, Adamson is also a devoted reader. His poems offer back reports from deep dives he’s undertaken into the lives and writings of poets who have come before. “I live in Mallarmé’s head for days” (“The White Abyss” 133) he claims, a revisiting that both echoes and expands upon his earlier criticism, “Surely there must be some way out of poetry other than / Mallarmé’s: still life with bars and shitcan.” (“Sonnets To Be Written From Prison” 17) Adamson knows well the familiar temptation that strikes many a reader’s fancy of embodying the character of those we read, identifying with even the most malodorous elements of their biography:
He takes a rag and pumice stone
and slides his naked body in
Because he has taken this bath
he has betrayed his art having washed
the vermin from the body and the heart
(“Rimbaud Having A Bath” 51)
He addresses Robert Creeley, admirably telling him “you turn hurt / without sentiment to gain” (“Letter to Robert Creeley” 145) before in a later poem delving himself likewise into similar terrain “Who needs this bitter tune? / Its distorted chords lull me into numbness. / I bend it over double and pluck.” (“The Floating Head” 157)
Adamson is ever aware of the precarious existential nature of the poet’s task:
So the only permanence is in what we
say, what we imagine through language,
a permanence neither within nor beyond the pale.
The fine and burning line of art, the fence.
(“Beyond The Pale” 62)
All the more reason he voices criticism when it comes to anthropomorphic poetizing:
All those crow poems are about poets—
none of them get inside the crow’s head,
preen or rustle, let alone fly on crow wings.
No one knows what it is to sing crow song.
(“Crows In Afternoon Light” 120)
In “Looking Into A Bowerbird’s Eyes” he recounts how after having discovered the bird “trapped in a cupboard at 3a.m.” he gathers the animal into his hands and finds himself staring into its eye “Fingers flecked with specks / of blood now, the eye / a fiery well of indigo cells, cobalt, / ultramarine, cerulean blues.” He evinces not admiration but rather simple wonder at the non-human presence vividly apparent in that “light in eyes that a human / cannot read—opaque steadfast.” (186-187)
When writing about birds, a persistent topic, he holds as central the conviction “I am not the bird itself, only its passenger / looking through its eyes” (“The Stone Curlew” 114) it is in his committed unwillingness to usurp any bit of life that is not of his own experience that Adamson most uniquely shines. The charm of Adamson’s poems has its way on readers much as how he finds the bird known as the ruff does, “The ruff’s ways delight us if we have / a sense of humor or a dash of / madness” (“The Ruff” 166) Reading his work is just what poetry should be: Fun, endearing, full of delight in new knowledge given forth in unexpected manner. It is a most welcome joy to share in his endeavor.