Fiona Scotney reviews Net Needle by Robert Adamson
by Robert Adamson
Reviewed by FIONA SCOTNEY
In many ways the collection Net Needle is a logical continuation of Adamson’s recurring themes of love, loss, birds and the Hawkesbury region. It is very Adamson. It has the traits readers have perhaps come to expect and admire from his last few collections. It is dedicated to his partner Juno, his ‘heart’s needle, soul’s compass’, it opens with a poem about birds and the title comes from a poem about fishermen. What could be more Adamson? Yet there is nothing staid about this collection. He returns to familiar subjects and makes us look again and in doing so we gain a new understanding and a new level of appreciation. This is Adamson doing what Adamson does best.
This poetic craft is most evident when reading ‘Net Makers’, a poem which balances the delicacy of memory and weaving with the immediacy of tobacco stained fingers and fish guts. The poem contrasts the hardness of the men with the softness of their bent bodies and practiced movements. There is a sense of boyhood wonderment and admiration in their craft of mending and at the same time their ability to ‘cut the heart clean/ from a fish with a swipe of a fillet knife.’ The weaving of the nets in the poem is mundane, pragmatic and performative,
They stitched their lives into my days,
Blue Point fishermen, with a smoke
stuck to their bottom lips, bodies bent
forward, inspecting a haul-net’s wing
draped from a clothes line. Their hands
darting through mesh, holding bone
net needles, maybe a special half-needle
carved from tortoise shell. Their fingers,
browned by clusters of freckles
and tobacco tar, slippery with speed –
We are invited into an intimate space of memory, reflection and repetition as ‘they wove everything they knew/ into the mesh, along with the love they had,// or had lost, or maybe not needed.’ This is men’s work located in a domestic sphere; the backyard by the clothes line of Adamson’s childhood home. In the poem there are the subtle tones of the tortoise shell needles, freckles and tobacco tar set against the action of stitching, inspecting, draping, darting and mending.
As in The Goldfinches of Baghdad and other collections, Adamson has drawn on Mallarme’s idea of a book as a ‘living composition’, where each page becomes a stanza in the poem of the whole book. In this collection there is a four part structure which brings cohesion. The poems are grouped by observation, recollection, homage and finally death and transformation. Part one is characterised by observation, by poems that turn our attention to the otherwise unseen miracles in the mundane, as in ‘Net Makers’ and ‘Via Negativa, The Divine Dark’:
On the table a cicada, flecked with flour,
opening its dry cellophane wings.
The cat flies across polished space illuminated by the
Kitchen’s energy-saving light bulb,
A Philips “Genie.”
Here the divine dark is lit by stars and an eco-light blub. The via negativa, a way of describing God by negation, takes form in the tree-ferns, mist and banana trees, as well as breezes, watermarks and stars. It is not Wordsworth’s pantheism, but rather Spinoza’s recognition that all things are God.
Morning turns its back on the sun;
gradually, night arrives. In the skylight,
stars appear through the smokescreen from burn-off,
Stars are clustered tress, hung in the night sky.
Here and in other poems in part one of this collection, observation mingles with metaphor and personification to create interesting juxtapositions. In ‘Garden Poem’ for Juno where Adamson writes, ‘At midday/ the weather, with bushfire breath, walks about// talking to itself’ and ‘a breeze clatters in the green bamboo and shakes// its lank hair.’ These simple yet beautiful lines when considered become profound and masterful. In the first example he combines the observation of midday with the metaphor of ‘bushfire breath’, with personification the weather which ‘walks about// talking to itself’. Such lines show the complexity of Adamson’s craft.
Part two of Net Needle is comprised of redrafted poems from Shark-net Seahorses of Balmoral: A Harbor Memoir (2012), a collaboration with artist Peter Kingston which produced a hand printed limited edition artist book,. These poems are based on recollection and tell stories about Sydney, the harbor and the rivers. They are not simply nostalgic reminiscing, but rather poetry as memoir, as Adamson looks back over moments of his life that span his childhood to his time spent in Long Bay prison. In this section a focus on narrative tends to replace the more image-driven poetry of the first part of the collection. I wonder if this is in response to the collaborative process of creating the artist book, which responds to Adamson and Kingston’s shared memories of Sydney, albeit at opposite sides of the harbor, Kingston at Vaucluse in the east and Adamson at Neutral Bay in the north. Both were born in 1943 and the art book chronicles some of the history of the area, as well as Adamson’s personal history.
Sometimes there is an emotional distance in these poems, as in ‘The Long Bay Debating Society’ which begins with the dispassionate line, ‘I spent my twenty-first in Long Bay Penitentiary.’ The poem recalls the pacing in the prison yard through the day and his reading of novels and poetry at night. It records Adamson’s early ambition to be a poet,
Sometimes an education officer
Would turn up and ask
What are you going to do with your future?
I’d tell him I wanted to be a poet
He would shake his head
And comment that I was being insolent
After weeks I convinced him
We wanted to start a debating team
The poem takes an unexpected turn from Adamson reading and wanting to be a poet, to convincing the officer about his desire to start a debating team. As it moves from the general to the specific, the poem shifts to the subject of the poem, the debating society. ‘It took a month to convince the Governor/ Finally the authorities agreed/ We could form a debating society’. This new freedom is still bound by the control of the authorities, as the ‘crims’ read and research in the prison library and organise an outside team to debate with, they are undermined by the Governor’s choice of topic, ‘(it was the summer of 1964) our topic/ “Is the Sydney Opera House Really Necessary?”’
Other memories are captured with a mix of facts and observations, as in ‘The Green Flash’ where Adamson recalls walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge with his mother, and going to the ‘Pylon Lookout’, ‘There was the café, where mum bought/ my first Devonshire tea.’ The South West Pylon lookout was open to the public at weekends from 1932 -1981. ‘This was the spot my father took/ my mother on their first date; he always/ knew how to impress people.’ The strength of these poems is in their ability to record personal and public history and memory with location.
Part three acts as homage to other writers, the poems reference or are dedicated to other poets and writers including early influences on his writing including Francis Webb, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his friend Michael Dransfield. These poems provide a reminder of the sociability of poetry. The act of naming other poets creates textual relationships, the names become tropes, poetic devices that can represent a mode, or style of working, or gesture to interpersonal connections or relationships. These poems also speak of the longevity of Adamson’s vocation as a poet. Since the publication of his first collection in 1970, Adamson has published over 20 books of poetry. He has devoted much of his life to poetry, not only as a poet, but also an editor, mentor and teacher.
Adamson is one of a number of Sydney and Melbourne poets who emerged in the late 1960s and have been seen as part of a loose school or generation of poets characterised by their explicit break with existing poetic practice, their adaptation of American models, and their shared opposition to the Vietnam War. John Tranter’s anthology, The New Australian Poetry (Makar, 1979), announced this new generation, the ‘generation of ‘68’, and presented the twenty-four poets included as representing a ‘commitment to the overhauling of poetic method and function’ and a ‘serious attempt to revitalise a moribund poetic culture.’ Adamson, like Dransfield, was included in the anthology and they are often referred to as key figures of the “generation of 68.”
Part four of the collection can be characterised by themes of death and transformation. ‘Death of a Goshawk’ is a haiku with an untraditional syllable count which reaches its dénouement in the last line facilitated by its title,
Hovering on sunlight and air –
A boy’s trigger finger.
Other poems about death include ‘A Proper Burial’ about the death of a pair of tawny frogmouths beside a highway, ‘The Whiting’ where the poet is visited by the shadow of a fish he has killed and ‘The Great Auk’ for Charles Buckmaster, a poem which references another ‘generation of ‘68’ poet and friend of Adamson’s who died aged 21 in 1972. Not quite elegy, this poem recalls fondly Buckmaster’s poetry magazine The Great Auk and his contribution to the Sydney and Melbourne poetry scenes.
Charles spoke of auk bones
discovered in Massachusetts, fragments put
together by the archaeologist of morning, kingfisher
of poets. Charles wrote for the lost forest
and opened new pages as he
walked the streets of Melbourne,
writing back the great auks, speaking branches
to sing from; as the growth rings
thickened our lives, he stretched himself imagining
pilchards in massive schools
turning oceans silver with auk food –
auks returning in poems, swimming from the heads
of poets, into the tides of our words.
The final poem in the collection is ‘The Kingfisher’s Soul’ for Juno. It is a redemptive poem, where the ‘you’ in the poem, presumably Juno, brings new knowledge and discoveries to the first person speaker, ‘Your breath blew a thicket of smoke from my eyes’, ‘You taught me how to weigh the harvest of light’, and ‘You brought along new light to live in’. The poem ends with a final transformation, ‘I preferred the cover of night, yet here, I stepped/ into the day by following your gaze.’
Net Needle sees Adamson return to recognisable themes and influences in a way that is at once familiar and rewarding. For this reason, it is also a wonderful introduction to his work for new readers.
FIONA SCOTNEY recently completed her PhD at the University of Queensland titled ‘The New Australian Poets: Networks and the Generation of 68’. She has previously been published in Cordite, The Australian Poetry Journal and Southerly.