Australia: Don't Look Away
From the deck of Robert Adamson's house
Hot damn, here I am, I was thinking as I looked out from the porch across the Hawkesbury River to the wild preserve on the other side. I’m right where Duncan and Creeley stood, and like them, I’m about to go out at night on the river with that famous Australian poet, fisherman, birder, scrapper, lover, “etc. etc.” as Creeley would say, Robert Adamson.
the river was never the same
that night Duncan gathered the southern stars
into his being the black water plopping with fat mullet
(from “Black Water”)
Adamson, whose poetics have always been marked by American poetry and music, came to the United States for the first time to give a series of memorable readings in support of his book The Goldfinches of Baghdad, published by Flood Editions in 2006. But he grew up in a fishing community on the Hawkesbury River, a place he hated because
It meant all the kids at Gosford
knew how poor were were
because only fishermen lived there
and we hated it because
when you went out on it at night
the dark was frightening
and the ground was full of ants
the river with its savage tides
that would wear you out in half an hour
(from “Growing Up Alone”)
Eventually, though, and partly through poetry, Adamson’s attitude toward the river shifted from shame to pride. It became for him, like Olson’s Gloucester, both a cosmos, a place to walk “waist-deep/ through his thoughts,” and a mythos where “there’s a boatman waiting where/ the memory fades.”
Adamson’s poems are rife with birds, animals, and plants. Subjectivity and world reflect and penetrate each other.
. . . . A fox rustles
through wild lantana as I step through into
the garden and, becoming part of the weave,
notice the tide turn, its weight eroding mudbanks,
bringing filth in from the ocean. A raft of flotsam
breaks away, a duckling perched on the thicket
of its hump. I use the murky river for my ink . . . .
(from “A Bend in the Euphrates”)
As we go down the dock to his boat, I can just make out, downriver, rows of oyster racks in the moonlight. Juno Gemes, Adamson’s wife, a well-known photographer, trails behind, bringing extra coats and blankets and snack bags. As we climb into the boat, a very nondescript duck paddles from behind it. Adamson calls it a Wood Duck, which pleases me since the American version of the Wood Duck, to which I feel bound by the name Forrest Gander, is so bizarrely colorful it looks like it’s in drag. While I’m identifying with the more mottled majesty of the Australian Wood Duck, Adamson cranks the engine up and unties us.
My boat’s motor roared and I hurtled across
the river into blazing cold night.
(from “The Floating Head”)
It’s cold all right, and we surge through the dark water straight into a thick shoal of oyster shells. The outboard motor bounces up snarling. There are little mountains of shells all along the river and Adamson usually knows how to avoid them, but now we’re stranded. As I’m the youngest, I figure I’ll need to jump into the water and push us off the shoal. But Adamson manages to back us into the channel again. And then he gets the boat up on a plane and we’re flying past the lighted hills, under the trestle bridge, toward a fork in the river that runs one way toward the sea and the other way, onward between forested hills. “The map’s folded away, I travel by heart now,” he writes in “A Bend in the Euphrates.”
Robert Adamson, Hawkesbury River, 2008
Because the ocean is so close here, the water is incredibly deep. I’ve watched the depth meter segue from 7 to 8 feet to 30 feet to 60 feet. It isn’t a wide river, you could throw a stone from one side to the other in some places, but it’s seriously deep. And it gets deeper even as we veer away from the ocean. After an hour, Adamson docks us to some floating buoys in a little cove. Trees everywhere around us, spackled stars above. It’s intimate and idyllic, the kind of cove where you’d come in the day, if you could get here, with a picnic lunch and friends. Where you’d all go for a swim.
Juno says, Bob, didn’t you bring Peter Minter and Kate Fagan here. Adamson says, yes. And didn’t they swim here? Yes, Adamson says. But you didn’t swim, she notes. No, Adamson says, I know what’s down there. I look at the depth meter. It’s 83 feet deep.
I could easily disappear into
this landscape, become
a fisherman again and work
the tide through the moon’s cycles
and its darks, pierced with stars—
a local Novalis, courting
the night itself—my nets always
coming in without a catch,
at dawn each new day my head full
of emptiness, nothing there
but love for the long, echoing darkness
(from “Praise and its Shadow”)
We’re fishing for hagtails with minnows, two hooks to a line. “Bait,” Adamson writes in a love poem, “is all that matters here.” We cast and let the line pay out and all night, the bait is taken and we don’t pull in a thing we don’t already have.
Robert Adamson’s The Golden Bird, New and Selected Poems, has just been published by Black Inc. Books in Australia. Here in the U.S., a new book of his poems is forthcoming from Flood Editions, the publisher of The Goldfinches of Baghdad. If you haven’t read him yet, that’s a great place to start.
Born in California’s Mojave Desert, poet Forrest Gander grew up in Virginia and attended the College of William & Mary, where he majored in geology. After earning an MA in literature from San Francisco State University, Gander moved to Mexico, then to Arkansas, where his poetry—informed by his knowledge of...