Robert Adamson, Empty Your Eyes (Sydney: Vagabond Press, 2013) Rare Object No. 89. 16 unnumbered pages. www.vagabondpress.net
Robert Adamson’s Empty Your Eyes opens with epigraphs from Augustine of Hippo and William Blake, together linking faith and seeing. A “rare object” from Vagabond, this collection is unashamedly focussed on the sense of sight, but this is sight both as it withdraws from knowing and as it opens to knowing otherwise. Faith, reframing both seeing and unseeing, and the eye, an organ open to the otherness that light and experience impress on it, are the unsettling themes of this small but “thick” selection of poems.
Adamson is well-known in Australia and internationally as passionate about poets and poetry, attentive to otherkind, especially birds, and interested in matters of the soul. “Listening to Cuckoos”, a poem of just five couplets plays with the repetition “two notes … two words”, and has the speaker listening for what seems an elusive meaning in the “utterance” of birds. Deftly, the poem invites the reader beyond the utterance to an uncanny presence evoked in the birds’ vocal performance:
… Penetrating the dark green
of twilight, the storm birds call, two notes, two words,
and cackle in the broken egged dawn, in the echoing light.
The “broken egged dawn” captures not only the colour of the sky, but themes that reappear in several poems: death and life, unmaking and making, here, in terms that recollect the birds (fertilised eggs may be broken in the act of hatching, but a premature breaking leads to death, while the broken egg of breakfast or baking signals a more complex relation to the birds that laid them and to their lives, fertility and deaths.)
Two poems presented separately here “A Poem without Birds” and “A Preliminary Sketch” previously formed the sequence “Via Negativa” for which Adamson won the Blake Prize for Poetry in 2011. Both poems have epigraphs from Emily Dickinson, holding together the themes of faith and sight: “My Worthiness is all my Doubt” and “What I see not, I better see”. The title of the first part of this sequence is not without irony, given the poet’s love of birds: Adamson is a marvellous photographer of birds encountered on his trips to the Post Office in his home area on the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales. “A Poem without Birds”—a beautiful lyric in free verse addressed at times to a “you” (is this the speaker’s self-address, or an invocation of an other/Other, or something of both?)—moves from morning through evening. The poem begins by characterising the tree-ferns as waking and opening out “as sunlight dispersed a thick mist”. The speaker, the morning, or the tree ferns themselves, embrace a
… memory incised
with old phrases. Mouthing
words then uttering a sentence with your unfinished
This breath is taken up by the sound/speech of the rustling banana trees just as the visible breath of the mist evaporates. But the poem’s movement from morning to night is sudden despite the qualifier “gradually”. Perhaps the hiatus indicates that for the speaker dawn, dusk and even night, those liminal times, are the more interesting moments. As night arrives, the speaker is indoors where:
… In the skylight,
stars appear through the smoke screen from a burn-off
brilliant pin holes.
Stars are clustered trees, hung in the night sky.
Then the poem shifts to ask “Whose body, whose eyes?” and moves deeper into engagement with an other/Other, to address “the problem of suffering” which “expands forever”. Human domestic and other than human worlds intersect in a “cicada flecked with flour” and “the cat”, perhaps leaping to investigate the cicada, “illuminated by the / kitchen’s energy saving light bulb, / a Philips ‘Genie’”. The banality of the light bulb’s commercial name is undone when “Genie”, reminds the reader of the numinous world the poem evokes, the genii loci that inhabit morning and night in this place, as the poem expands at the end toward praise:
Life like a dirty wind blowing straight
through a snowy head, cat’s eyes, tint of fur, rustling wings.
Praise life with broken words
In the end-line parallels of “rustling wings” and “broken words”, and with the echo of “broken egged dawn” from the previous poem, broken wings are evoked and we are returned to the problem of suffering.
The following poem, “A Preliminary Sketch”, written in couplets, begins with images of human abandonment and presents the speaker as artist. The “scene” is like a drawing, “a charcoal sketch” into which the speaker walks, a landscape in which it is “difficult to move”, and where he has “forgotten the names of most flora and fauna”. There are echoes of Adamson’s “A Bend in the Euphrates”, the poem that forms a kind of prologue to his The Golden Bird: New and selected poems:
I use the murky river for my ink,
draw bearings on the piece of cloth, sketch
a pair of cattle egrets bully teal into flight.
The map’s folded away, I travel by heart now,
old lessons are useless. (XII–XIII)
In “A Preliminary Sketch”, the speaker becomes “part of the subject matter” of the sketch. Recollection of childhood experience of a religion of fear gives way to close observation of other than humans, and as answer to the question of soul—“What form, shape or song / might represent a soul?”—the poem concludes:
A stain of mist hangs above a black-butt,
brushed by the wings of a grey-headed flying-fox.
The problem of suffering is never far away. It appears in the broken lines and the “leagues of broken weather” of “Internal Weather” which begins with a focus on the body—“I dwell in this bone-cave rocking cup of skull”—and later addresses human relation to its surrounds: “we live/at the world’s expense”. The poem seems to cross between internal and external weather, so that the speaker is enmeshed in his habitat: “I stand here/in a column of breath mixed with fine dust from red-dirt”. Later more than human suffering is met in the concern with extinction, particularly in “The Great Auk Poem”, which recollects a North American tradition of nature writing in its reference to “Walden Ponds”, and shifts to give homage to Charles Buckmaster who edited “a poetry journal/called The Great Auk, published for a season/or two in Melbourne”. The great auk was a flightless bird that became extinct in the mid nineteenth century. Buckmaster, the poem says,
… wrote for the lost forest
and opened new pages as he
walked the streets of Melbourne,
writing back the great auks, speaking of branches
to sing from, the growth rings
thickened our lives, he stretched himself imagining
the great shoals of pilchards
turning oceans silver with auk food,
auks returning in poems, swimming from the heads
of poets, into the tides of our words.
Yet, a poem cannot in reality bring back the great auk from extinction, but the invitation to imagine otherwise might be both a witness to the loss and a challenge to attend to those species presently in danger of extinction.
Several of the poems are dedicated to individuals, and touch in different ways on themes of human relationships with other animals (the possibility of “our second soul/as an animal spirit” arises in “Letter to Joanne Kyger”) and the relationship between space and time (“we need space without time” the poet says in “The Midnight Zoo” and “[d]ust and light again/maybe time, if it exists” in “A Poem without Birds”). There are poems engaging with the Christian writers Francis Thompson and Augustine and the personal cost of their writing. Of Thompson, the poet asks:
How much did it cost
for his pencil to curve
across pages? (“Francis Thompson, 1859–1907”)
before a limping fox passes, almost as question (or answer), unsettling the sparrows. Of Augustine and his first love Una, the poet writes:
There’d be no healing for anyone
Her absence was my wound—
The poem concludes: “I was fully aware there’d be no cure.” (“The Confessions of Saint Augustine”).
“Michael Dansfield in Tasmania” then addresses a failure of imagination, referencing extinction once again. The writing at this point has a sharpness which echoes the poet’s awareness that “James McAuley wrote/sharp lyrics here”; interesting images emerge: “he swings a metaphor/to make the tea” and perhaps an oblique reference to Kafka:
… The tent’s
gone stiff with frost,
on the floor his maps
await a torturer’s nib
The problem of suffering finds us also in the opening and closing pieces of the collection, two prose works that engage in different ways with the uncanny. The opening piece, “A Proper Burial” is perhaps more a compact narrative than a prose poem per se. Here the speaker recollects an encounter with an Aboriginal girl who is preparing to give a proper burial to two tawny frogmouths killed on the Pacific Highway beside the Hawkesbury River. The writing is perfectly pitched to convey the multiplicity of the encounter: the tragedy of road kill; the grief of the frogmouth which contributes to the second casualty as he investigates the broken body of his mate; an Aboriginal presence usually unobserved by the narrator; the alterity of the encounter for him; and the way the meeting impinges on the everyday—a Christmas gathering at home—rendering it uncomfortable, so that the narrator needs to withdraw at the end to his study. The final sentence, almost a cliché, demonstrates the power of the encounter to escape language. As a reader, I was left wondering if the vignette reported an actual encounter in the life of the poet, a dream, an imaginative depiction of being in Country, or perhaps all of these.
The final work in the collection, a prose poem “Empty Your Eyes”, from which the chapbook takes its title, is apocalyptic in tone. At first it might be utopian: “The suffering has ended. Empty your eyes, a new era begins. … Animals never seen before come out from the alleys.” The images are joyful. But the poem turns to a “banal parade” that “floats above the ash of iron filings” and we meet “[a] mother with a blue apron that frames her baby”; she “cheers at random” while “another child by her side trembles, astonished and fearful.” This juxtaposition of imagery is typical of the poem. Where one might expect angels to be beautiful, terrible and purposeful, we find “an angel timid and adrift in the midst of life”. Cheer turns to desolation. “A group of foreigners pass by, singing under bright umbrellas, their lyrics sleek and empty.” The poem (and the chapbook) close with a poignant image of “a boy with a thousand dreams” seen in the distance crying “because he feels he is ugly”.
The collection of twelve poems in Empty Your Eyes offers a window into the work of Robert Adamson and a serious engagement with themes around the question of soul in a world where humans are part of a more than human world. It does not preach an environmental activism as such, but rather offers ways of seeing and unseeing steeped in the poet’s own engagements with place, people, otherkind, writers and writing, and what might be called the “metaphysical” questions of faith and the soul. A poem from Adamson’s The Golden Bird “The Intervention” written for Ali Cobby Eckermann, begins:
When Yeats writes, Soul clap its hands
and sing, and louder sing, it feels tangible,
and yet a friend says we can’t use
the word ‘soul’ these days, but
then adds, all the more reason. (287)
Empty Your Eyes engages with the ways in which the speaking of soul might feel tangible, a speaking embedded in a life that is always already in relation.
Adamson, Robert. The Golden Bird: New and selected poems. Melbourne: Black Inc, 2008.
Anne Elvey is managing editor of Plumwood Mountain and author of Kin (Five Islands, 2014). She holds adjunct and honorary appointments at Monash University and University of Divinity, Melbourne. Leaf Litter is her personal research and poetry blog.