For over 50 years and across 20 volumes, Robert Adamson’s poetry has illuminated lives and forged a seminal path in Australian literature. His acuity of vision, delicacy of image and nuance, his technical skill and perhaps above all his ability to take a reader to the very edge of what we know about ourselves, the very edge of what it might mean to be human – these capacities are evident once again in his most recent collection, Net Needle.
The motif of the needle is literally and figuratively woven throughout this set of poems. It is sounded in the dedication to Adamson’s wife, photographer Juno Gemes, his 'heart’s needle", in the Yeats epigraph of the "needle’s eye" as the narrow space through which the "roaring" stream of life passes – and it is resounded in the practicality of the needles which are used by fishermen to make and mend their nets, catching the abundant potential of the waters. A multivalent image, the needle thus becomes synonymous with so much of the poet’s own task: to catch – fleetingly – as best as one can, the abundance and complexity of life, contracting our attention to the specificity of the thing, the image – and then having the grace to let it go. Not everything can be caught in such an open-weave mesh, so there is inevitable loss and failure as well as the open spaces of possibility. But the poem, like the needle, strives to "mend", to refocus our attention on the specificity of the world around us and on the sometimes fraught, sometimes rich passage between inside and outside, the looker and the world which is considered.
The image of fishing draws together a number of threads in this collection. On a personal level, it evokes the poet’s childhood, in particular the memory of his father and the rough fishermen of his boyhood. As we hear in "Net Makers":
They stitched their lives into my days,
Blues Point fishermen, with a smoke
stuck to their bottom lips, bodies bent
forward, inspecting a haul-net’s wing
draped from a clothes lines. Their hands
darting through mesh, holding bone
net needles …
they wove everything they knew
into the mesh, along with the love they had,
or had lost, or maybe not needed.
If poetry is metaphorically akin to net-mending, it emphasises the importance of everyday survival and the provision of the emotional "livelihood" required to live and even thrive. As "Net Makers" suggests, the making of both poetry and of nets is a liminal activity, operating at the cusp of the life of the individual wielder of the needle – a site into which they "wove everything they knew" – and a point of connection to human communitas as well as to the external spaces of rivers, oceans and the creatures which live within them. The net, shaped and maintained by human intention and design, has the capacity to reach into a space beyond the human, in ways which can be challenging, exciting yet also fearful. In "The Shark Net Seahorses of Balmoral", for example, the net is a place of beauty and promise for those brave and curious enough to explore the territory it defines:
The shark net was a hanging garden under the tide,
beaded seaweed, marine fern, black periwinkles
Here, however, as well as providing a window onto an "other side" of beauty and wonder, the hanging net delineates a "protection zone" with the capacity to shield the human from the non-human and the elemental, the "dark fin" which might always emerge and threaten.
With the light touch of the lyric poet, Adamson funnels the gaze of the reader onto the specificity of the world around us: for instance, in "Summer", "In garden beds humid air / clings to the stalks of poppies"; or the aural detail of "Listening to Cuckoos" with its "downward-ending notes that pour through a falling of night"; or the attention to evocative, visual detail in "Dorothy Wordsworth":
Wisps of smoke, lamplight on manuscripts.
Pages fanned across an oak stool.
The imagery, along with line lengths and enjambments, functions to slow the reader down, draws us into an alertness to self and to our relationship with a world which is both recognisable and radically different. In this sense, Adamson’s poetry brings the reader into a heightened awareness of the world and its nuances – human, natural, sentient – opening up the possibility of an ethical interaction with that which is beyond the self.
This level of attention to the world and its implications for positioning the self, is most explicit in "Via Negativa, The Divine Dark", Adamson’s 2011 Blake Prize-winning poem. The poem opens with a focus on the observation of the natural world:
Banana trees rustle,
a first breeze arrives, bringing the perfumes
of the ebb; watermarks down on the mudflats begin
The gaze in the poem then shifts up and out through the skylight where "Stars are clustered trees, hung in the night sky", evoking philosophical, even spiritual, musings before coming back down to the immediacy of the image, of what lies at human eye-level:
Whose body, whose eyes? Look
up into the heavens: the problem of suffering
expands forever – dust and light again,
maybe time, if it exists.
On the table a cicada, flecked with flour,
opening its dry cellophane wings.
It is this movement – in and out, like the breath, or down and up as we look up from the specific to the breadth of the infinite – which provides the "mending of nets", the bridging of gaps we have been longing for. In this drive to stitch and to mend and to weave, the poet describes himself as "back on the river, [where] my boat plows through the fog":
I’m looking hard. What form, shape, or song
might represent a soul? What words, paint, or mud
resemble such an intangible glow?
The business of poetry is about such mindful looking, about searching for the words to heal the rifts of perception, the gaps between self and other, self and world. "Praise life with broken words", "Via Negativa" exhorts; in the absence of certainty and the impossibility of closure, it is this which Adamson’s poetry can offer us.
As has been evident across Adamson’s oeuvre, much of the attention which the poet pays to the external world has settled on images of birds, especially along the littoral space of the river. Not only is this attention part of a drive to wake the poet/reader from passivity and into engagement with the world but it also highlights the point of interaction between the human and the strangeness and intrigue of the not-human. In the "The Kingfisher’s Soul", a poem of love and tribute to Gemes, Adamson makes this clear:
Clear birdsong was not human song, hearing became
Nets and shadowy vibrations
In the prose poem, "A Proper Burial", the poet describes coming across two tawny frogmouths hit on the road, and the indigenous woman who arrives out of the shadows to make sure they in fact receive a "proper burial". This poem is an exploration of the unsettling nature of this encounter with difference – a disquieting glimpse into the unknown lives of the tawny frogmouths and the moving details of their death, as well as recognition of different cultural ways of responding to the human-bird nexus. The birds represent a state of difference that cannot be assimilated or turned into the human language of the same. "This episode, though that’s hardly the right word, has never left my mind", the poem concludes, suggesting the irresolvable "gap in the net" which this experience of human/non-human contact has made visible.
This sense of the almost talismanic or spiritual nature of the non-human creature – or perhaps of the human encounter with it – is also suggested in the prose poem "The Whiting". Returning to the motif of fishing, the poet catches the whiting and brings it home to share for dinner. Having consumed it – "hardly enough to satisfy, but sweet" – the "familiar shadow" of a cat enters the scene, and the poet is immediately able to identify the "spirit of the whiting … alive in our new pet". Even when the non-human creature is consumed, and drawn into visceral engagement with the human, its alterity remains, continuing to speak as it morphs into still more different forms, always requiring acknowledgement.
The image of the net encapsulates the possibility of presence as well as absence. It embodies both the meshed threads which prevent or at least slow down the permeation from one side to another and it is also the open spaces between – the inevitability of the permeable. These spaces, a little like a peacock’s tail, also reinforce the image of the human eye and its business of framing and looking, and of the net of poetry which harnesses the familiar and the unfamiliar currents of life, albeit momentarily, to be witnessed by the eye or the imagination of the reader. In this sense, the poet will always be "mending the net" – identifying gaps and the irreducible, striving to bring the human gaze onto an acknowledgement of the roaring stream of life.
Robert Adamson, Net Needle. Collingwood, VIC: Black Inc., 2015.