“Perception and Memory”: Robbie Coburn reviews ‘Empty Your Eyes’ by Robert Adamson

Empty Your Eyes by Robert Adamson, Vagabond Press, Sydney, NSW. 2013.

empty your eyes“The eye altering, alters all”, Robert Adamson quotes William Blake in the front of his new chapbook Empty Your Eyes, a line that characterises the poet’s work as his perceptions have matured and developed throughout his career. From the startlingly raw prison poetry in the early books to the romanticism and the stunning reflections on life on the Hawkesbury River in the multi-award winning The Clean Dark, Adamson has seen many things in his life most of us never will and expressed them through his poetry beautifully.

Published as part of Vagabond Press’ impressive “Rare Objects” series, Empty Your Eyes captures the essence of Adamson’s expert command over the lyrical that has been the basis of much of his reputation.

I see this chapbook as one of perceptions, which range from those of a young Adamson to an older, more mature Adamson.

Birds fly and life on the river runs through some of the lines, people walk and speak, though we also see the poet return to his early influences such as Saint Augustine, who’s Confessions Adamson first read while incarcerated. This is a brilliant poem spoken in Augustine’s voice narrating his decline into sin:

‘Living alone, Una took
wild honey daily
an attempt to ease her pain.

There’d be no healing for anyone.
Her absence was my wound-
A slave to lust, I took

another mistress’

 -(‘The Confessions of Saint Augustine’)

Adamson also reflects on several figures he knew as a young poet in the sixties, such as Charles Buckmaster and Michael Dransfield, as well as the works of other contemporary Australian writers such as Sonya Hartnett.

The Buckmaster poem is particularly moving, focussing on The Great Auk magazine published by Buckmaster briefly as an outlet for unpublished poets writing outside of the conservative mainstreams. It also serves as a tribute to a talented poet who never saw a long career, following his death at 21 in 1972:

 ‘…Charles spoke of auk bones
discovered in Florida, fragments put back
together by the Archaeologist of morning, the kingfisher
of poets. Charles wrote for the lost forest,
and opened new pages as he
walked the streets of Melbourne.’

 – (‘The Great Auk Poem’)

The personal nature of this poem, as well as ‘Michael Dransfield in Tasmania’, written upon years of reflection and calling on Adamson’s friendships and interactions with both poets, are an important contribution to the history of Australian poetry and the study of the so-called “Generation of ‘68”. We see how Adamson’s perceptions have changed since the sixties and seventies, and I believe there is almost a subliminal questioning of how the views and works of the likes of Buckmaster and Dransfield may have altered, had they not been swept away so young.

 ‘A lagoon reflects low sky-
clouds seen are clouds
as seen-words open
their shells in his brain-’

– (‘Michael Dransfield in Tasmania’)

Rereading this poem brought to my mind something Adamson wrote recently about Dransfield in a lecture he gave where he said: “I believe Michael Dransfield took a wrong turn when he decided to play out the role of the drug poet”. (http://www.rochfordstreetreview.com/2014/01/28/the-ultimate-commitment-the-poetry-of-michael-dransfield-vicki-viidas-and-robert-harris-by-robert-adamson/)

It is difficult to disagree with Adamson on this, as Dransfield would have likely altered his views and ambitions as he developed and matured as both a poet and a person. Luckily, we have been able to see Adamson enjoy a long and sustained career in comparison.

I think Adamson’s work in Empty Your Eyes would rival his very best, showcasing poems that preserve people and places, and even through the eye altered by time, he breathes life into that which has passed. The Dransfield poem, built on excellent imagery, is a lovely portrait of a young poet living for poetry, finding poetry in each waking thing. In it, Adamson references things such as James McAuley and ‘the loft’ where Dransfield lived with his girlfriend.

Prose poems open and close the chapbook, the title poem written after French poet Pierre Reverdy providing a brilliant note to end on.

“The Suffering has ended. Empty your eyes, a new era begins” writes Adamson as if in the present, but concluding by reflecting on a child in the early trappings of life:

‘on the far ramparts, a boy
with a thousand dreams, cries because he feels he is ugly.’

– (‘Empty Your Eyes’)

Through all of his changing perceptions over time, Adamson has remained an exceptional poet, and there is a certain solitude found in this book, as if he sees all things now in a clearer light.

A beautiful (though only slim) volume of lyrics, we are fortunate to have Robert Adamson, one of the finest and most interesting Australian poets we have produced this century.

Empty Your Eyes is a rewarding book and a fine addition to Adamson’s impressive bibliography.

– Robbie Coburn


Robbie Coburn lives in the small farming district of Woodstock in rural Victoria. His first full collection of poems Rain Season was published in 2013. He is well into a second book. For more go to: http://www.robbiecoburn.com

Empty Your Eyes is available from Vagabond Press: http://vagabondpress.net/collections/rare-object-series/products/robert-adamson-empty-your-eyes



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