Pushing Boundaries. Mark Roberts Reviews ‘Beside Rivers’ by Susan Adams

 Beside Rivers by Susan Adams. Island Press 2013.

Beside Rivers
The opening poem of Susan Adams’ first collection, Besides Rivers, playful announces a poet not afraid to push boundaries or to squeeze into spaces that others have ignored.

Square cubes in a sphere.
Our shoulders don’t fit under this sky


We immediately feel that here is a poet who sees things differently, and is prepared to state so upfront:

Our world was never round.
There are corners at every question mark
with angles to turn on our trespass forward.

This opening poem introduces both the collection and the first section ‘Awash’. On one level the poem ‘a-Maze’ is a curious one to open a collection. The title sends us off in a number of directions – amazement, the confusion of the maze and the alliteration with two of the section names (Awash, A Wonder), but as we progress into the collection the swirling nature of this opening begins to make much more sense.

As the title and the section headings suggest, water plays a central role in this collection. In fact one could say that a river runs through this collection, from a flooding river in India to a peaceful and meditative Hawkesbury. The four Indian poems at the front of the collection leave a powerful impression, indeed I was surprised that there were only four of them so strong is their impact on the collection. The first Indian poem, ‘La Femme, Raphael, home for the destitute & dying, India’ creates a context for the other poems:,

Its not the dust, heat, rains
the pall of flies and open drains
all-day power cuts, cold bucket showers
but the deaths of starving children,
mothers and babes from anaemia.
The lethargy of lepers.

The poet here is an outsider, a “square cube in a sphere”. She has volunteered but the reality of her surroundings follow her every move:

A heavy step to the river for crossing,
an hour ago a 7 month baby died from pneumonia.
I roll up my clothes, stumble the long water
you greet my muddied wet.

The final incongruity of inhaling the perfume which has arrived as a gift is not over emphasised but sits within the context of the other Indian poems. The poet is an an outsider

……….we are both cast
to the separation of ordinary.

‘Entire of Himself’

While the patients of the Raphael Home for the Destitute and Dying are outcasts because of their birth cast, or their disease, the poet is herself doubly outcast, she is from another culture and her time volunteering is limited. She has a way out.

The strongest of the Indian poems, ‘The River Becomes’ places the imagery of the river firmly at the centre of the collection. This is a violent river, awaking from a trickle to become a roar:

It happened like they said.
I was lying on my cot half naked
water coddled the hollow in my chest, hot.
It was raining in the Himalayas.

The sound distant. A roar travelling.
God’s negatives on the hurl.
We race to the dried rock bank
nothing on the other side
but noise is riding on the echoes in our ears.

then as the water comes:

frothered hissing on hot rocks slow motion fast.
The push behind has power, retched boulders hurtle past

The language here is as powerful as the water that hurls rocks down a dry riverbed and it shatters the sense of lethargy which hangs hot and heavy over the opening stanzas of the poem.

In contrast the river in a ‘Newtown Dawn, Hawkesbury Dusk’ becomes as refugee from the clamour and noise of the inner city. Here the river is a suggestion, something to look forward to as the poet wakes up to the noise and chaos of the inner city:

Rubbish collection is an eructation
of clang and battle breaking up sleep.
We wake annoyed and curt,


Short circuits of ourselves
we live between shifts of scream and steel,

The river here holds the promise of an almost spiritual completeness

I need to return to the river
where skin will return to bone.

The idea of the meditative river drives a number of other poems centred around the Hawkesbury. The difference between waking up in the inner city and next to the river, for example, is emphasised by the opening of ‘River Mould’

We start our dawn in grey
and wear it like a

Throughout this collection Adams is very much a poet of the ‘I’, the ‘We’ and the ‘Us’. Even in the most meditative poem the poet’s relationship with those around her is critical. The imagery of the river is shared, pain and suffering spreads out to us through the poem and in many poems the intimacy of personal relationships is central.

Above all  this is a collection which continually surprises us with its choice of subject, its use of language and the unashamed lyricism which underpin the best poems. Beside Rivers is an impressive first collection which suggests that Adams will be a poet to watch over the coming years.

– Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He is currently undertaking Post Graduate studies at the University of Sydney and currently edits Rochford Street Review and P76 Magazine (http://rochfordstreetpress.wordpress.com/p76-literary-magazine/).

Besides Rivers is available from http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm

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