“Sweet as Torn Basil”: Susan Fealy Reviews Net Needle by Robert Adamson

Net Needle by Robert Adamson  Black Inc. 2015 

Net-NeedleNet Needle is the first stand-alone collection of new poems since The Goldfinches of Baghdad (2006) and the first full-length since Adamson published his selected poems thematically for The Golden Bird (2008). It is tempting to wonder whether reimagining his past work was a prelude to this new collection. Net Needle is a highly organized, living composition which interrogates language, poetics, trauma and mortality within a framework focused on limits and continuities. The abstract is voiced in a fresh and vital lyric that is passionately engaged and often evokes the natural world. The two words of the title work hard. Net Needle connotes thingness, the interdependence of tool and artefact, tradition, yet deconstructed the title can be read as two verbs.

‘Listening to Cuckoos’ strikes open the collection with two strong notes: ‘Two unchanging notes, to us, words—always those high/elongated notes.’ The meaning of the limited call and its repetition is a twinned, taut depiction of the limits of human apprehension and the otherness of bird. The poem is composed of couplets that evoke the bird call, while its long lines and enjambment render the difference between human and bird:

The two notes remain, a split phrase, two words
meaning, not exactly a self—not quite, the first day of spring.

While there is a clear distinction between bird and human, poetic kinship with bird is implicit in ‘The moment of utterance, candour becomes/the piercing, whistled syllables.’ It evokes Charles Olson’s essay ‘Projective Verse’: ‘And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes …’.

The final line presages light as a recurring metaphor: ‘in the broken-egged dawn, in the echoing light.’ Cuckoos (red-eyed koels) appropriate the nest of others: the blueprint of its young is to throw the original species out of the nest. The broken-egged dawn evokes the yolk-yellow of beginning, and the violence of dispossession: it is a beginning that has an implicit awareness of what has gone before.

The collection abounds with echoes: ‘Summer’, the second poem in the collection, also in couplets, opens with ‘A pallid cuckoo calls in a loop/more insistently as afternoon fades’, two animal-by-the-roadside poems appear near each other in part four, and the red-eyed koel reappears in ‘Carnaby’s Cockatoos’. This time, the cuckoo’s appropriation is itself ‘appropriated’: its call is copied and mocked by the caged, endangered cockatoos.

In part two, memoir poems commence with ‘Heaving the Rope’. It is hard to discern whether the observations are recent or drawn from long-term memory: they seem threaded together in a poem that is itself about repeated gestures. The routine of the deckhand’s tasks, and the to and fro of the ferry between Manly and Circular Quay build a connection between land and water. Physical effort, sights of local humans and birds and the repeated experience of wind combine into a density of lived experience that is rhythmically tied to the harbour. The poem, like the collection as a whole, builds a sense of repeated gestures like the net needle of the title stitching its net.

The rope of the ferry tethers part two with the last poem of part one: ‘Net Makers’ is deft, economic and confident. Its precise depiction of the fishermen mending nets in the backyard creates a tableau that is strong in balance and design. . In the context of the poem, even the iridescent fan of the pet peacock seems orderly. The poem closes with a spray of water that is itself grounded: ‘house high/fed by gravity’. While it is not made as explicit as Heaney’s squat pen that digs to replace the spade of his father and his grandfather, there seems to be a link between the poet’s taut craft and the men’s craft and thrift. This is a poem about limits and their implications. The backyard is carefully laid out, the tasks are very specific, the stoic net-makers may, or may not, be able to get by without love; the boy observer’s knowledge of these men’s inner world is limited. An adult, he reflects on what was not said, what remains outside the net.

Poems that engage with the Eurydice myth (most notably the long sequence in The Golden Bird ) are absent, but interest in mythology remains. The focus is on the origins of personal mythology. Memoir poems chart how Rilke’s density of childhood generates personal mythologies that shape identity and nourish imagination. The childhood poems are recalled affectionately. They enchant the reader with something of the quality that enchanted the poet. They charm the way talismans charm: some have a polished jewel quality. Many of these poems explore gateways into the imaginary: those early cultural experiences that took Adamson beyond the real such as attending the cinema, observing his father’s fascination with Phantom, the comic superhero, ‘Mrs Rentoul’s famous white cats’ on the Sydney Harbour Bridge that ‘pranced along the pylon wall, nothing/ between them and ground below’. ‘MV Anytime’ however, was perhaps weakened by a vernacular that at times veers close to tired diction: ‘Pete’s dog,/Denton, sits on the stern taking it in, /shooting the breeze. …’.

The strongest harbour poems in this section (‘Chowder Bay’ and ‘Sugarloaf Bay, Middle Harbour’) are compressed, vivid and assured. They create miniature worlds with a combination of precise detail and a landscape painter’s perspective. The latter’s enjambed five-lined stanzas draw the reader into memories of an innocent, bountiful paradise until its surface stillness reaches breaking point and reveals a dark counterforce: ‘the bay/stretched tight, a glass drum/ as if waiting for the vibration of an/ unknown force, some dark fin that might cut/ a pathway to civilization’.

Adamson’s earlier collections contain intense interrogation of the relationship between image and language. This is hardly a surprise given his long-term collaboration with his partner, the photographer Juno Gemes, and his friendship with painters including Gary Shead, and Brett Whiteley. The childhood memoir poems have an uncanny quality: as if they were imagined visually before they were put into words. Possibly this is because they are trawled from memories that have a visual component and have themselves been replayed like favourite films. Adamson is also an artist, and many of the poems in part two were written for the purpose of images being created by artist Peter Kingston; perhaps the creative process particular to the project left its trace.

The last two poems in part two explore the impact of enforced limits. ‘The Coriander Fields of Long Bay Penitentiary’ depicts movingly how thought itself is experienced as intense, exotic and sensual because it can off-set the pain of cut wrists stitched by a prison doctor without anesthetic, and ease the experience of a fragmented emotional self:

Serving two years hard;
my thoughts—sweet
as torn basil, or tinged
with the broken roots
of coriander—soothe
fragmented fears.

Imagination supports resilience because it can take the mind to unspoilt, beautiful places: ‘poppy fields/in the high country of Tasmania/sun-blotched red blooms/loaded with seed’. Yet, the hint that the fields could be infused with opiate craving shadows its beauty:

An imaginary whiff
of opium mingles with
the bitter aftertaste of iodine.

Trauma is evoked by the primal senses of smell and taste and by the way their pungency repeats visually: the red of the poppy fields mingles with the red of cut wrists and the red of iodine.

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The trauma of an authority figure hurting the body in the role of healer sits alongside a poem which suggests that the governor’s choice of debating question, for inmates who fought hard to form a debating society, offers an equally punishing response to the mind, in the guise of appearing benign: ‘is the opera house really necessary’ is empty of meaning to the inmates. The democratic crucible that offers the chance to have a voice and some legitimate empowerment is rendered useless and itself becomes a subtle form of oppression.

Part three revisits imagination and suffering (including trauma), but widens the lens to explore how other poets enter this territory. The opening poem of long-lined couplets carries ‘body’ and ‘net’ from part two and part one into part three:

I dwell in this bone-cave      rocking cup of skull
histories      constantly      re-writing themselves      weave
‘brain waves’ with drift      out from the body’s net
a fatty backwash      veins of grainy information

Internal Weatherfor Randolph Stow’

This section conveys something of the vastness and strangeness of the imaginative but also confronts the necessity for formlessness, excess, dream and sensation to meet a limit, in some kind of reckoning if a creative process is to occur. Adamson seems to suggest that loss, longing, even trauma will recur: they are accepted as fuel for the imagination, implicitly necessary for making.

There is a Bakhitian quality to some of these poems, most obviously in the version of the cubist poet Pierre Reverdy’s ‘Spectacle des Yeux’: ‘Empty Your Eyes’ is a bleakly beautiful poem that deconstructs the coherence of gaze. Multiple, fragmented perspectives of a town’s inhabitants are offered in a poetic equivalent of cubist painting: reconfiguration is taken to an extreme in a disturbing human landscape detailed by images and sounds, and animated by feeling, yet meaning empties out of the poem. Feeling and activity have no discernible, let alone purposeful relationship to community. Even kinship is empty of meaning. Family members are alienated from each other, locked in their own solitary terrors. ‘Empty Your Eyes’ chimes with ‘Poem Beginning with a Line from William Blake’. The eight-floored, futuristic hell reprises the lower eight circles from Dante’s Inferno but in Adamson’s poem there is no Roman poet guide. Traditional craft and a lived connection with the natural world has been replaced by artificial, violent perversions and even the meaning of the word trauma has been lost:

I looked for the word trauma in the eyes
of strangers who might hold my gaze, but people growled
and turned their heads away.

By way of its absence, the ‘I/eye’ of the needle has value: it focuses the feeling, sensual self , offers the possibility of compassion for, and a vital connection with, the fragile, finite world outside the self.

The fourth and final part of Net Needle explores the tension between limit and continuity by focusing on the most extreme tension of all: the limit of a mortal body- self and the possibility of what might lie beyond it. While extremity of one kind or another is the starting point for these poems, the meditations go in different directions and poetic form is accordingly the most varied. It begins with a sequence of four prose-poems, and while the opening poem, ‘A Proper Burial’ is not in couplets, there is a couple: a pair of tawny frogmouths dead by the roadside and a chance encounter between the narrator and ‘a young aboriginal woman’. ‘A Proper Burial’ is the most complex of the four because its surface layer charts the uncanny and inexplicable while the limit of how this experience can be imparted to others is rendered between the lines. The logic of its narrative unfolds as a story about being unable to explain what happened.

Adamson’s prose draws together the fluidity of lived experience and the intensity of heightened ephemeral encounters with the natural world and its weathers, but it is some of the lineated poems in part four that most impress. The short, sparce couplets in ‘Spinoza’ yoke with the precision and self-discipline that is challenged. The poem is narrow, like tunnel vision, yet it has a propulsion akin to an electric charge as it cohorts Spinoza to break free:

O my soul’s friend
just once take

some advice
reach back

to myths of flight

The short lines shoot into the dark and offer the possibility of cross-species flight: vision that is beyond the human, and by implication beyond the limits of language itself. The success of the poem lies in the split-identification: precision and discipline energise the poem’s making.

‘The Kingfisher’s Soul’ is also a poem about making: it is a poem of gratitude to his long-term partner beginning with an ocean that reminds unnervingly of ‘arterial blood’. It reflects on a life lived together that changed a leaky, insubstantial experience of self ‘before you came, whenever/I caught a glimpse of my own blood, it seemed/ A waterfall of bright cells as it bled away’ to one that can ‘weigh the harvest of light.’ Why is it called ‘The Kingfisher’s Soul?’ Kingfishers mate for life, and it likely references Hopkin’s ‘as kingfisher’s draw fire, dragonflies draw flame and so celebrates his partner as a saviour who gave him a vital self. Adamson balances the romanticism with slow, even propulsion. It has been reworked since it was published in The Golden Bird: seven stanzas of seven lines plus a single line has transformed to regular tercets. The poem now has more air, the calm of reflection balances the strong feeling, and the greater number of stanzas better imparts the couple’s continuity over time.

Ultimately, this collection is about making. The multiple meanings of net, needle and what escapes the net are integrated with Adamson’s inner world, his particular lived experience near Sydney Harbour and the Hawkesbury and his long engagement with literature and language.

– Susan Fealy

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Susan Fealy is a Melbourne-based poet, reviewer and clinical psychologist. Her poems have been published widely in journals and anthologies. She worked at Five Islands Press as a managing co-editor in 2009-2010. Her first full-length manuscript is under development.

Net Needle is available from http://www.blackincbooks.com/books/net-needle

One thought on ““Sweet as Torn Basil”: Susan Fealy Reviews Net Needle by Robert Adamson

  1. Pingback: Issue 15 July 2015 – September 2015 | Rochford Street Review

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