Canticle for the Bicentennial Dead by Robert Adamson

About Juno Gemes / Notebook Revelations: Juno Gemes’ portrait of James Baldwin / Juno Gemes: The Movement for Civil Rights in Australia, 1971 to 2010


Canticle for the Bicentennial Dead

They are talking, in their cedar-benched rooms
on French-polished chairs, and they talk
in reasonable tones, in the great stone buildings
they are talking firmly, in the half-light
and they mention at times the drinking of alcohol,
the sweet blood-coloured wine the young drink,
the beer they share in the riverless riverbeds
and the backstreets, and in the main street—
in government-coloured parks, drinking
the sweet blood in recreation patches, campsites.
They talk, the clean-handed ones, as they gather
strange facts; and as they talk
collecting words, they sweat under nylon wigs.
Men in blue uniforms are finding the bodies,
the uniforms are finding the dead: young hunters
who have lost their hunting, singers who
would sing of fish are now found hung—
crumpled in night-rags in the public’s corners;
discovered there broken, lit by stripes
of regulated sunlight beneath the whispering
rolling cell window bars. Their bodies
found in postures of human-shaped effigies,
hunched in the dank sour urinated atmosphere
near the bedboard, beside cracked lavatory bowls,
slumped on the thousand grooved, fingernailed walls
of your local police station’s cell—
bodies of the street’s larrikin Koories
suspended above concrete in the phenyl-thick air.
Meanwhile outside, the count continues: on radio,
on TV, the news—the faces
of mothers torn across the screens—
and the poets write no elegies, our artists
cannot describe their grief, though
the clean-handed ones paginate dossiers
and court reporters’ hands move over the papers.

 – Robert Adamson


‘Canticle for the Bicentennial Dead’ appears in Reaching Light Robert Adamson’s Selected Poems published by Flood Editions USA available from John Read Books, Flood Editions, or from your local bookseller or favourite online bookshop.

Robert Adamson has won several major Australian literary awards including the Grace Leven Poetry Prize (twice, for Selected Poems and The Goldfinches of Baghdad), the C. J. Dennis Award, the Kenneth Slessor Prize, and the National Book Council Turnbull Fox Phillips Poetry Prize for The Clean Dark, and the Fellowship of Australian Writers Christopher Brennan Award. In 2004 Adamson won the New South Wales Premier’s History Award for Inside Out, in 2007 The Age Book of the Year Poetry Prize for The Goldfinches of Baghdad, in 2009 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry for The Golden Bird, and in 2011 the Patrick White Award. He was also the inaugural CAL chair of poetry at the University of Technology, Sydney. Adamson’s new book, Reaching Light, was published in March 2020 by Flood Editions, Chicago.

About Juno Gemes / Notebook Revelations: Juno Gemes’ portrait of James Baldwin / Juno Gemes: The Movement for Civil Rights in Australia, 1971 to 2010


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