Lives in Poetry
SELECTED AND NEW POEMS by
JOHN POWELL WARD
Seren, Nolton Street, Bridgend, Wales
READING THE RIVER by
Bloodaxe, Highgreen, Tarset, Northumberland, NE48 1RP
Reviewing has been good to me lately.
First I had a book called The Trees from the Venezuelan poet Eugenio
Montejo to look at for Orbis,
and then the Collected Later Poems of RS
Thomas for Roundyhouse.
Both of these covered significant periods of these writers' creative lives
and it is something of a privilege to be able to read such volumes. Now the
two books reviewed here both cover work from four decades or more. One of the
treats of looking at such volumes is that it gives you the chance to see how
the poets' work has changed over long periods
Ward is the one who, on the face of things, has changed most. His early work
is fairly traditional in treatment, but his later writing is more
experimental and freer in nature. It would be wrong, though, to try to sum
him up in this way. It doesn't really need a very deep reading to see that
from the start his overarching concern has been language. There isn't really
any fundamental difference
between his poetry of the sixties and seventies and that of the nineties and
the new century. Look at 'Borderline Cases are Coloured', from his 1969
collection The Other Man.
This one opens:
Paragraph four says a white
is one who is clearly and
white, or recognized as
by other whites.
and goes on to discuss the definitions of 'coloured persons' and 'borderline
cases' in a lively, almost obsessive, way. Incidentally, one of the tests for
'whiteness' is the grimly hilarious: '...his hair / tested for wire-fuzz by
running / it through with a ball point.'
When you think about it, the underlying themes and approach arenÕt so very
different from such as 'Ballad' from the 'Later Uncollected and New Poems'
section, which ends:
man man wat u don
chile dform dis way?
dis pore modder leav her chile
say u lor dis day?
My home town is Bridgend so I was naturally interested to see that one of the
poems from the 1996 collection Genesis is 'Wind Machines near Bridgend'. The wind
turbines are actually about eight miles north of here, but are clearly visible
from many parts of the town. His concerns are not the usual, rather tired by
now, environmental-NIMBY ones, but are essentially linguistic and may be
thought of as being with the 'thereness' of these new features of our
landscape. The first stanza clearly shows this:
kisses on stalks. Kinder.
Skyline. Skyline. Skyline.
Blooms. smoolB. sevolgxoF.
akimbo, semaphore. All-Stars.
Anyone who has seen wind turbines in action, whether they approve of them or
not, will understand and appreciate this word-picture.
Robert Adamson is an Australian
poet and this is his UK debut in book form. He, too, displays an interesting
development over the thirty-four years that this volume covers. In his case,
though, the changes are not so obvious, save from an admirable spareness that
shows itself rather more in the later poems. One thing that appealed to me
particularly about his earlier writing is the more immediate sense of anger Š
one that you can almost feel. Take the opening lines in this book, from the
poem 'The Rebel Angel'. This one appeared in his first collection (of
nineteen so far) that have appeared in Australia, Canticles on the Skin:
off with this fake dome of a life, why
should I remain
here locked in my own
Adamson did not have a silver-spoon start in life. His parents were
harbour-people and river-folk. One of his poems, 'Growing up Alone', tells
of his own and his cousin Sandy's view of their grandfather's home:
backyard to our grandfather's
the Hawkesbury River
me and Sandy hated it
meant all the kids at Gosford
how poor we were
There are a number of autobiographical poems. 'My granny', with lines like
'I sat there not telling // maybe three hours / beside the first dead person
seen' and 'My tenth birthday', a poem that tells of the only night in his
life his father slept beside him, are stark. A spell in a young offenders'
institution led to several jail sentences and it was poetry that in many ways
was his salvation. This happened, or at least started, rather suddenly when
a Jesuit priest visiting a prison saw that his attempts at 'song lyrics' were
nothing less than poetry and introduced him to Gerald Manley Hopkins.
I would not want to give the impression that his difficult early life is the
only thing this poet writes about. His dominant themes, from all periods of
his career, are in fact the natural world, especially bird life, and the
Hawkesbury River, on which he has fished and boated since childhood. He says
that this river is not special in itself, but acts as a kind of symbol for
all rivers. I'm not so sure about that: his sense of place seems intense to
me. At all events, this volume is well titled and it is no accident that a
photograph of Mooney Creek on the Hawkesbury by his co-publisher at Paper
Bark Press, Juno Gemes, has been chosen to illustrate the cover.
The best poetry is, I think, written when these two elements come together,
which they naturally do quite often. They do this most successfully for me
in 'Black water', even though on this occasion the important birds are
metaphorical ones. This tells of a time when he took a book by a much-admired
Australian poet, Robert Duncan,
into his grandfather's skiff across Mooney Creek. The last two stanzas of
was calling from the mangroves
souls crows gliding down to eat the words
created endless bends
river was never the same
night Duncan gathered the southern stars
his being the black water plopping with fat mullet
I won't finish by saying anything so awful as 'these lines sum up Robert
Adamson's work', but if you only read one of his poems, I'd recommend that
it should be this one.
Raymond Humphreys 2004