Lives in Poetry


SELECTED AND NEW POEMS
by JOHN POWELL WARD
176pp, £9.99, Seren, Nolton Street, Bridgend, Wales
READING THE RIVER
by ROBERT ADAMSON
223pp, £10.95, 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:

         You don't understand
         sir. Paragraph four says a white
         person is one who is clearly and
         obviously white, or recognized as
         such, 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:

         o man man wat u don
         dis chile dform dis way?
         an dis pore modder leav her chile
         how 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:

         Huge kisses on stalks. Kinder.
         Skyline. Skyline. Skyline. Skyline.
         Foxgloves. Blooms. smoolB. sevolgxoF.
         Arms 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:

         Shit off with this fake dome of a life, why
              should I remain here locked in my own
         buckling cells?

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:

         The backyard to our grandfather's
         was the Hawkesbury River

         and me and Sandy hated it
         It meant all the kids at Gosford
         knew 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 I'd 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 this are:

         Marvell was calling from the mangroves
         our souls crows gliding down to eat the words
         time created endless bends

         the river was never the same
         that night Duncan gathered the southern stars
         into 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