Net Needle – Robert Adamson


If Les Murray making the Prime Minister’s Literary Award shortlist is a celebration of stalwarts of Australian poetry, then Robert Adamson joining him on the list potentially shows the judges preference for established names. Robert Adamson was announced as the winner of the 2011 Patrick White Award, an annual literary prize established by Australia’s only Nobel Prize in Literature winner using his 1973 Prize winnings to establish a trust. A $25,000 cash award is given to a “writer who has been highly creative over a long period but has not necessarily received adequate recognition”. Due to economic conditions the prize was reduced in 2010 to $18,000 so the former inmate received a smaller prize for his poetry.

With twenty books of poetry and three books of prose behind him, he is another stalwart of the Australian poetic family, from 1970 to 1985 he was the driving force behind Australia’s New Poetry magazine. A troubled youth Adamson was involved in the theft of an exotic bird from Taronga Park Zoo, setting him on the road to a childhood spent in correctional facilities.

“It was in prison, ultimately, where he discovered the saving grace of poetry. Inspired by the songs of Bob Dylan, he began writing what he thought were songs, only to be told by a priest that they were poems, not songs. The priest then gave him a book of poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins. For Adamson, it was his ”passport out of there””. (Taken from Canberra Times 4 November 2011 – “Former Inmate wins $18,000 Poetry Prize” )

“Net Needle” contains forty-two poems, broken into four parts, and opens with an epigraph by William Butler Yeats;

All the stream that’s roaring by
Came out of a needle’s Eye;
Things unborn, things that are gone,
Form needle’s eye still goad it on.

Part one contains mystic, natural poems, the first three poems containing references to gardens, swallows, cuckoos, koels, storm birds, poppies, mosquitoes, wasps, bees, crickets, mangroves, grapevines, bottlebrush, bamboo, possums. The second poem Summer subtitled (after Georg Trakl) is obviously a reference to the following Trakl poem (which appears in the collection “Sebastian Dreaming”, translated by James Reidel);


With evening ends the lament
Of the cuckoo in the woods.
The grain leans lower,
The red poppies.

A black storm threatens
Over the hill.
The old song of the crickets
Dies away in the field.

The leaves of the chestnut
Never stir.
One the winding stair
Your dress swishes.

The candle shines silent
In the dark room;
A silver hand
Snuffed it out;

A wind-still, starless night.

Here is Robert Adamson’s poem from “Net Needle”;


(after Georg Trakl)

A pallid cuckoo calls in a loop
more insistently as afternoon fades.

In garden beds humid air
clings to the stalks of poppies.

Mosquitoes rise from layers
of leaves under grapevines.

A blue shirt sticks to your back
as you climb the ladder.

Thunder rattles a fishing boat’s
canopy in the dry dock.

The storm silences crickets
chirruping under the mangroves.

Turbulence has passed.
A candle lights our dark room.

Outside, calm, a starless night –
then the flame is extinguished,

pinched between a finger
and thumb. In the eaves, at nest,

swallows rustle. You believe
the swallows glow in the dark.

Light daubs our skin with shapes –
the crushed petals of red poppies.

Adamson has moved the European to his home by the Hawkesbury River or Neutral Bay on Sydney Harbour, an area with a fishing history, a theme that is obvious through the title of the collection and through the mention of fishing nets, whaling harpoons, anchor ropes, rods, bait. The title of the collection appears in the poem “Net Makers” the poem that concludes Section one;

They stitched their lives into my days,
Blue’s Point fishermen, with a smoke
stuck to their bottom lips, bodies bent

forward, inspecting a haul-net’s wing
draped from a clothes line. Their hands
darting through mesh, holding bone

net needles, maybe a special half-needle
carved from tortoise shell.

Part two contains twelve autobiographical works, poems that reminisce about subjects such as the Saturday matinee movies in fancy dress in the 1950’s-60’s, or visits to the Sydney Stadium, watching boxing and Little Richard, Johnny Ray & Judy Garland, or time spent on the Sydney Harbour Ferries (a subject that also appeared in Les Murray’s collection “Waiting for the Past”);

Heaving the Rope

A ferry kisses the wharf –
engine rumble, shudder,
and prop-churn stir
the tide to white foam.
A deck hand makes a line
then heaves his rope,
lassos a bollard.
There’s a golden codger
fishing for blackfish,
his long rod and float,
green weed for bait.
The local boys, wharf rats
who fish all hours.
A businessman in bright
pinstripes walks
the gangplank. Boys
at Manly, diving from
pylons for silver coins,
girls off to Luna Park
or to school on the other
shore. The ferry’s
deckie ropes in the life
of the harbour – his
world framed by seagulls
and Southerly busters –
when he heaves the rope.

We also have subtle hints at a distant relationship with his father in the poem ‘The Phantom’, and the story of his troubled youth, who spent his “twenty-first in Long Bay Penitentiary”, reading Percy Shelley at night is told in the poem “The Long Bay Debating Society”.

Part three contains twelve poems, all different in style as all literary tributes to other poets, Rimbaud, Shelley, William Blake, Randolph Stow, among the tributes, all obviously influences on Adamson’s work. Besides the recurring “red poppies” there are other drug references GHB (in reference to Shelley’s “Satan Broken Loose”), or methadone (in “The Sibyl’s Avenue”). As in Les Murray’s collection we also have a reference to spinifex grass, the common subjects quite startling when you read this collections back-to-back.

Part four is similar to part one, a collection of the mystical, but all dedications to animals in the Hawkesbury area.

As I did mention in my write up of Les Murray’s collection, these are also assured works, poems from a writer who has form in the form, does this style of poetry excite me? Not really, yes uniquely Australian, however they remind me of poetry read at school, learned in universities, something from the 1970’s, 1980’s of Australia, not pushing the poetic boundaries in 2016. Yes, these are readable, they are enjoyable, they conjure up images of fishing towns, harbours, men in blue shirts with cigarettes and fishing gear, but where’s that cutting edge?

As an aside I much prefer the cover from the English edition, as published by Bloodaxe Books, as shown below.



Waiting for the Past – Les Murray


Is Australia shackled to a poetic history of “bush ballads”, rare marsupials, doing it tough on the land? A young nation, in English speaking terms, attempting to carve out a unique writing style, poetic and fiction, does it lead to perpetuating formulaic styles & subject matters?

For writers who have been professionally creating for over sixty years and published consistently for over fifty years an expected style, common themes, and a version of “Australianess” is to be expected.

If you read Australian poetry, you know of Les Murray, in fact a week before the announcement of the Nobel Prize Murray’s betting price was the same as winner Bob Dylan at 50/1. Extensive information about Murray’s background, farming, premature leaving of school due to his mother’s death, move to full time writing, depression, and controversies is all available on the web, for a more high level precis of his achievements the Australian Poetry Library site says:

Les Murray has unquestionably been a major figure in contemporary Australian literature. Media reports since the 1980s have frequently referred to him as Australia’s ‘unofficial poet laureate’, and since the 1990s he has been described as part of an international ‘poetry superleague’ of the best contemporary poets writing in English. Murray has attracted more international attention than any other Australian poet; he has been the recipient of prestigious international poetry prizes including the Petrarch Prize (1995), the T. S. Eliot Award (1997), and the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry (1998); collections of his work in translation have appeared in numerous languages including German, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Spanish, Italian, and Hindi. (for full article visit webpage here  )

It is not unusual for Murray to appear on the shortlists of poetry prizes and his latest collection “Waiting for the Past” was shortlisted for the prestigious TS Eliot Award, missing out to Sarah Howe’s stunning debut collection “Loop of Jade”.

There are numerous reasons why this collection should be in contention to win the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. And it is possibly a fruitless exercise to attempt to find those features. Let’s look at a few “highlights”

The first, and only, Australian to be recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church, Mary MacKillop, is the subject of one poem, “The Canonisation”, the process of her being declared a saint starting in the 1920’s and the canonisation taking place on Les Murray’s birthday, 17 October, in 2010:

Sainthood? So long after God did?
Independence? But you’re your own Scot.
The job of an Australian icon?

Or the uniquely Australian story of Lindy Chamberlain, and her baby Azaria, who she claims was stolen by a dingo during a camping trip to Uluru in 1980, after being imprisoned for murder and subsequent evidence coming to light, the coroner eventually confirmed Chamberlain’s story in 2012 (thirty-two years after the disappearance);

Being Spared the Inquests

A toddler’s scream –
the bared leap of a dingo,
the boy’s father running
with shouts and shovel blade.

Our valley came this close
to a deadly later fame.


With the Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival currently underway it is timely to read the poetry of the horse racing industry and the cash changing hands, the outfits, the international shipping of horses, the breeding and the stance of jockeys is all captured in “Money and the Flying Horses”. The uniquely Australian themes running further with poems about Sydney Harbour Ferries, or desert grass (spinifex).

Rural themes have always featured in Murray’s poetry, and this collection is no different, “High Speed Trap Space”, set at night, a narrow country road, it is raining and suddenly an animal steps into the headlight beams…Or “Dog Skills” which opens;

From his high seat, an owner
of cattle has sent dogs
to work a mob of Angus.

As the title of the collection suggests. “Waiting for the Past” this book is deeply rooted in Murray’s past, with poems about his rural upbringing, his mother’s passing away from cancer, mentions of paddocks, horse riders, milking, there is the city folk, “while factory protein spiced with clones/grew beef or mutton, milk or bones” and the theme of ageing, prominently on display in the poems “Diabetica” and;


Last time I fell in a shower-room
I bled like a tumbril dandy
and the hotel longed to be rid of me.
Taken to the town clinic, I
described how I tripped on a steel
rim and found my head in the wardrobe.
Scalp-sewn and knotted and flagged
I thanked the Frau Doktor and fled,
wishing the grab-bar of age might
be bolted to all civilisation
and thinking of Rome’s eighth hill
heaped up out of broken amphorae.

When, any time after sixty,
or any time before, you stumble
over two stairs and club your forehead
among rake or hoe, brick or fuel-tin,
that’s time to call the purveyor
of steel pipe and indoor railings
and soon you’ll be gasping up landings
having left your balance in the car
from which please God you’ll never see
the launchway of tyres off a brink.
Later comes the sunny day when
street detail gets whitened to mauve

and people hurry you, or wait, quiet.


There is also the change resistant writer, one who uses paper & a typewriter, fearing the computer, in “The Privacy of Typewriters”:

I am an old book troglodyte
one who composes on paper
and types up the result
as many times as needs be

Mixed alongside the reminiscing there are modern views, such as “The Massacre” where a high school shooting sits alongside a poem about carers looking after the aged and the slow decay of the brain (as well as Murray’s own headstone inscription), and then poems about the natural, as in “High Foliage” or even domestic violence in “The murders of women”, or even clipping one’s toe nails.

To me these read as a collection of sixty-four poems that have been published in one book, not a themed collection, however I may have missed something. As an iconic Australian writer, Murray will surely be in contention when it comes to naming the main winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, personally this is another collection of his works that are finely written, readable and enjoyable. But they were not works that pushed my boundaries, and as most of you know I am a reader who likes to be challenged it didn’t quite hit the mark.  Having said that, readers who haven’t explored Australian poetry before and the rural themes generally found in the traditional fare this would be a nice introduction to the genre, shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize probably a better judge of the poems than my bias and taste.