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poetry review: Robert Adamson: Master of the Language of the Wild

Australian Poet Reads Patriotic Works, Describes Beauty of Homeland

By Martha Angela Wilcox

Robert Adamson

poetry@MIT Series

April 13, 2006, 7 p.m.

32-141, MIT Stata Center

32 Vassar Street

Cambridge, MA

Having never been to a real poetry reading, the content of this poetry@MIT event was a mystery to me. According to the poorly dispersed advertisements, “Robert [Adamson] is one of Australia’s national treasures” (John Ashbery). That endorsement begged the question: what does it mean to be a national treasure, anyway? I soon found out.

The room, 32-141, was far too large, lacking the tight-knit homeliness I expected. Most of the attendees were not even students, and one student who did wander into the room quickly left, probably to find the true location of his review session. Indeed, if I hadn’t committed to attending this event I would have left too, since the thirty people in attendance were all clearly and intimidatingly from MIT’s poetry geek crowd. Nothing happened for the first ten minutes, but I awkwardly waited anyway, busying myself by reading the uncleaned chalk board.

An enthusiastic welcome revealed that Adamson, a well-known Australian poet recently invited to publish his works in the United States, was promoting his newest book, “Gold Finches for Baghdad.”

Adamson took the podium, and began in a soft Australian accent, describing the native birds and the gorgeous landscape outside his home in rural Australia. He said he “feels the presence of the native people of Australia” — but I wasn’t sure if he meant the original people who shaped such a beautiful country, or the native creatures of his backyard wilderness. This image of an untouched world served as an anecdote for his first poem, and he used such anecdotes to bring new life to each of his poems throughout the night. I expected that he would arduously explain each crafted line of his poems, but he instead only set the stage and then let imagination do the rest.

Adamson’s speaking was never formal, but his strong voice and graphic, modern, nationalistic poetry captured the audience’s attention. One of my favorite poems of the night was a piece from Adamson’s “most optimistic poems … [his] bird poems.” He described the Bush Stone Curlew, a bulky, ground-dwelling bird of Australia whose defense mechanism is his ability to freeze in place. Adamson wondered what it was like to be inside this strange bird’s head, and his wondering led to a beautiful poem: “I am not the bird itself, only its passenger …”

Another of my favorites was one of four sonnets written for the late Robert Duncan (1919-1988), an American poet whom Adamson greatly admired, to commemorate “Duncan’s handwoven songs.” “I don’t know if you can actually say there’s a tune in a poem, but this is as close as I can get,” Adamson said.

In fact, tunes are what first inspired the former delinquent to write. He heard Bob Dylan on the radio and had to stop the car because he was so moved. After trying his hand at folk music, his Jesuit friend told him that in fact what he was writing poems, not folk songs. Six years later, Adamson was President of the Poetry Society of Australia, and the rest is history.

Though the choice of room and lighting was poor, Robert Adamson’s moving poetry and his ability to capture his audience overcame the setting. I was impressed with the presentation, and though there will not be a repeat of this poetry reading, I encourage more student attendance at the next poetry@MIT event. Adamson is indeed truly a treasure from Australia and an ear-opening pleasure to hear.