Robert Adamson on a wharf on the river. Photograph by Hazel Johnston
In July of 2022, following a pattern of several decades, my family and I visited Robert Adamson and his wife, the photographer Juno Gemes, at their home on Cheero Point, on the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney. One memorable morning we all set out in their boat, The Swamp Harrier, past the Brooklyn wharf and Little Wobby, past the broad opening to the Pacific Ocean, and through Cowan Creek to America Bay.
We dropped anchor beneath a tree where a pair of whistling kites were whistling sweetly and we fished a little, catching two small bream to take home for the cats. A waterfall from recent winter rains poured down the sandstone escarpment. We ate bread and cheese, talking through the morning. Bob spoke of rowing to this bay in his youth, and on to Jerusalem Bay, a favourite fishing spot and the subject of his first fully finished poem: ‘Whipbirds in needle-frost surge on the tidal mist, ventriloquists / down the corridors of morning.’
Through his childhood, Bob often sought refuge on the Hawkesbury at the home of his paternal grandfather Fa-Fa, a fisherman. Yet an undercurrent of unhappiness and alienation led him to juvenile detention at Mount Penang Training School for Boys, and then prison at Long Bay Penitentiary. Even separated from the river, his inner life was defined by birds and fish. As he later recounted, ‘Sitting in a cell, far from the Hawkesbury, the birds of my childhood would flutter through the dome of my skull as mullet jumped in the black water.’
While incarcerated, he found his way to poetry. From the first, he fused emotional intensity, linguistic acuity, and a sense of place, mapping a psychogeography in his verse. These qualities, among others, make Bob one of Australia’s greatest poets, “that rare instance of a poet who can touch all the world and yet stay particular, local to the body he’s been given in a literal time and place” (as Robert Creeley put it).
Fishes swimming through the Hawkesbury, and birds flying above it, set the rhythms of Bob’s life. They were extensions of his self, at once alien and familiar. Through his real and imaginative engagement with these creatures, he often explored the tension between freedom and captivity. In childhood, his love of birds led him to catch them, and his theft of a bird led to his own incarceration. Yet they remained for him ‘symbols of freedom’.
In a similar fashion, Bob would sometimes describe a deep ambivalence about fishing, in which getting close to the mauve-silver body of a mulloway involves killing it. As he writes in one of his greatest poems, ‘The Gathering Light’:
Time whistles around us, an invisible
flood tide that I let go
while I take in what I have done.
It wasn’t a fight, I was drawn to this moment.
The physical world drains away
into a golden calm.
The sun is a hole in the sky, a porthole—
you can see turbulence out there,
the old wheeling colours and their dark forces—
but here on the surface of the river
where I cradle the great fish in my arms
and smell its pungent death, a peace
I’ve never known before—a luminous absence
of time, pain, sex, thought, of everything
but the light.
The moment of the mulloway’s death is awful in the etymological sense of that word, full of awe. Such poems achieve a visionary intensity, outside of time.
Only much later would we realise that our jaunt in July would be Bob’s last fishing trip, his last time on the Hawkesbury, which had occupied so much of his life and imagination. In retrospect, it was a season of last things with him: a few days later, he would give his last poetry reading, at Brett Whiteley Studios in Surrey Hills. On that occasion, we launched his book Reaching Light: Selected Poems, and we held a public conversation. I asked him about the dark ambivalence that runs through the middle period of his work, evident in the very titles of books such as The Clean Dark and Black Water; and the turn to happiness in his later poems. He replied,
“I had some sorrow in my early years, and I had a lot of guilt. But then, as I wrote, I was writing that away. And then I got onto the Eurydice and Orpheus myth: I was imagining Eurydice going to Hell and then trying to get away, and Orpheus conning or charming the King of Hell, saying, ‘Let us go!’, and him replying, ‘Okay, as long as you don’t look back.’ That’s got so much in it . . . I was looking back, that’s all I was doing: I was just looking back all the time.
“By this stage I had met Juno, and one of the first things she said to me was, ‘Photography is an art form where you draw with light.’ I kept thinking of coming up from Hell, up from Hades, and seeing the sunlight and how terrible it would be for Eurydice to be thrown back down into Hell; and Orpheus then going into the sunlight and then having to pay the consequences, being torn apart by women and his head thrown into the river, decapitated and still singing. I kept thinking of this image, reaching light: what would happen if we both reached light? Of course, it wasn’t hard to write joyful poems, because we just get on so well, and we’re in love.”
Through August and September of last year, Bob and I were working on a final book, a selection of his prose on the natural world called Birds and Fish (forthcoming next year). Once Bob had been diagnosed with liver cancer, the project took on new urgency: doctors gave him only weeks to live. In December, I paid a last visit, with a rough manuscript for the book in my bag. When I arrived, Bob’s health was in a steep decline and he could barely walk. On December 13, Juno, John Griffith and I moved Bob into hospice at Neringah. He had the chills when we reached the facility, and joked, ‘I feel like I’m in Jerusalem Bay at half past six in the morning.’ Even after leaving the Hawkesbury, it still ran through his veins and metaphors.
The next day, we read through his manuscript, selecting some journal entries to include. After hours of talk — of sentences and paragraphs, cuckoos and bowerbirds, mulloway and garfish, the ‘shining incidents’ of his life — we left Bob lying in his bed, happy yet exhausted. He slipped into a long sleep, then passed away at 1 am on Friday, 16 December 2022.
His poems remain to keep us company, as the lasting trace of his voice and mind: as ‘Reaching Light’ reminds us, ‘Where was it we left from? / We say the journey’s up, but maybe // memory sinks deeper.’
Devin Johnston is an editor for Flood Editions and Literary Executor for Robert Adamson. His most recent book is Dragons: Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023).