Craftsman House

The Language of Oysters, Robert Adamson & Juno Gemes
(Craftsman House, Sydney, 1997. Distributed worldwide by G+B Arts International)
Robert Adamson has a line out and it catches the American poetic as well as a deep-seated Australian sense of place, his being the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney and the historical as well as pre-historical traces of all beings-there. So he can imagine Charles Olson sitting "back in his oyster-shed / working with words, 'mostly in a great / sweat of being, seeking to bind in speed'-// looked at his sheaf of pages, each word / an oyster, culled from the fattening grounds / of talk." And he can write, himself, from a patent loyalty to his own and his river's past, a poetry that culls a wide range of speech and knowledge into a cohesive work. This gathering of poems from many of his previous books coheres wonderfully to produce a unique sense of the life of a river in all its seasons.
Of course, simply as a book any bibliophile would love, this gorgeous collaborative effort between poet Adamson and photographer Gemes is a stunning achievement. Gemes's black&white photographs of the river, its many moods and people, are generous examples of the art. An other kind of writing, they join with Adamson's poems to reveal (and re-veil) the life of the river. As John Kinsella points out in an illuminating Introduction, "a photograph will only be art if it is not lost to reminiscence, to the past. . . . The photographs, like the poems, project." As a collaboration, The Language of Oysters is projective, and readers/viewers are invited to participate.
Adamson's poems follow a trajectory from early minimalist perceptions to a rich and complex recognition of how much all this nature is only to be perceived through the eyes of culture, an enduring fascination with and commitment to writing this place never the same twice (which is why collecting poems from all phases of his career makes perfect sense). A few new poems speak directly to his collaboration with Gemes in precisely these terms, graphing river and language and vision onto one another: "The turning moon is / up-ended. setting on the silver / gelatin page." That "Owls shuffle their silent wings // and dissolve in the fixer: / shape words over what you see" is the burden of his self-effacing song. "You" are drawn in, by the glowing photographs, the glowing words. "I" doesn't quite disappear, but it is not granted too much lyric control. It's not just an accident that Adamson is responsible for bringing Robert Duncan to Australia, and has had to do with visits by John Ashbery and many others. I consider him one of the most important contemporary poets in that country, and a figure deserving of much wider recognition beyond its borders. A perfect introduction to his work, The Language of Oysters also offers some of the finest work of a major photographer, known in Europe, Britain, as well as Australia, but not in the US. This is a beautiful book, in all senses of the term.
-Douglas Barbour