September 2020

Back to Issue 8

A Synonym for Sobriety

By Ben Adams

Friendly Street Poets, 2019                                  
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit

Ben Adams’ “a synonym for sobriety” is a recent offering from Friendly Street Poets, who have been enlivening the Adelaide poetry scene since 1975, making them Australia’s longest running community open mic, poetry reading, and publishing group.

Adams’ poetry is the real deal. He has been published widely online, mostly smaller zines, and he deserves wider recognition for his lively imagery. Each poem in this collection offers a glimpse into an individual’s experience in a different time and place: evidence of what Adams calls “a fragmented world” in “the fractured ones” (51-56) or “a world / slowly / falling apart” in “poems about Ezra” (46-47). And yet these poems, in their variety, cohere. This is due in part to Adams’ pared-back use of punctuation – saving an occasional dash, question mark, or quoted exclamation mark, this collection is unpunctuated and uncapitalised except for proper names. This is a deft touch which lends an anecdotal quality to the poetry.

There are so many exquisite moments and memories in these vignette-like poems. “Roman sky” (4-5) opens boldly with the epigram “youth is an empire braced / against the invasion of years” (4) and ends with this striking image:

and the sky above

like Rome itself

a canvas of splendid

familiarity hung

above the burning wind. (5)

The metaphor of the end of empire is extended cleverly throughout the poem, with the observations that “speed-limits shimmer / on the roadside / encircled outposts of control” (4) and “stone cottage walls / are frontier ruins” (4). Such poems are workings-out of experience, monologues in which the speaker comes to grips with a dilemma or vexing question.

Then there are the dialogues. The poem “black holes and rubber bands” (36-37) is elegant and understated. It opens with the lovely lines “slow moving nights / pull stories from the sky” (36). The speaker reveals to the addressee that his greatest fear is being sucked into a black hole. Her response is gemlike in its simple truth: “you tell me yours is more the everyday / layers of experience pulled tight // around each other like a bundle / of rubber bands” (37). The poem ends with a glimpse into the sublime: “the stars we see,” he says, are “echoes of suns / the meaning of things // stretched to breaking / the ghosts of galaxies // a billion years between / each one” (37). The personal, the abstract, and the existential are poised and pitched perfectly in this poem.

In many of these poems, the speaker tends to pick up “signals of a society” that he feels is “absurd” (“Salamanca” 13-15). Thus, the fear of being swallowed up in the sheer teeming masses of the planet and the anxiety caused by the speed of time’s passing are captured in “like cicadas” (6-7). Adams sends image after image crashing into the reader’s mind’s eye to replicate the assault to the senses that is a panic attack:

the world spins like

a fractured disco ball

noise screeching through

the room

like a wounded jackal

like madness

and military footsteps pound the


like falling pianos

cannon fire. (6)

Faced with such relentless battering on the fragile shields protecting ourselves, we clutch at straws and “cling to sanity” (7) to try to find false meaning in the ceaseless cacophony: “anything but the / buzzing of the abstract masses like / cicadas” (7).

However, Adams’ work is not all angst, malaise, and ennui. The occasional arrow of wit is aimed true. In “jungle cat” (8-9), the speaker confesses to having borrowed five books of poetry from the university library and finding in them “nothing but / landscaped academia: the Gordian lines // of creative writing professors who / squeeze Conrad’s dark wilderness / into middle class backyards” (8). Not for Adams the Gordian knots of circumlocution and obscure diction and vocabulary. His work uses humble materials to craft poetry that is less cerebral than corporeal and all the more intelligent for that.

In fact, the best metaphor to describe Adams’ predominant poetic voice and style is provided in one of his own poems, “the unmade sky” (73-74), which begins with:

these words

touch on something lightly

like a feather drawn

through tall, dry grass. (73)

Adams does indeed have a light touch. So much poetry of worth nowadays is voiced from the margins, and rightly so. Yet, Adams writes from the centre of the blast, his words venturing out to the fringes of a decaying empire, but always circling back, worrying at the core of existence.

Moreover, Adams’ poetry is eminently enjoyable to read. Certainly, there is a place for the difficult and the challenging, but there must also be a place for the sort of simultaneously readerly and writerly poetry that Adams writes. This poetry is writerly in that it is evocative of a moment that is highly personal. Yet it is also readerly as it is specific in detail, making the scenes easy to envisage. Adams is kind to his reader, and yet this is far from the patronising passion pop of Rupi Kaur. Adams writes to the reader as a fellow poet or, if not, at least as a fellow thinker. This collection is further proof that the Australian poetry scene is thriving even in the wake of extensive funding cuts. Vital new voices are appearing and that is something to be celebrated.