Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit.
Afloat in Light by David Adès is, as its title suggests, circadian: like a field of sunflowers, the lines of poetry face towards the light but are anchored firmly in the soil. At times, this is the parched dirt of the desert as in “Between Us” (45-48) which celebrates the sacred beauty of the dry interior of Australia; at others, it is the mud remembered from childhood as both wondrous artistic medium and wonderful plaything. Such imagery is foreshadowed in the opening line of the collection: “There was childhood: wispy residence of dreams, / of imagination, of possibility” (“We Are Fallen” 11).
For Adès, childhood symbolises potential, dream, and hope. It is both a major theme and a much-repeated motif with imagery of infancy appearing in a number of poems that are about subjects other than children. Adès has a formidable gift for creating exquisite imagery which is evident across this collection but his craft is at its keenest when he writes of familial relationships. Several of the poems are dedicated to his daughters; still others explore the father-son relationship including the achingly-expressive “Va, Mon Enfant” (81-84) and the startling, brilliant “Synopsis of a Story in Three Generations” (108-109), both of which engage movingly with the loss of his father, and the eloquent, empathic “I Wish You Long Life” (58-61): a poem which manages to be lovely, lyrical, and lilting in its cadences even as it is addressed to a man who is grieving for the premature death of his son.
“A Line in the Sand” features the motif of childhood although it is not primarily concerned with children. The poem depicts reciprocal erotic love as a conjoining of two individuals that becomes a threat to selfhood but which is entered into with the innocence of a child enjoying a game: “What did I know of consequences? / The game delighted, so I played / like a child, heedless, unaware of the migration of senses” (12). Once the speaker’s “eyes, translating the world,” have “drifted into yours, layering sight, / mirror-mazing perception” (12), lover and beloved become one so that pronouns drift from “our” to “my” to “our” to “your” to “us.” This drifting is evident in the following dazzling image: “With our left / hand I reached up to drape a fine / cirrus sky shawl across my shoulders. / With our right, I stroked the wind” (12). Finally, as the lovers merge, the speaker asks, “Where did I stop and you begin” (12)? The two negotiate the world through further childish metaphors: “we cupped trust in our hands / and made-believe” (13) but, once that trust is betrayed, the speaker “raise[s] a fence” so that “I could touch your cheek and know / that it was yours; so that I could be / outside the tears in your eyes” (15). A baby trusts; adults build fences.
Indeed, more barriers like this fence appear in the sequence as the speaker either erects them or faces them as obstacles in his journey to reclaim his identity. An instance of border-crossing occurs when the speaker must negotiate the boundary between child and adult as he comes to raise his own children. In “The Bridge I Must Walk Across,” the seemingly-final completion of selfhood that he had established along with his fence disintegrates once more as he finds himself trapped in his interiority: “Stuck inside my skin — / unable to shed it, unable to grow another” (22). He loses himself on a bridge, stranded “between the man I have been / and the man I must become” (22) and realises, at the very conclusion of the poem, that “I am becoming a stranger inside my skin, / my children becoming / the bridge I must walk across” (23).
Then, in “Rift,” an uncrossable river separates him from his beloved (24-25), before he is dragged upwards in “The Burden of Wings” (26-27) to watch “the sky fall” and himself “dismantled” as he tries in vain “to prop up the sky / let the light back in” (27). Light thus signifies self-containment and interdependence. All life needs light to flourish and so light is conflated with that other life-sustaining force, precipitation, in the following lines from “Moments of Sunlight”:
A rain of light falls
upon dripping ferns
This image is elegant in its simplicity and earthly in its eloquence as the poet unites soil, rain, and light with a spiritual realm of blessing.
As the title suggests, light is a significant motif in this collection from “the dancing light behind eyes” (“The Requirement” 39) to “I love / the play of light / in your eyes” (“Moments of Sunlight” 66) to the light emitted by “a field of candles in the night” (“Fault Line” 35) to the light behind the retinas of the children who clamour for help from behind detention-centre fences (“In the Land of Maybe” 29-34). In this last poem, all of the seemingly disparate recurring images — light, child, boundary, eyes, fields — come together in the line: “the children’s eyes are fallow fields” (31). Eyes reveal emotions, of course, and the “fallow fields” of the detained children’s eyes must rip apart the feelings of a father when he compares them with his own children’s eyes.
Eyes also symbolise perception and identity, with the latter being repeatedly reduced to shards and then rebuilt in these poems. The main way in which ipseity is reestablished is through the bond that grows between the speaker and his children and he eventually realises and accepts that identity is forever in motion, forever becoming, which is evident when he observes: “I am still arriving / into my daughters’ eyes” (“Synopsis of a Story in Three Generations” 108). Astutely, he remarks: “In between the routines we make / is a background flux / unsettling all the settling” (109).
And this might be an apt alternative title for this collection, “unsettling all the settling,” in that, like most gifted poets, Adès disrupts our easy status quo. Yet, he does so in a way that is subtle and delicate. He does not feel the need to curse, flame, or employ shocking images in his work in order to unsettle the reader. Instead, he disturbs us gently but firmly, like the gully winds that ruffle trees and send flurries of lorikeets skywards in his hometown of Adelaide. The breeze brings change: a force neither good nor evil but which, depending on human reactions and interactions, may be used for moral purposes. These are moral poems indeed but far from didactic. Adès has created a light-filled collection of poetry that is almost mystically contemplative but also wholly committed to the terrestrial and the corporeal; he writes compassionately and passionately about human experiences. This work feels like a culmination of great wisdom which in itself is enough to make it precious: that this wisdom is expressed so lyrically and with such originality renders Adès’s poetry rare. It both demands and rewards repeated reading.