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John Tranter: Reviewed

David Brooks reviews Dazed in the Ladies Lounge by John Tranter

John Tranter, Dazed in the Ladies Lounge, Island Press, Sydney, 1979.
Reviewed by David Brooks for the Canberra Times, 26 December 1981.
This piece is 760 words or about two and a half printed pages long.

“ poem after poem, the poet distances himself from the hosts of Lotus-eaters amongst which he himself once feasted. ”

Parallax, The Blast Area, The Alphabet Murders, Crying in Early Infancy — as the titles alone of his previous collections of poetry might suggest, John Tranter has often seemed in the past an impressionist rather than a creator/ imaginer, a relatively passive recorder of contemporary culture-shock rather than one who, in Ezra Pound’s words, “organises that portion of the life force which flows through him”.
     The title of his new collection might lead us to expect more of the same. Not so. True, it refers to his own condition as had the previous titles. But this condition is past or passing. He is now struggling to transcend it in a manner which, because so many people are subject to that condition, is valuable in a way in which his earlier volumes were not.

Cover of Dazed in the Ladies Lounge

Much of Dazed in the Ladies Lounge is intellectual autobiography recording, with a candour, self-awareness and complex lyricism that must now involve many who have hitherto had little time for this man’s work, one man’s passage past some of the most alluring philosophic and poetic Sirens of his time.
     The book is an extended elegy, and in such poems as ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’, ‘Leavis at the London’, ‘Roland Barthes at the Poets’ Ball’ and ‘Enzensberger at “Exiles” ‘ contains some of the best work published in Australia in the last half-decade.
     At a time when the loose, surrealistic associations of his previous poetry, its exploitation of numerous verbal and syntactic ambiguities as devices by means of which it might become self-generative, and its concomitant denials of discourse to its readers, could be accused of having erected an almost-impermeable barrier between this poet and his world, Tranter has shown himself to be several steps ahead of his severest critics, and as of a class apart.
     At a time when Tranter might have been thought, in his love-affair with the deceptiveness of the tongue, and in his assertion of a ‘pure’ poetry harder and more bitter than Mallarmé’s, to revel in, rather than to search for solutions to, the crisis of language — the divorce of words from their things — Tranter is found identifying and rejecting the causes of the breakdown, found ‘thinking of “falling in love” ‘ with something far greater than his past Existentialism, his past Structuralist mistresses.
     Just what he thinks of loving is not specific. The book is the foreshadow of the thing, rather than the thing itself, and in this respect Tranter remains a master of moods rather than of methods. But intimations of this would-be paramour can be found, I think, in the Rimbaud poem (a remarkable piece; its inability to commit itself to its title surely a step forward), in the elegies to Barthes, Leavis, et al., and in the manner in which, in poem after poem, the poet distances himself from the hosts of Lotus-eaters amongst which he himself once feasted.

He may be kidding himself — the affectations of the younger Tranter are still evident in the techniques and ‘subjects’ of ‘Radio Traffic 1–4’ and other poems — but the will is there, and the mere fact that his poignant elegies for lost, discarded or transcended mentors come across as clearly as they do both confirms that very jettison or transcendence, and attests a preoccupation now more with the message than, as of old, with imitation of the static which prevents it.
     Tranter has been lyrical and elegiac before. He was very much so in Crying in Early Infancy. But there the emotions were disembodied, without clear referents.
     In Dazed they are almost enacted, and the impressive care and erudition with which they are presented is cohesive and often forms a readable and persuasive discourse. These poems can and must be read for far more than their mood and texture. The poet has become in this way generous, and more useful to us.
     From a small press, and in an edition of only 500 copies the book points up something of a crisis in Australian poetry publishing which I haven’t here the space to go into.
     The best work to date from a poet considered one of the finest of his generation in Australia, and a book demanding the reconsideration of all of Tranter’s earlier poetry, Dazed in the Ladies Lounge is a must not only for the serious reader of poetry, but for all who, trendy or otherwise, are trying to drag their heads into the ’80s.

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