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John Tranter: Reviewed

John Tranter: Popular Mysteries

David Carter reviews Selected Poems by John Tranter. Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1982. This review was first published in Scripsi vol 2 no 4 1984, pp117—22. Provenance: this text was scanned and edited from Scripsi by John Tranter, 2008.

“ It interrogates the Magian Heresy but at one further remove, finding the very symbolist paradox, and not merely its paradoxical goal, to be a seductive fraud (and yet still unavoidable, irresistible, as poetry keeps discovering itself). ”

paragraph 1

well, at forty, the pieces lie about
waiting to be picked up and puzzled over
and fitted into a pattern, after a fashion,
     one I’m not fond of —

John Tranter, ‘Having Completed my Fortieth Year’ (Meanjin 3/1983).


Publishing a Selected Poems might be a bit like turning forty. Suddenly, it seems, there’s a past which is yours and yet no longer yours, which is public and yet as intimate and strange as memory or dream. Like these other texts, perhaps, the poems are to be reclaimed, are acknowledged, edited, re-ordered, and then relinquished once more. Or in Tranter’s words, from the poem above:


Although art is, in the end, anonymous,
turning into history once it’s left the body,
surely some gadget in the poet’s head
     forces us to suffer

as we stumble through the psychology of it.


Indeed to ‘stumble’ through Tranter’s Selected Poems, following their music and their talk, is to stumble upon a disembodied art, and also upon a possible ‘psychology’, like ‘some gadget’ in the head, hidden in style yet nothing but style. To indicate this disembodiment and stylishness is to intimate the poetry’s ‘auto-mobility’ (stealing one of Tranter’s own favoured images, with its associations of speed and extravagant form). Auto-mobility can be taken to refer both to the poetry’s self-propulsion in language and to the ‘mobility’ of the self which it seems to carry, always present yet always out of reach:


The automobile is not suited to the rough
track across the dunes, and soon quits.
I ate fiercely at breakfast right there,
on the sand. The flanks of the automobile
shimmer with metallic heat and echo
when you bump them with your head.
I leaned against them while the stormy fish
gathered below the cliffs in a family

of light, as it was early for the season
to expand in bruised cloud and mottled rain
against the rock wall. I leaned against the rock
wall on my descent, and my thoughts were obscure
in that they shall not be told. I was not
suited to the dunes nor to the family.

Crying in Early Infancy, Sonnet 26.


This grave, ridiculous rhetoric is first arresting and then disconcerting, seeming at once rich and bleak, seductive and yet unyielding, its lines shimmering like the ‘flanks’ of an automobile and echoing when you bump them with your head. Here too, in the rhetoric, there is surface, and behind that, an echo. But the speaker remains obscure as does the logic of ‘his’ speech (and its unspoken meaning): we are told only that we shall not be told. And the conclusion of the poem is rather a displacement, a further movement and a further surface.


The poems are often both attractive in their eloquence and forbidding, seeming to advertise but then to withhold, to deny or avoid, significance. But the ‘problem’ of the poetry, or, if you like, its virtue, is not that it is non-referential, nor that it is only and endlessly self-referential, but rather that it is over-referential. This is the paradox of a ‘disembodied’ art, an art of sheer style and ‘mere’ surfaces. Rather than absence there is an abundance, an excess, or, in different terms, what looks like an over-determination of its symbols.


The characteristic dislocations and elisions of reference, of context, produce a text which seems to encode only another code, in a circle rather than a hierarchy of possible interpretative moorings. In this process the ‘self’ which is inevitably hypothesised as the concealed, ultimate source of meaning in the poetry is itself scrambled, folded back into mere surface. As signifieds seem to slide beneath signifiers so the self, any self which the poetry appears to uphold, is divided and dispersed, found everywhere and nowhere, like ‘style’ itself. Nevertheless, a hypothetical unconscious persists, felt in the process of reading as that which is resisted, displaced and over-laid. To say this is not to suggest surrealism, directly, nor confessionalism (obviously), but to say something about the poetry’s rhetoric. Nor does it raise the spectre of incoherence — on the contrary it marks out the modulations or disruptions of surface and the repetitions in reference and ‘tone’ which hold in suspension the elements of a coherent reading.


In the circle of possible contexts or interpretative moorings there is another circle of recurrent images: in any order, following one possible sequence of associations, fast cars and flash (or desperate) living, B-grade movies, B-grade love-affairs, bars, drugs, the forties and the fifties, McCarthyism, revolution, war (war movies), weapons, aeroplanes, travel (Bali, South America, Europe)… and Poetry.


From such a sequence, you might say the poetry represents the modern-day Wanderer as Tourist, dis-located but appropriative as ‘he’ travels through History and Culture, a sort of self-consuming consumer, finding perhaps that the only alternative to jet-lag is to keep moving, to stay airborne. This chain of images, severed from any certain context, or rather, scrambled in manifold contexts, circumscribes the poetry’s persistent, narrow range of sensation and connotation. Again and again the poems circle around the comedy or less-than-comedy of style and surface, of gesture and gimmickry, of fraudulence, duplicity, betrayal and anxiety, of restlessness, endless movement and repeated departures, of repetition itself:


It is heavy with the breath of bad images
it is more than you deserve it is easy
like a news lesson in Portuguese it has
a taste for racing alcohol and other
delicacies how lucky you are how lucky
or maybe it reads how disreputable and diseased
it is easy to read like a polka dot it is
madly in love like a silly kid good night

it cries and wastes away utterly
so trendy so paranoid and so infected
you are already sketching its obituary!
so remorseful so immense so damn evasive
while deep in the Mango Trench a team of anarchists
and so on how I love you how political

Crying in Early Infancy, Sonnet 3.


These recurrent images and sensations point, in one direction, to the illusoriness, the false promise, the emptiness of poetry (or Poetry or ‘the Poem’). This is also to suggest why, for Tranter, poetry might be like advertising, fashion, politics, love, technology, a new theory, a bad movie, a fast car or money (‘Money is a kind of poetry’). The language of poetry claims, or promises, everything beyond itself — as reflection, essence, embodiment or paradigm. Against which, poetry might, after all, resemble and represent nothing but itself. So poetry is the purest fraud — it is both fraudulent (‘its silly promises of beauty’) and pure (being the sheerest or merest style and gesture). Poetry then is the most conspicuous ‘subject’, the subject most interrogated and also the most blasphemed. Yet it remains virtuous or maybe innocent, inhabiting the realm of the ‘purely’ symbolic, before or beyond the ambitions of culture and subjectivity. But of course the symbolic is also the ‘fall’ of language into culture, the very fall which Tranter’s poems enact, indeed over-act and hence subvert, swamping the reader with signs and sinking or floating out-of-reach of any saving hierarchy of language and experience.


So while the poems can be solemn about poetry, or desperate and self-destructive in their resistance to solemnity, they are more often mocking or funny about language and its adventures in the world. Beyond the comedy of social gesture and beyond Tranter’s sardonic grin (or grimace) lies the comedy of representation: of the gap between language and the world. The poetry discovers a world soaked in language yet always beyond language, and a language replete with the world, with cultural and historical signals, which nevertheless keeps discovering itself as difference and distance. It must always hold the promise of an end or at least a logic of interpretation. The encircled subject might be Poetry, a particular social or cultural site, or the half-buried psyche (with the subject partly displaced, in each case, into the language of the other two). But again, this is to end up once more in the realm of language, to end up, that is, with further interpretation. This is the source of the poetry’s comic, often manic energy, of its ‘auto-mobility’. Maybe, the joke is not that there is something behind the language which fails or refuses to emerge, but that there is nothing behind it — so the poems are radically unstable (even as they are repetitive), their surfaces awash with signs and ‘subjects’:


One, they’re spooking, two, they’re opening letters,
three, there’s a body at the bottom of the pool
labelled ‘Comrade X’, and you’ve been asked to
speak up truthfully or not at all. It’s like Einstein
lolling on the lawn — somebody gave him the telescope,
he wouldn’t ‘buy’ one — and our investigator has him
trapped in the viewfinder. Albert! Tell us everything!
We won’t blame you for the Atom Bomb! After all,
you’re dead! Four, cancel the code and burn the cipher.
It’s no laughing matter when the shit hits the fan —
why are you grinning like that? Are you now
or have you ever been a woman? That’s a tricky one,

                    … You make a movie,
I’ll write the dialogue: One, we’re laughing,
two, we’re breaking rules — I’m finished, you’re
dead, and as the cipher smoulders on the lawn
a cold glow rises from the bottom of the tank:
our Leader starts to speak, and so will you.

‘The Un-American Women’.


Leaving aside the advertisements and the politics of poetics, the process of reading I’ve argued above can also be used to define the disturbances which Tranter’s poetry effects on the Map of Australian Verse, as an anti-romantic, anti-iconic, anti-reflectionist ‘intervention’. Such a description as I’ve given might not represent an account of the whole of any particular poem which Tranter has written, though it might, instead, provide a partial account of the Poem he’s been writing all along. His peculiar quality of nihilism and yet abundance (over-abundance) is not evenly present, not prompted with the same insistence or complication in all the poems. Nor does it necessarily guarantee interesting or memorable poems (nor well-made or revolutionary poems). Nevertheless the cultural and poetic strategies I’ve described can be extrapolated from, or read back into, all the work, and they are present, always at a high level of activity, in the funniest and the most serious poems, those eloquent and evasive, entangling and self-consuming artifacts which make up the large centre of the Selected Poems. This centre stretches from at least Red Movie — a sort of prelude or rehearsal for the poems that follow, its gaps and silences marking out the ground of the later poems’ rhetorical excess (it ends, ‘if you are ready / we can begin’); then there is the series of long poems or sequences, Cheap Thrills, The Poem in Love and, as possible multiple climaxes, The Alphabet Murders and the sonnets of Crying in Early Infancy. Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy might be seen, in this light, as a review or retrospective, though it is also the (re)discovery of a problematic which refuses to go away (an introductory note says that the poem was begun in the early seventies and finished nearly a decade later). This bleak if jokey poem cuts away relentlessly at its own foundations, its own progenitors, consigning itself to ‘unforgiving darkness’. It interrogates the Magian Heresy but at one further remove, finding the very symbolist paradox, and not merely its paradoxical goal, to be a seductive fraud (and yet still unavoidable, irresistible, as poetry keeps discovering itself). Radio Traffic and some of the other poems from Dazed in the Ladies Lounge and beyond, like ‘The Un-American Women’, show a new attraction to ‘specific’ social or cultural sites and a dazzling fluency and irreverence in their misappropriations, released, it appears, by the arguments with Poetry fought through in some of the earlier work:


You need the money — your way of thinking’s
going out of fashion, and you’re growing old.
You need the make-up, and you need
the wake-up pills before the bombing run;
the flak is active tonight, you need
a glass of something sparkling and a deep
breath before you’re ready for the fray.

On your way to the affair in the back seat
of a taxi you catch a face in the mirror —
bandages and a black eye, is that really
you? It’s not Humphrey Bogart — you
should have gone to Acapulco like
mother said, but no, you had to take
the youth cure, then the bandage
loops across the screen spelling out
‘Mad Dog’ and you guess it’s true…

‘Leavis at the London’.


As this suggests, the images which repeat throughout the poetry, and are significantly present in these later poems, have a history as well as a recurrence. The early poems are made of images of disorientation, alienation and despair, but images which seem to be moving away from, rather than towards, any immediate social or psychological event — moving away from empathy, perhaps, in search of a type of meta-language, the ‘new alphabet soup’ prepared in Red Movie and brought to the boil in Crying in Early Infancy.


On the other hand some of the latest poems seem to leave these glittering prizes behind, turning, but partly re-turning, to the representation of a ‘slice-of-life’ or a brief dip inside character (‘The Letter’, ‘The Water’, ‘Butterfly’). Perhaps this represents an attempt at sentiment, a search for a kind of ‘breakthrough’ that the premises of the earlier poems seem to deny or resist. But these too are odd and disconcerting poems, once again strangely bleak and self-alienating, having less to do with empathy than displacement, and with an eloquence which stays apart from its subject conjuring absence rather than presence. The sentiment can even seem mawkish except that it is also somehow beside the point.


Whether by expansion or concentration, then, the later poems continue to be sceptical about, to subvert, the claims of subjectivity, cognition, relationship and representation — producing that kind of anti-art which demands to be taken as Art and yet which never ceases to mock or dismay such a perception of its own status. One of the curious things about Tranter’s chronologically-arranged Selected Poems is that the poem which most resembles the first in the selection (The Moment of Waking’) is, it seems to me, the very last (The Popular Mysteries’). The first starts off from the terrors and the sense of loss in waking to consciousness (‘She remarks how the style of a whole age / disappears into your gaze, at the moment / of waking’), the last slows down to a state somewhere between dreaming and oblivion, remembering and forgetting. In both cases though we find a technique for dissolving the self and a language which destabilizes, furtively or with bravado, all that it appears to claim to establish:


a fine glow lights up
your lazy limbs and the nerves
drop away. Behind the blue horizon
a boat disappears, popular mysteries
begin. Your lips fade. You’re
asleep, and thoroughly happy.

‘The Popular Mysteries’


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