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John Tranter: Reviewed

Andrew Taylor: Resisting the Mad Professor:

Narrative and Metaphor in the Poetry of John Tranter

First published in the Journal of Narrative Technique 21.1, USA, Winter 1991: 14–23.
This piece is 4,514 words or about thirteen printed pages long.

In an essay on John Tranter in Australian Literary Studies (endnote 1) titled “Tranter’s Plots,” Kate Lilley notes that “It is not details or stories for their own sake which engage Tranter, but the process of story-telling and registering and representing, as they intersect with the imminent histories of words, things, forms, places and people” (47). By “stories for their own sake” I take it that Lilley means that effect of a more or less coherent sequence of events involving one or more subjects which narrative frequently generates in such a way as to make it appear to exist somehow prior to the narrative act. Instead, Lilley writes,

Through condensed and fragmentary narrative, snatches of local dialogue and local detail, Tranter explores the layering of perception and the ability of language to render that density more fluidly than film, revealing the contiguity of the real, the imaginary and the representational . . .

While placing proper weight on the comic aspect of much of the poetry, Lilley also lays stress on the poet’s “fear of his own contingency” (49) in such a shifting, almost kaleidoscopic “layering of perception.”
     I would be wary of making any claims to what “the poet” fears or does not fear, particularly with regard to a poet whose poetry presents such a slippery, almost elusive, surface as John Tranter’s. In fact, in an earlier essay on his poetry in my book Reading Australian Poetry (endnote 2) I argue that what characterises much of it is a sense of the subject as absent or out of sight, revealing itself only as a style of remaining invisible within a multitudinous flux of cultural and historical roles and codes (165 & 168). Lilley’s perception that this does not result in a poetics of impersonality, but rather in the subject remaining perceptible as “a stain or colour or shadow” (43), is not incompatible with this. What she designates by stain, I call style. In either case we have the trace of desire propelling the language on its perilous journey across the uneven and at times perilous terrain of modern urban life, postponing by its numerous strategies the silence which awaits it at the end of each poem.
     My trope of the journey brings us back to narrative, as journeys of one kind or another — most typically by fast car or aircraft — figure in many of Tranter’s poems. One such poem, from Tranter’s most recent collection Under Berlin (endnote 3) is “Lufthansa” (46), and I have discussed it in some detail in my earlier essay. Briefly, all that needs to be stressed here is that the subject of the poem, aboard a Lufthansa flight over the Alps, and marvelling at the self-control of the air hostess “as the plane / drops a hundred feet,” asks himself “what is this truth that holds the grey / shaking metal whole while we believe in it?” The answer to this question seems to be that there is in fact no metaphysical “truth,” such as might once have been believed to underly and ground Humanism, holding things together, but only skill and self-control informed with desire. Humanism, it appears, defeated “the doubts of an epoch” by this mixture of “desire and function” which, in the hands of a Dürer, could transcend “Technical Drawing” while simulating, though remaining short of, the metaphysical status of a truth. It is the same quality of skill and control, “an acute feeling of precision,” and which lifts the plane to safety, which enables the journey to continue on its way. The poem remains ungrounded in any “truth,” just as the plane is still in the air, and the journey still continuing, at the poem’s close.
     This combination of skill and journey appears in another short poem from Under Berlin which is representative of much that has come before. I shall discuss only Part I of “On Looking into the American Anthology” which is in two parts, because Part 2 in no way affects what I have to say of the first part.

In California a young man is stuffing a briefcase —
first a jug of light, the words ‘water’
and ‘stone’, a blurred image of a guy in a pickup
     truck with a gun

staring through the hush-squeak, hush-squeak
of the wipers, a frail woman, crying. A leaf, a sob,
a clod of mud. There! His class awaits the real,
     the Deep and Meaningful.

Driving downtown he sees a pair of jugglers
inch up the face of a glass cathedral full of
marriages, mirrored in the noon glare, one on top,
     and then his double.

The neon signs in the suburbs full of graves say
“Giants Drank and Died Here”. Autos, rusting trucks,
police helicopters roam restlessly, their motto: Do it
     First, and Do it Fast.

The motor vehicle (this time a pickup truck rather than the more frequent fast car), the planes (this time police helicopters rather than jet fighters or an airliner), the gun and the sense of threat — these are all common elements in Tranter’s poetry. They signify change, or the desire for change: transition from one place to another being a trope for transition from one state to another. Such a transition occurs in time, and the narrative line is its trajectory. The line, however, characteristically reveals gaps or undecideable choices of direction, and one kind of reading would tend towards minimising these in order that the reading process could be completed. This kind of reading is what Tranter calls, in another poem, “the mad professor’s method” (54).
     If this were our intent, then we could say that the poem narrates the journey of a young man — probably a teacher of creative writing or of literature — from the time he packs his briefcase at home to somewhere on the way to the college where “His class” is waiting for him. Our clues to this reading are, first, the words “American Anthology” of the title, the references to the briefcase and the class, and the class’s expectation of “the Deep and Meaningful.” Such a reading, however, accounts for only part of the poem or, at least, does not satisfactorily account for the embedded narrative fragment of the “guy in a pickup”, nor for the order of the remaining two stanzas. At the end of the poem, the journey is incomplete, the narrative suspended somewhere between the young man’s home and the class which awaits him, between his (and its) point of departure and our own expectation of the “Meaningful.”
     One noticeable feature of the poem’s first two stanzas is the prominence of metonymy. In the popular imagination, California and light are almost synonymous; light, water and stone are traditional companions; water leads to the “blurred image” of the man “staring through the hush-squeak, hush-squeak / of the wipers,” to the woman crying, the “sob” and the “mud.” The image of the “guy in a pickup” also relates metonymically to the young man who, in the third stanza, is “driving downtown.” If the dominant agent of metonymy in the first half of the poem is water, in the second it is light. The “noon glare” is “mirrored,” and is replaced by the “neon signs in the suburbs.” Also, one could claim that the third and fourth stanzas relate metonymically to the first two in that they indicate what the young man observes during his journey along, let us say, a Californian freeway. None the less, whereas the progression of the first two stanzas is one along a metonymic chain of contiguity, the effect of the last two stanzas is very different. Instead, they seem to provide a series of alternatives, and provoke a metaphoric or at least an allegorical reading which can be approached in terms of speed.
     At one extreme are the dead in their graves, the “Giants [who] Drank and Died Here” proclaimed by the neon signs — presumably those advertising beer in suburban bars. At the other are the restless police helicopters with their ruthless and lethal motto. In between are that “pair of jugglers / [who] inch up the face of a glass cathedral.” Just who, or what, are these? The glass cathedral, one imagines, is a modern apartment building dedicated to the glorification of holy matrimony. But who the jugglers are, or even how many of them there are, is not so easy to determine. They could be window cleaners, winching their way up the building. Or they could be, conceivably, those daring adventurers one finds in the USA who take pleasure in climbing unaided, or only with rock-climbing gear, up the face of large buildings. And there could be, of course, only one — the “pair” being provided by the reflection in the building’s glass. Whoever they are, their designation as “jugglers”, consciously defying both gravity and even, perhaps, their own death, marks them in contrast to the dead “Giants” and the ruthless police. They recall the patient skill of the air crew which, in “Lufthansa,” is seen as that which defies and, in the long run, overcomes the danger and contingency of life.
     Compiling a reading of “On Looking into the American Anthology,” therefore, one would want to say something like this. The poem presents a series of images which, taken together, comprise a montage of American life and culture. Those of the first two stanzas are taken from culture itself — from literature and the movies or television — and form a metonymic chain. The metonymic drive of the poem continues in the next two stanzas, where the young man is, literally, “driving downtown.” But what results is a series of sharply contrastive alternatives whose necessarily abrupt juxtaposition disrupts the narrative continuity of the poem and the sense of contiguity which had hitherto characterised it, sowing it with uncertainties. Yet one of these alternatives proves to be a metaphor for precisely the kind of activity which is an antidote — even if not a total cure — for mere contingency and its attendant meaninglessness. A narrative of metonymic contiguity founders, it seems, at the point at which the capacity to sustain, control and make coherent is metaphorically asserted.
     In a long and affectionate tribute to the movies entitled “Those Gods Made Permanent” (51) we are told that

...we find the plot folding up like a robot
and stumbling off in the wrong direction
too abruptly for us to get our bearings.
Is this all the reward we are offered
for our painstaking attention, for the strain
of our emotional investment? What we asked for
led to nothing, what we didn’t want to see
was made plain.

Just such a narrative waywardness, it should be clear, is the hallmark of many of Tranter’s poems. They are in no small measure similar to the cinema. They are often highly visual, cut rapidly from scene to scene or image to image, and are often filled with fragments of what could be dialogue. As in the second half of “On Looking into the American Anthology, I,” they advance by abrupt juxtaposition, rather than by measured or meditative linear progression. A more detailed picture of how a plot is constructed and interpreted is given us later in “Those Gods Made Permanent:”

And so the scenes unravel as they
must do, some long, some so brief
a glimpse encompasses them, and the story
constructs itself by stacking up
one incident against another,
the agile puppets clashing together
and interacting with these two-dimensional
representations of a bank, a bottle shop,
a clock, a loaded gun, and out of this
tangle of particulars rendered by a camera
the optic nerves fake a kind of motion —
and you supply an ending and a moral scaffolding
that locks the plot together in your brain.
But that’s the mad professor’s method
of looking at things — the obsessive neatness
gives it away.    

It is Tranter’s rejection of “the mad professor’s method” of imposing closure and “a moral scaffolding” or moral purpose upon his art that enables it to evade the “obsessive neatness” of more conventional poetry. The result, however, is frequently — but not always — a plot which is not locked together, one in which the slippages, incoherences and sudden substitutions play a vital part. Only by close attention to them can we realise that “what we didn’t want to see / was made plain.”
     One such poem is “Shadow Detail” (47). Long as it is, it needs to be quoted in full:

You press the bakelite button, and wait,
and wait. Presently the lift rattles
down to the ground floor, and the attendant
passes you something through the brass grille.

The chlorine sifts down through the water,
turning pastel blue. That woman floating
fifteen feet above the floor of the pool —
she’s taking medication for weight loss,
a cheapskate pharmaceutical that stretches
and compresses the day until it disappears
into the hot white dot in the centre
of the screen. The thin man in the
viewfinder acts like an instructor —
‘This is the patented exposure guide;
snap it open and look at the sunlight.’
Overhead a bumpy plane — a two-tablet bomber,
the man calls it, shading his eyes from the late
afternoon glare — laboriously scrawls a message
on the haze that tints the sky pink.

At last it’s evening, and a chill breeze touches
the lawn. Now they’re all staring at something
resting on the bottom of the pool. At least,
that’s the way you read this photograph.
The shadow detail builds up, telling us
about their hair, the boy’s dark tweed jacket,
pointing out details, the texture in the
broad masses. And the ancient lift creaks up
to its cage at the top of the building,
a cage the wind visits and teases.

The mad professor would have a hard time recuperating all the wayward parts of this poem into the neatness of a coherent narrative. Such a reading would need to be remorselessly interpretative and would, in the end, have little to say about the intriguing disjointedness which it would be its aim to read out of existence. None the less, one must not overlook the hints or lures of coherence which the poem offers.
     First, the poem obeys one, and possibly two, of the three unities. It appears to take place within the course of a single day, with a clear progression from the brightness of a hot day to the shadow and chill breeze of evening. Also, it is possible that the events of the poem all take place in the one setting: perhaps a large and old house or apartment block with a (remarkably deep) swimming pool. (Of course, in the long run the whole poem takes place within a textual space, but that is not the kind of unity I am discussing at the moment.) In addition, the events in the poem are framed by the two references to the lift, whose descent and final ascent mark the beginning and the end of the poem. All these hints at coherence lure the reader into pursuit of more, of a full or unified reading in which events will cohere into plot, and actions will declare their meaning.
     Such a pursuit immediately runs into trouble. Who, to begin with, is “you?” Even if it is simply the generalised second person, meaning ‘lone” or “someone,” the effect is to cast the reader in the role of an actor within the poem’s narrative, a common tactic in Tranter’s poetry. This effect is augmented in the third stanza where “you” acquires a companion, becoming one of “us” who are engaged in a reading — an attempt at interpretation — of a photograph. Faced with a baffling text, the reader reads of, and participates in, his or her own attempts at decipherment within the text itself.
     However, despite the detail in the poem, the full picture does not emerge, just as the message scrawled across the sky proves to be illegible or, at least to us, unintelligible. Why, for example, does the attendant “pass . . . something through the brass grille” instead of opening the grille in the usual way? And what is it that is passed? Who are these shadowy dramatis personae anyway: who is the woman, the thin man, the boy? Is the thin man also the man who describes the plane, or, more likely, is the thin man actually that stylized image one finds in the viewfinder of modern self-focussing cameras? And what is happening to them?
     As I said before, it is possible that all the events of the poem occur in the one location. But it is also possible that all the events of stanzas two and three are interpretations of photographs, perhaps in a fashion, architectural or photographic magazine. Perhaps it is this magazine which was passed by the attendant through the brass grille. If this is so, the conformities to both the unities of time and place are dissolved, and any kind of temporal determination of the relation of the events pictured and their reading become unfixed. Except, naturally, that the events in the photographs belong to a “past” in relation to the reading’s “present”, while our reading of the poem presents or stages them both in an experiential present.
     This brings us back to the problem of narrative’s ability to create the effect of a series of events prior to the narrative act. This poem’s particular narrative act narrates an inability to construe or construct such a prior series of events. It may be that “we” are reading pictures of the drowning of the overweight woman, or of the boy in his “dark tweed jacket.” On the other hand the boy may be alive, one of the spectators staring at the “something resting on the bottom of the pool” and viewed from an indefinable perspective by “us” in the photograph in which he is included. And it is only the reader’s desire to link that “something” with the pool’s only known previous occupant, the woman, that suggests that a drowning has taken place. The word “chill” invokes the appropriate mood. But they may all be staring, instead, at the newly installed automatic pool cleaner, known commercially and appropriately as a Creepy-Crawly, which a pool so deep would obviously require.
     There is nothing in the poem to enable us to determine which interpretation, or interpretations, is or are correct. In fact, such a poem challenges the notion of a “correct” interpretation. The more detail we read, the more shadowy the priority becomes. In a reversal of Dürer’s etching in “Lufthansa” (printed, suggestively, on the facing page of Under Berlin) whose “thousand fine ink lines” assembled Humanism, the closer “well examine the photograph and the closer we examine the poem, the more detail emerges and the less the pattern. Except, of course, the pattern and practice of reading itself, which is the epistemological problematic which constitutes the poem. The possibility that we are being teased, not so much by the poet as by the world itself, signified by the wind, echoes beyond the end of the poem. The lift, which conveyed a message of some kind at the poem’s start, spends its day travelling from “grille” (ground floor) to “cage” (top floor), teased by the unconfined wind which bloweth where it listeth, as the Bible says. The limitless phenomenal world mocks our human attempts at confining and interpreting, just as a free bird which visits a cage in which another bird is confined would tease it (and unravel — the other meaning of tease — its situation) by being unconfined, free to move on.
     Read in this way, “Shadow Detail” tells its own situation, narratives inability to account for, and to accommodate, the protean and free forces of whatever the wind signifies. Both poem and reading are enabled, however, by reading “the wind” as a metaphor signifying that which evades signification and which thus, oddly, grounds the narrative act in some kind of “reality.” “The wind” is that which is prior, the flux which narrative in its confines vainly attempts both to emulate and to simulate, and which can be lured into signification only by metaphor. Once again, metaphor assumes a key significance, this time enabling the poem to be read as an allegory of reading which explores the epistemological status of narrative.
     Tranter’s poetry is not, however, uniformly pessimistic about the power (or lack of it) of narrative. As I have said, it is a poetry abounding in narrative fragments, at times almost obsessed with the attractions and the frustrations of narrative. But one recent poem presents, at first glance, a far more traditional surface and appears to signal a new confidence in the power of narrative to recoup the past or, at least, to construct a coherent sense of prior event. The poem is called “Stella” and was published in the quarterly journal, Meanjin. (endnote 4)
     Written in a relative plain language, “Stella” is constructed of three narratives. Two are concerned with relationships, now many years in the past, between two men, Max and The Captain of Industry, and two women called, respectively, Stella and Estelle. The third narrative frames the other two. The first stanza gives some indication of this narratives tone and style:

We’d gone — half a dozen of us — from
a gathering at Doctor Masterson’s,
headed for The Newcastle, when a shower
swept across the park and drove us
into the doorway of the nearest building.
“It’s Florenzini’s!” said the Saint —
“Let’s go in and wait out the rain.’

Going upstairs to the bar above the restaurant, the unnamed narrator and his friends buy drinks and are joineb by the Captain of Industry, “a bulky man / with reddish hair and a smouldering cigar.” One of the group, Max, “ravelling a skein of woe he’d been / entangled in earlier that afternoon,” proceeds to tell the story of his disastrous love for Stella, the bridge-playing wife of a country newspaper owner who, on her husband’s death, marries an American real estate shark. Max follows her to America, only to be hospitalised for a heart attack and subsequently to incur a thirteen thousand dollar hospital bill and a fraud charge which rightly should have been faced by Stella’s husband. But Stella and husband have shot through, leaving Max to suffer alone. The story is an unexceptional one of a talented but misguided man who suffers through his love for a beautiful but selfish woman.
     Curiously, however, the story is split in the middle and another one inserted between the two halves. At a point of high drama in Max’s story,

the Captain seemed immune — his voice murmured
at my ear: “Something I want to show you”,
and I found myself being led down
to the basement.

The Captain takes the narrator into an art gallery beneath the restaurant, shows him a strange picture, then tells the story of his relationship with its painter, Estelle. She is, in many ways, Stella’s opposite. Instead of leaving Australia to live abroad, she has come to Australia from Europe or Latin America. Whereas Stella was middle class and materialistic, Estelle was passionately artistic, obsessed by fantasies, was bohemian or, given the period in which the story seems to have taken place, Beat or early hippy. Both women have sons. Stella’s accompanies her to America and gives up his cello in order “to make a million / before he turned twenty-one, trading / used earth-moving gear, tractors, / trucks” (633). Estelle’s son (who, it is revealed, is also the Captain’s) on the other hand, actually appears, having taken time off from his Dentistry course to work as a waiter in Florenzini’s. What has become of Estelle herself, however, is left hanging, as the Captain and the narrator are then joined in the restaurant by the rest of the group and Max, taking up his story where it was broken off, tells the second half of it.
     The poem ends with a return to the frame narrative, in which the Saint, a strange European, questions the veracity of Max’s story, suggesting that he is a “compulsive / fantasiser” (635) who has fabricated his story to satisfy “the real needs — Greed, Desire” (636). The Captain then takes the narrator aside once more, pointing to a painting of a ship in the lift lobby, and comments on the relation of art to life:

“It’s real, but emblematic too,” he said,
“it all means something else. Art makes
life worth living. So does passion.
Not sex — I mean the whole thing.
So does a stock exchange collapse.
Why do we speak in riddles? That’s the question.
Unanswerable. Let’s catch the others.”

Art makes life worth living, but so also does life. Art “is real, but emblematic too.” If it is a fabrication, Max’s story satisfies Desire by a self-justifying though mortifying substitution of fantasy for a desired reality. But even if it is not, Max’s story, as a recounting and representation of a reality which is both past and other, is a product of narrative just as surely as Estelle’s painting is a product of visual signification, occupying a space in discourse which the “reality” cannot occupy because of its non-discursive nature. Art and life are thus alternatives, with art — and in this instance, narrative — being not simply a representation of life but also a substitution and a metaphor for it.
     In this substitutional space, therefore, the poem offers a series of alternatives. There are the alternative kinds of women: Stella and Estelle. There are the alternative sons: Stella’s disillusioned and materialistic son, and Paul. There are the alternative narrators: Max, the Captain, and the unnamed narrator. There are the alternative types of art: verbal discourse and painting. And there are the alternative narratives which, literally, alternate, and whose passage from one to the other is made vertically, by means of the lift or the stairs, rather than horizontally. Each of these narratives, which comprise the poem itself and thus include it, are symbolic satisfactions of Desire. In this way “Stella” displays narrative contiguity as a metaphor for the sequentiality of life, the satisfaction of Desire brought about by the power of metaphor to generate a sense of relation and thus coherence in the face of mere contingency. Seen in this light, “Stella,” like so many other poems by Tranter, escapes a naive theory of representation since the operation of narrative means, in the Captain’s words, that “it all means something else.”

Andrew Taylor
University of Adelaide
Adelaide, South Australia


1. Kate Lilley, “Tranter’s Plots,” Australian Literary Studies, 14:1 (May 1989), 41–50.

2. Andrew Taylor, Reading Australian Poetry (St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1987), pp. 156–170.

3. John Tranter, Under Berlin: New Poems 1988 (St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1988.) Earlier poetry is collected in John Tranter, Selected Poems (Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1982.)

4. John Tranter, “Stella”, Meanjin 48:3 (1989), pp. 611–637.

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