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John Tranter: Reviewed

Dreadful deeds of nightmare simplicity

Carmel Bird reviews
John Tranter, The Floor of Heaven. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1992.

This review was first published in Australian Book Review 146, 1992: 42–43.
Provenance: this text was scanned from Australian Book Review and edited by John Tranter, 2008.

«The Floor of Heaven» is a hypnotic read; it will stay with you
when you come out of your trance…

Paragraph 1

THIS IS not about what happens on heaven’s floor, but what goes on under the floorboards, what takes place deep down in the earth, in the darkest chambers of the human heart where lust and greed can fabricate extreme fantastic violence.


Go down deep enough and there’s a river
that runs underground from the mountains
and forms a lake in a big limestone cave.


And in the lake, in the cave, people can remember seeing and doing dreadful deeds of nightmare simplicity.


Four stories in verse are collected in The Floor of Heaven, stories that are elegantly linked not only by some of the characters but by images and signatures ― the swish of tyres in the rain, the hint of perfume, the presence of eyes, music, the patterns on cloth. And water, always water and that inevitable murderous darkness deep down. The floor of heaven is leaking and forever replenishing the underground river.


The people you meet here are banal and guilty people with stories to tell each other of their sins and crimes. They are linked by the presence of Doctor Masterson, with his jacket ‘dark green tweed, with elbow patches ...


to make up a uniform, suited to a character
from an old British movie ― a murder mystery
set in some sleepy village before the war


Masterston enables them to reveal their secrets; he does not judge them, for they judge themselves. ‘I killed her,’ they will say, and plunge into the explanation of their acts of betrayal in love and business, their part in the sudden deaths of people close to them.


This is poetry that swiftly builds narrative, that acts. With photographic clarity images come to the surface as in a darkroom. Stories and more stories pour from the lips of the characters in a language that is blunt and everyday, but ordered in subtle rhythms with odd internal rhymes and bursts of assonance and alliteration: ‘Florenzini’s was famous for its fish’. Bleak grim nasty things happen to people here and it’s hard to pick the most horrible, although the son with the carving knife who chops his father’s eyes up ‘like soft-boiled eggs’ and drives the carving fork up his father’s nose into his brain is, as you can see, a bad one.


John Tranter has an unerring gift for matching the act to the image to the words to the rhythm so that he achieves awe as well as breathless horror in the reader who wants to look away but can’t. The people, their lives so complex ― with drugs and Thunderbirds and silver mines and wars ― and yet beneath it all they are simple, sad, suffering, cunning animals who follow each other for ‘the slightest perfume’, blow each other up on instructions from aliens, drown, decapitate... Yes, this is a rough death ride on a Harley-Davidson.


So the people do these terrible things that have you blinking and gulping and wondering whatever next, and then they do little mean undignified things like crawling underneath the fridge to pick up the stones from an ex-lover’s broken bracelet. They steal stuffed birds and emu eggs and a butterfly display. One minute the carving fork up the nose, the next scrabbling round for beads under the fridge, because in ‘the struggle to drag our lives...


above the level of daily dull endurance
an appetite arises for the subterranean,
and so we press against the dark glass doors
of the unconscious.


One of the characters speaks of reading and recalling the ‘flavour of a book’. This book tastes mostly bitter, but sometimes sweet and sad. An you remember much, much more than the flavour ― the images haunt you and the felicity of the language brings lines back:


‘The Fifties?’ she said, ‘It was terrible.
You didn’t know what to photograph.’


You see, it’s funny too. And touching:


She had a hairpin between her teeth
while she fixed her hair in the mirror.
God, she was lovely.


It is a lot about love ― which accounts for the pain and trouble of all this, accounts for the ‘chain of nightmares’ the people are dragging around in their wake.


The Floor of Heaven is a hypnotic read; it will stay with you when you come out of your trance; these four stories and the stories within the stories bloom ‘within a dream’


... like a crystal of some mineral salt
growing at the bottom of a forest pool.


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