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John Tranter: Reviewed

Alison Croggon reviews

«The Floor of Heaven»

John Tranter, The Floor Of Heaven, Harper Collins Australia, Sydney, 1992.

This review was first broadcast on ABC Radio National Books and Writing on 8 November 1992. Books and Writing was a 45-minute magazine-type weekly radio program created by John Tranter and Mr Jan Garrett in 1976 (originally titled “The Writer’s Program”). This piece is about four printed pages long. Provenance: this text follows Alison Croggon’s script for the program.

“It is a sentimentality which has always lurked beneath the surface of Tranter’s work, a crudity of feeling that gives many of his early poems the glazed, dated air of 70s airport lounges.”

paragraph 1

The title of John Tranter’s ninth book, The Floor of Heaven, is taken from The Merchant of Venice. Lorenzo describes to his lover Jessica “the floor of heaven ... thick inlaid with patines of bright gold” in which each star “like an angel sings / Quiring to the young-eyed cherubins.” It is a sky at vast remove from the world of urban Sydney that Tranter presents us. Here the “quiring orbs” are the compulsive retellers of traumatic fictions, fumbling through their memories in search of meaning. As Gloria, the first character to spill her guts, says:


                    ... I hoped that
getting it all down in black and white,
turning what happened into a kind of story
                    ... why
maybe then, with all the blind alleys,
the promises that led to nothing, dreams
that turned into nightmares when you woke -
maybe, crossed out and botched as they are,
it would it all fit together and make sense.


The context of the various narratives which make up the book is a group of individuals undergoing therapy. The narrator is anonymous, setting the scene and relating the monologue, although by the end of the book it becomes clear that this authorial point of view shifts in each of its four sections. The lack of variousness in the diction makes this curiously pointless: each character speaks a blank iambic vernacular, the kind of writing which rolls over the reader slickly, easily, hypnotically. Its transatlantic, prosaic rhythms derive dimly from the poetries of John Ashbery and W.H. Auden; they are placeless, unindividuated and deliberately cliched.


It is plausible text, text that encodes itself and is designed to be deciphered. There is, for instance, the presence of three “emblematic” paintings in the second narrative, Stella. They suggest some self-referential speculations on art, a kind of parable on artistic progression from naive representation to consumer artefact, with their owner, a Captain of Industry and former painter, remarking indifferently that “art makes life worth living”. One gathers that the middle figurative painting, with its symbolic human portraits against a background of “swirling black / out of which glared red and yellow stars”, is the image which signifies The Floor of Heaven.


And there is much else — the references to Somerset Maugham, a recurring literary motif of Tranter’s; echoes of Plato’s Symposium; lists of cultural icons; the satirical asides on theory; the sexual dialectic; the games with subjectivity and fictions. All these make it an exemplary post-modern text ripe for dissection by any number of thesis writers. And they make it seem more interesting than it is. The Floor of Heaven is very dull reading and gets duller as the trash novel impetus of the narrative wears away, that is, once you know the plot. Unless, of course, the primary intent of poetry is indeed this literary detective work.


Tranter’s dullness presents a fundamental challenge, since he has decided in his writing that poetry, in what is described in the book’s blurb as the “post-modern condition”, is no longer possible. The choices Tranter has made are a result of dilemmas which face anyone who wants to write poetry now: the slippage of words Eliot identifies in Four Quartets, that abyss between words and meaning with which language, and especially poetic language, eventually faces the writer and reader; the vertigo of nothingness, the dissolution of self, which occurs when all linguistic certainties are erased; and the poet’s relationship, or lack of it, to society. These are real problems which any honest writer must confront and Tranter’s response — to abandon poetic speech almost completely and seek through a cliched fictional narrative some contingent meaning — is no doubt a valid one. It has, however, certain drawbacks: one being its subversion by its own dullness, the other a tendency to bathos:


Life was a mystery with no explanation.
How can you talk about that? The water
and the clouds and the starlight had been
just like that for a million years,
and a hundred million lives had come and gone.
If you dwelt on those things, you’d go mad.


It is a sentimentality which has always lurked beneath the surface of Tranter’s work, a crudity of feeling that gives many of his early poems the glazed, dated air of 70s airport lounges. As he moved from obscure experimentalism to a clearer mode of speaking the sentiment became more obvious — for instance, in the pervasive nostalgia infecting Dazed in the Ladies Lounge. In his best work it is arrested by an astringent alertness, an “acute feeling of precision” at the height of vertigo.


It is illuminating to contrast his use of cliche in The Floor of Heaven with Gig Ryan’s in her recent collection Excavation. In the face of similar dilemmas Ryan slides towards cliche and explodes it. Like Tranter’s, Ryan’s world is urban, a world of drugs, attenuated culture, mass consumerism and anaesthetic sex, but in Ryan’s mouth the language takes on a kinetic energy. A presence, electrical, suicidal, subversive, surges through the fractures. Ryan’s is a voice which refuses to acquiesce, although it might well choose “the river of forgetfulness that reflects nothing” over the barbed, murderous nightmare of consciousness, the revelation of deathly living that she records with such acidic horror. She deals with the splintered subject with far more subtlety than Tranter, shifting pronouns with the jerkiness of fragmented perception, breaking rhythms and syntax. They are defiant poems which, however much they refuse poetic eloquence, nevertheless do not refuse the possibility of poetry itself.


The deadness of The Floor of Heaven is its acceptance of the dominant modes of discourse. “The heart of a great poet’s work,” writes the eminent French poet Yves Bonnefoy, “is in the way that poet establishes himself against the background of his idiomatic norm, of the temptations posed to him by his language and his historical moment.” Poetic speech is animated language that disrupts habitual and controlling modes of perception and expression; essential to its impetus is a radical act of will in the face of meaninglessness. The Floor of Heaven’s prosodised cliches and inanimate cultural artefacts create no dissonance in our cultural perceptions. They are, rather, the aphasic expressions of a writing which has retreated from the carnage of the self to the safest refuge. It is a literature of defeat.


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