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John Tranter: Reviewed

Poet, Pick Up that Guitar

Catherine Kenneally reviews «The Floor of Heaven»

This review was first published in Australian Book Review 146, 1992: 43–44.
Provenance: this text was scanned from Australian Book Review and edited by John Tranter, 2008.

The original review contained a spoiler paragraph, where a surprise near the end of the book is given away. In this version of the review, the spoiler paragaph has been deleted. If you have finished Rain, you might want to read the spoiler version of the review, with the spoiler paragraph intact.

“ The stories reading almost too easily ― the themes writ large and crude…
It’s an experiment in pulp; yellow-press poems. ”

paragraph 1

A poem with the above title [‘Poet, Pick Up that Guitar’] by Laurance Weider, which takes up a tale told by ‘A friend whose name translates as honorable’, concludes with this reflection:


It would appear less neat, less dangerous
To cast this tale in prose, as fiction,
But nothing fits together half so well
In fantasy as in imagination.
That’s why the floor
Supports us, why
It thwarts.


I don’t entirely understand the fantasy/imagination dichotomy (it sounds too Coleridgean and technical), or even properly understand the bit about the floor ― I suppose Weider is suggesting that the solid planks of prose ― ‘real life’ both bear us up and get in the way of true ‘fitting together’.


Why Weider’s poem seems apposite to The Floor of Heaven is that it reveals the poet querying the telling of stories in poems. Traditionally, the poet-balladeer picks up the guitar, lute, whatever, to render legendary a tale in song. This is a role which has been highly unfashionable for many a year. But it’s what John Tranter has chosen to do in this book; tell a story in verse. He’s not baring his soul, not making any kind of bardic pronouncement, not waxing lyrical over anything in particular, not (on his own part) recollecting emotion in tranquillity, not being sharp or parodic or witty or Experimental. These are four story-poems, called ‘Gloria’, ‘Stella’, ‘Breathless’ and ‘Rain’.


Why not do the telling as Weider asks, in prose? Tranter’s blank verse makes it as easy to read these four pieces as it is to read ordinary narrative prose, but it is verse that we have here:


‘You’re full of bull,’ said Lovelock angrily
I don’t believe a bloody word you say.
‘Show me this restaurant.’ They both stood...


It scans, and it’s designed to. The metre seeps into your brain along with the sense of the stories, as in ballads, as in Shakespeare (who provides the book’s epigraph, which I shall come back to.) As to the elements of the stories, they’re the stuff of the old ballads in modern dress: they probably all have a number in Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale ― blindings, drownings, betrayals of all kinds, tragic deaths of children, father-son savagery...


Tranter deliberately adopts the balladeer’s distance, the rhymer’s preoccupation with holding the language which tells the story to its metrical pattern. Tranter is not present in the poems. The narrative ‘I’, where there is one, always turns out to be a player in the drama, the ongoing saga. The Floor of Heaven’s four stories are told by protagonists in the recollected tales to an audience of witnesses: fictional-present listeners, members of a study group introduced on the first page.


And grim tales they are: ‘Father’s Head/ in Baby’s Basket’; Blake who puts out his father’s eyes; Max the (sort-of) killer of his lover’s husband; gruesome bikie disasters; mangled bodies in cars, Sandra’s brother (‘what a lovely guy’), hit by some rich kid whacked out on speed’ on his way to pick up a pizza for his kid sister.


Typically, the tellers, tales told, ask what it might all mean:


it all ended in a tiny, painful death
and I can’t find any meaning in it
I let her cry. What could I say? People
don’t live and die for a purpose.
For nothing, all that suffering


All the gruesomeness is in the past ― the survivors are reliving the disasters in a muted fashion for the consumption of the hearers, who meanwhile have designs on them in the fictional present. The Story Continues.


...We dozed, we lazed.
How many of us were there, reclining
peacefully on the grass, sitting in
on the death of the ego. Four? Five? ‘ Oh,’
Gloria squirmed. ‘Oh,it’s my...well,
memories, where I tell about myself. Talk ―
the things... you know, where I’ve been,
what I’ve done, all that...


So, what is going on here? ‘Gloria’, ‘Stella’, ‘Kathy’, ‘Jack’, ‘Sandra’ ― studiously plebeian names, ordinary people, players in ordinary yet mythically-resonant dramas. The stories reading almost too easily ― the themes writ large and crude ― tales of ordinary madness, told with ordinary sensationalism and insensitivity and blindness to the Big Picture, garish and even nightmarish tales running with a chillingly smooth flow. It’s an experiment in pulp; yellow-press poems.


Which isn’t to say some of the speakers don’t reflect on the Australian and the Human Condition; they do:


‘Patrick White said that in Australia The
schoolmaster and the journalist rule
What intellectual roost there is...’

‘...Art makes
Life worth living. So does passion.
Not sex ― I mean the whole thing.’


The tone is what the reader becomes anxious to pin down: it’s world-weary Eliotesque in places:


Oh, the forties/ the Saint broke in,
His accent- Hungarian, perhaps —
‘Spivs in flying jackets, dud penicillin
at ten quid a dost, black-market nylons,
a phoney culture, rotten right through:
jazz, dark glasses, French philosophy …’


Elsewhere, it’s Rolling Stone-type journalese:


‘...he was with us
the night Big Bob was killed. He was a
strange guy. Like Charlie Manson,
but not so sick or twisted, or as vicious.
Drake had a strange power over
men or women — anyone, it didn’t matter.
Charisma, they call it. Even animals,
he could tame a Dobermann ...’


All you can finally decide on is whether you think Tranter is ‘doing’ the putative kind of character in question well or poorly. The Merchant of Venice epigraph to this book invokes cosmic harmonies, the music of the spheres: ‘There’s not the smallest orb which thou beholds’t / But in his motion like an angel sings’; yet the narrator summarises Gloria’s yet-to-be-recounted story on the first page thus: It represented horror, but we didn’t/ know that then...’


Gloria, through her rising mania, explains herself to Doc Masterson’s group — she wants to make ‘all those... /!... / ... / together, and make sense.’ When she finishes, the narrator remarks:


We frowned and blinked in the glare, like
strangers wandering out from a midday movie.


That’s how I felt coming out at the end of each of the poems. You have to keep your eye on too many balls, following this game. Each reminiscence is framed in the fictional present by a further, enfolding story: as in ‘Rain’, recounted to us by a first person narrator, as told by ‘Kathy’:


The unhappy emotions she described
made me feel close and somehow special


‘Breathless’, as it happens, is told by a third-person narrator, who opens his/her account by flagging the forthcoming liaison between ‘Hunter’ and Sandra:


If you’d told Hunter he’d spend that night
in the arms of a self-confessed murderer


...and there follows, before Sandra’s story proper, a present-day indicator of a more journalistic kind, ‘placing’ the telling, which ‘happens’ at ‘Florenzini’s... the ‘only place in Sydney’:


Around them the Australian economy
staggered under the assault of various foreign


...with the frame again closed at the end: ‘...Hunter/ put his arm around Sandra’s shoulder...’


The treatment is flat, with the creases ironed out by the still partly shell-shocked voices of the raconteurs, and smoothed out even more by the steady flow of the blank verse, which dulls the emotive content and hurries the tales along, winds them neatly up.


What you’re left with is the shock-value from the content of the stories, such as remains, and an impression of layer upon layer of pastiche, and of Tranter’s smooth-tongued fluency, which never misses a beat. But it’s a ‘Real Life’ or ‘Hard Copy’ smoothness, which is meant to trip you up; to inveigle you into the same facile responses those false-documentary exposé programmes invite. I felt I’d been taken for a ride, maybe taken for a sucker. ‘Doc Masterson’ is laughing up his impeccably-tailored sleeve, blowing a thin trail of smoke from the barrel of his Colt 45.


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