Christopher Pollnitz reviews
John Tranter, The Floor Of Heaven, Harper Collins Australia, Sydney, 1992
First published in the Weekend Australian, October 3, 1992
This piece is 940 words or about three printed pages long.
“ … even his similes seem alternative careers that the desperately fertile narrators have invented as nests for their nascent egos. ”
The times are a-changing, all right. Only the Whirligig of Time could have forseen John Tranter publishing this, his ninth and best book of poems, with Angus and Robertson. They’ve done him proud, with a clear, well-spaced layout, good proofreading and a stunning cover.
It reproduces an ad painted by Tom Woodman around 1930. A bow-tied waiter pours from a Tooths bottle for two décolleté ladies of fashion, their lipstick blissfully unaware the 20s can ever pass away. It looks more like The Bar than The Floor of Heaven. The floor turns out not to be the night sky over Shakespeare’s Belmont, ‘thick inlaid with patines of bright gold,’ but a stretch of dead-straight Californian highway, beneath the Sierra Nevadas. The leader of a bikie gang idles his Harley-Davidson out into the highway, in a form of Chicken designed to make aerial stuntmen blench, and is instead collected by ‘a truck / loaded up with logs from Oregon’.
The book’s narrators are, all of them, searching through the slippage of decades and job placements for their place or moment, their family or sexual identity, their raison d’être. Each of the volume’s four narrative monologues (I’m simplifying calling them monologues, but it’s their basic impulse) has a link with a floating group-therapy workshop. Each is seeded with a nightmare vignette or little constellation of nightmares. Each, as the monologist struggles to articulate and lay to rest her (or his) trauma, enters the dark areas of narratology — the narrator’s authority seducing the auditor’s complicity, how unreliable a narrator can be before she implodes.
Gloria is induced to tell a story to the workshop, but it’s projected on her supposed siblings. It’s her kid sister Karen’s story as told to Gloria’s twin, Marjorie. Even then, Gloria/ Marjorie/ Karen’s tale mostly bears witness to the antagonisms between Karen’s de facto and his disintegrating brother and father. A dazzling succession of reverse and inverse images, Gloria’s monologue testifies less to a debilitating trauma than to her ferocious narrative energy.
This is poetry not of the doppel- but of the multiple-gänger. Gloria scatters alter egos like a spy plane dropping metal foil to fox enemy radar. In Tranter’s ‘thick inlaid’ narratives, even his similes seem alternative careers that the desperately fertile narrators have invented as nests for their nascent egos.
Eliot’s working title for the poem Pound got hold of and made The Waste Land was ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’. Tranter doesn’t do either — the police or the voices. His characters speak a trans-Pacific English undifferentiated by region or jargon. His verse narratives lack the glutinous texture others — Scott, Wearne, Murray — have worked into their long poems. Tranter’s monologues don’t come on as prose poetry or carefully packed verse. One needs patience for his effects to assemble, though meanwhile there’s a certain cliché-ridden rightness — will that serve for poetry? — about Gloria’s hesitations whether to tell her group anything:
...I hoped that
getting it all down in black and white,
turning what happened into a kind of story,
that is, if I could hold back a little way
from all that — those terrible memories . . .
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 all fit together and make sense.
If Tranter’s people did have a self-differentiating power of speech, they wouldn’t be so desperately in search of an identity. They don’t have a voice: all they have is a lie to unfold, a narrative.
For volumes now, Tranter has been playing round with postmodernist techniques for undermining the authorial voice. In the book before, Under Berlin, he seemed to giving up his role as infant avant-gardist terrorising the plain-speaking establishment. Being ‘absolutely modern’ had brought him no more than
these postcard views from a twinkling and distant
colony, of the twin cities: dying heart of Empire,
sunset on the Empire State.
Writing from New York or London, you can make experimentalism seem elegant, even if a gesture with a dying fall. Writing from Sydney, you can only make it seem wilfully obscurantist. The point about The Floor of Heaven is that Tranter has been able to achieve a full, postmodernist range of dismantlings of his voice and deconstructions of his poetic armoury without sacrificing a generous lucidity, a complete but rangy accessibility.
It’s to be hoped The Floor of Heaven will be widely read, influential and energising. It may sound melancholy madness, Gloria’s revelation of the multiple clamouring for utterance in her narrative. But as she finishes her eye glitters like a certain Mariner’s. She’s learnt what it takes to dazzle, to send her listeners home as if of sense forlorn.
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