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John Tranter: Reviewed

Martin Duwell reviews
«At The Florida», by John Tranter

(Subeditor’s headline:
“Playful poetry of Florida”)

Martin Duwell reviews John Tranter: «At The Florida», by John Tranter, University of Queensland Press, 1993, 99pp, $16.95. This review first appeared in «The Weekend Australian» 13-14 November, 1993 (Review page 7)


“For readers new to Tranter’s work, it will be a dazzling experience of a great poet in mid-career. For long-term admirers it will be a book that continues a process of searching for new modes while breaking up and kaleidoscopically realigning all the work that has gone before.”

Paragraph 1

It is only in the past few years that John Tranter seems to have achieved anything like the public profile that the quality of his poetry demands. It may say something about the politics of reputation in Australia, it may say something about our fear of the new — for Tranter’s corpus of work marks him out as simultaneously father and exemplar of contemporary poetry in this country — but one’s late 40s is a long time to wait. «At The Florida» is an important, challenging book, but despite those daunting adjectives, it is also a deeply pleasurable book, complex and densely rich. It also comes trailing those dangerous round figures that invite readers to take stock — it is Tranter’s 10th book of poems, published in his 50th year. From whatever perspective it is viewed, «At The Florida», is a marvellous achievement, even if it runs the risk of tempting reviewers into saying more about the career behind it than the book itself. Giving into this temptation for a moment, it is worth observing that Tranter’s career can, like the past, be constructed in many ways. We can read it as a restless search for the new, travelling at speed down the tunnel of its own making, driven by a fear of the remorseless process by which innovation solidifies into style and then into rhetoric.


We might, equally, see it as a set of approaches to an irritating grit of personal experience set somewhere in that provisional world of adolescence and in the equally provisional world of the country town. We might see it as a series of expressions of some basic drive towards narrative, towards a desire to tell stories, not about the self but about others.


We might even see it as a battle between playfully adopted controlling: forms and an intense and exhilarating verbal expressiveness that is always pleading to be let off the leash so that it can explode into what an earlier poem calls “verbal intemperance”.


There are a dozen other emphases that could structure a description of this complex career, and most make some sort of appearance in the poems of «At The Florida». The resonances are profound and, to choose almost at random, a single poem like “Journey” seems to invite us to recall poems like “The Alphabet Murders”, “The Lessons”, “Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy” and even “Sonnet 57” as it images personal and social history as a kind of journey into the dark.


Like many of Tranter’s books, «At The Florida» comes in three sections. After an initial set of poems, there is a group of longer, often fragmented semi-narrative pieces and then a final section consisting of 30 haibun — originally a Japanese form in which poetry is mixed with prose. In Tranter’s re-engineered haibun, 20-line stanzas are followed by passages of prose of varying length and varying kinds of interaction with the poem.


As with the hundred sonnets of the earlier book «Crying in Early Infancy», or the 30-line “Radio Traffic” poems in «Dazed in the Ladies Lounge», there is the sense, not so much of a form to be mastered, but rather of a spectrum of possibilities contained within an imposed form. This should come as no surprise since there has always been, not so much a formalist impulse behind Tranter, but rather a craft pleasure in re-engineering old forms and exploring possibilities.


The first section of poems has a typical, carefully laid-out quality to it. It begins with the most approachable of the poems and progresses to the more complex, concluding with two intense and brooding works that prepare for the second section. And yet the last poem, “Dark Harvest”, also looks back to the first poem of the book, the comparatively cheery “Storm over Sydney”. “Dark Harvest” begins with a storm, with “thunder unrolling over the vulnerable city” and concludes with a bleak image of the poet “looking up at the thunderheads lit from below: / everything’s blowing / into the future that waits for us but doesn’t want us”.


If one view of Tranter’s career is to see it as a desire to move into new territory and thus avoid the trap of a recognisable style, then this may explain the title poem, one of my favourites. Placed in the second section, it is a marvellous, scathing picture of the fear of stopping developing. You arrive at a place which is something like an urban version of Michael Dransfield’s Courland Penders, a place where “you become your notes on epigrams, / little more”.


«At The Florida» is a multi-layered book that can be approached in many ways and can satisfy in many ways. For readers new to Tranter’s work, it will be a dazzling experience of a great poet in mid-career. For long-term admirers it will be a book that continues a process of searching for new modes while breaking up and kaleidoscopically realigning all the work that has gone before.

Martin Duwell lectures in the English department of the University of Queensland.

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