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John Tranter: Reviewed

Martin Duwell: How ‘now’ came from ‘then’

A review of John Tranter, Ultra, (Rose Bay: Brandl and Schlesinger, 2002) and four other books. First published in overland no 168, 2002. pp.100—103. Provenance: this text was scanned from a photocopy of the printed review by John Tranter in 2008.

Books reviewed:

Alan Wearne: The Lovemakers:Book 1 (Penguin, $29).
John Tranter: Ultra (Brandl & Schlesinger, $21.95).
Dorothy Hewett: Halfway Up the Mountain (FACP, $18.95).
Gig Ryan: Heroic Money (Brandl & Schlesinger, $21.95).
John Forbes: Collected Poems (Brandl & Schlesinger, $27.95).

“ …Is the result interesting? In Ultra it is always interesting, the poems have a mysterious, satisfying quality. Some of this derives from qualities in Tranter’s style which are well known: the hyperbolic metaphors, for example, with their driving intensity… ”

paragraph 1

All but the last of these books were shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Poetry Award and so they represent a poetic mass of considerable impetus. The eventual winner of the prize, Alan Wearne’s Saying all the Great Sexy Things, is the first volume of The Lovemakers, an immense poem broken into two parts by the exigencies of publication. Like its predecessor, The Nightmarkets, it is obsessed by the lives of individuals and the way they are embedded in a row of shaping institutions ranging from family to schools to marriages to the politics of the time. It is, among many things, a continuous study of the interactions between such institutions and the vaguer determining factors of genes and character.[...]


Each poem of John Tranter’s Ultra is made up of exactly ten stanzas of five lines each. There are twenty-four of them and they are introduced by a shorter poem, ‘Lavender Ink’. The poems are arranged in alphabetical order by title. This high degree of formal organisation rather recalls Tranter’s The Alphabet Murders of 1975, where each poem began with consecutive letters of the alphabet and there were twenty-six poems, suggesting that the search for “a possible contemporary poetry” was a continuing one, spilling into another (and potentially infinite) trip through the alphabet.


If anything though, Ultra recalls Red Movie, Tranter’s second book. There the focus is on individual lives, including the author’s, and the ways in which these fragmented lives can be arranged. Like the Wearne, though with very different interests and results, Ultra is full of people. Sometimes we experience only a few brief lines of their voices; at other times we are provided with parts of the narratives of their lives. The poetic challenge for the writer seems to lie in the different ways in which the poems can embrace these lives: sometimes the joins are abrupt like a cut in a film (film is an important source of analogies for poetic method in this book), but sometimes the poem slides from one voice to another in something closer to a dissolve. Sometimes, in a very Tranterish method, lives are boxed inside other lives.


In many of the poems it is hard to work out whether there is a single narrative built around a single character or whether there are many different characters and stories. ‘Coffee’ begins (and ends?) with a couple arriving on a mysterious errand in a town by the sea. The woman watches through binoculars and the poem immediately embarks on a set of previous experiences:


                    … binoculars held steady,
the lenses at the front racking and peeping in and out.
“When I was young I led myself into mischief,”
she said. “High on joy that’s what I want,
and I want anyone’s arms around me.” She was
holding a tiny drawing and showing the customers


Perhaps what the poems are trying to teach us is that in reading them we should put aside the irritable search after identity and consistency and experience the poems as collages or sets of dissolves.


Another inevitable part of our response is to nervously search for generative clues. By the time we get to ‘Locket’ and see that it contains the words ‘locket’, ‘locker’, ‘jockey’, ‘loser’, ‘locked’, it is difficult not to suppress the suspicion that the material of these lives has been generated at a language level. It is possible that there is a Riffaterrean ‘hypogram’ — i.e. a cluster of images or sounds at the heart of the poem but not appearing in the surface of the text — at the basis of each of these poems. But this is a reading process that can become vertiginous. Perhaps there is a hypogram which suggests a number of other hypograms which produce either the surface of a single poem or the surfaces of all the poems — it is an interpretive route that induces paranoia and despair.


Of course the response to this is that the generative procedures are not really important, it is the result that matters. Is the result interesting? In Ultra it is always interesting, the poems have a mysterious, satisfying quality. Some of this derives from qualities in Tranter’s style which are well known: the hyperbolic metaphors, for example, with their driving intensity:


Why are these problems linguistic?
That’s all we have to frame the chaos with,
the big grid we drank with our mother’s milk

with the cornflakes and the funerals. This went on
in front of the runaway truck of culture
loaded with ‘fashion’, that abstract policeman.

(‘On the Road’)


or this marvellous description of reading:


… the inhuman demands of this print,
that reaches out of some corner of the past —
a grubby back room stinking of tallow —
and orders you to stop thinking like that, now
start thinking like this, and do the things

that are inevitable



But a lot of it derives from the way in which individual fragments of lives are lived in the knowledge that the large determining structures of economics class, family (which Wearne deals with so well) are always in the background. The romance novelist of ‘Miss Proust’, for example, can’t take the “kissing group of husbands and wives” seriously because of their lack of a ‘proper theory of how / sexuality is conditioned by the economic / strictures of society, and not by the games shows // and the sporting programs or by the lies / that stain the pages of cheap paper.’


If there are two features that dominate the lives of the book, one is the structuring device of film, referred to earlier, and the second is the everpresent hum of the city that forms part of the soundtrack of these poems. Given the formal organisation of the book, perhaps it is no accident that the introductory poem speaks of the ‘distant murmur / of the city’ and that the first poem proper, ‘Black Leather’ begins with sound technicians picking up the “acoustic atmosphere” for a film.

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