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John Tranter: Reviewed

Kate Lilley: Tranter’s Plots

Australian Literary Studies, volume 14 number 1, May 1989
This piece is 4351 words or about fourteen printed pages long.
Endnotes are given at the end of this file.
Click on the note to be taken to it; likewise to return to the text.

“ This muscley story-telling... comes with its own disturbing passenger-load of female fellow-travellers: whores and femmes fatales, virgins and friendly wives, waitresses with short skirts, and career-women with lesbian tendencies. ”

Tranter’s work has consistently engaged problems of deixis (grammatical orientation) and interpretation which, in turn, become problems of showing and telling, of representation and narrative. The unstable relations between the viewer and what is viewed, the writer and what is written, the printed text on the page and the eyes which travel over that surface: these issues dominate Tranter’s highly repetitive, which is to say concentrated, body of work. They constitute the field of his exploration and generate the richly comic parables of postmodern love and postmodern work which have become the trademark of the brand-name ‘Tranter’ (in the OED ‘tranter’ appears as a dialect word, meaning a man who does jobs with his horse and cart; hence, to trant).
     Tranter’s first collection (see Note 1), published in 1970, takes its title from the poem, ‘Parallax’, in section six, ‘Notes from Bedlam’. It is a word lifted out of sixteenth-century astronomical discourse, and is still current, particularly in the term ‘parallax error’, which describes the effect whereby a change in the position of the viewer is registered, perceptually, as an apparent change in the position of the object viewed. By extension, the parallax is also a measurement of perceptual illusion: the distance of displacement between conflicting readings. In Tranter’s poem, the angle of vision is madness which remains capable of measuring its own estrangement, but in its privileged place as the book’s title it registers a wider concern with the process of vision, the inevitability of refraction, the impossibility of truthful reflection; and points to a desire to measure the space between ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘now’ and ‘then’, ‘I’ and ‘you’, ‘he’ and ‘she’, old and new models. And these measurements have both negative and positive potential, mapping difference and change in order that colouring in can then take place.
     Though its currency is chiefly scientific, ‘parallax’ also figures in Renaissance prose — in the glosses to Selden’s illustrated Poly-Olbion, Sir Thomas Browne, and Samuel Daniel’s Musophilus, where it s used to designate ‘a mistaking eye of passion’, the swerve of desire. What Shakespeare called ‘misprision’, and what Harold Bloom influentially renamed ‘misrecognition’ for contemporary poetics, is Tranter’s ‘parallax’ — a word which he has never used again (he uses ‘dioptric’ instead: reading Tranter has taught me paradigms I didn’t know existed), but the process and effect and technology coded in its various meanings has remained central to each of the books succeeding Parallax. (see Note 2)
     The strategy of taking an alien word and relocating it in poetry; of retrieving a word that has dropped out of use, like ‘gelid’, or making strange a very familiar word like ‘verandah’ (see Note 3), of putting apparently simple words like ‘plot’ and ‘track’ through their paces, or bringing an etymology into focus; and particularly the practice of raiding special technical registers: these are characteristic sources of energy, surprise and comic misalignment in Tranter’s poetry, which create a rippling surface of ‘verbal intemperance’ and motility, even at the risk of exploding into incoherence:

Reaching the excuse for verbal intemperance we find
the best argument persuades us to strain out from poverty
to excess, though the profit of this striving
is not in the final chapter but in the zooming
between two worlds of action, neither being of interest
without the gasping towards the other...
                       ...we are more nervous
of the poem that might not wriggle into sight
if we declined the challenge of the technique
of cooking ‘prose’ first and then stamping out
these frilly ‘poems’ with all their endearing
and ‘necessary ornaments of sense.                      (see Note 4)

Tranter is both technician and saboteur, a potential murderer of the ABC of poetry, with two incompatible missions: on the one hand formal coherence and destination evidenced by the prevalence of the sonnet and especially the sonnet sequence (or other groups of equal length poems, such as those of Dazed in the Ladies Lounge), by the movement towards ‘a better place on the island . . . / where I have planned for our eventual future’ (‘Waiting For Myself To Appear’); (see Note 5) and, on the other hand, pulling against that mission impossible, the search for ‘the beautiful accident’ (‘Love Story’) which will

                        ...lead him on
into those areas of doubt and sickness where he grows
suddenly beyond their narrow estimates and breaks
their shackles and the test record and
breaks into a valiant and vacant freedom.                    (AM, 6)

As a double agent, working for both the modernists and the postmodernists, whichever way he turns in this city of forked roads and forked tongues (‘For history is a kind of city’, AM, p.8), the poet is embroiled in heresy and conspiracy, accused of back-sliding or bad faith. Tranter teaches us to recognise the freight of history as it is reconfigured in the present; the always laughable and always touching resurgence of the rhetoric of modernity, its inherent contingency. In The Alphabet Murders he reminds us that ‘what we have left behind . . . / itself must generate enough good luck for the whole voyage’ (AM, p. 2):

These are not restrictions, but equipment
for use in experiment or exploration
such as it is well to have in hand
when leaving main roads for open country, though
often thrown away in side tracks that lead into
dead ends. Moreover tradition is not just an impulse
out of the past; it is a progressive movement
overtaking the present and helping carry it
into the future...

                   (AM, p.20 [ after R.D. FitzGerald ] )

It is the seam between modernism and postmodernism which Tranter’s poetry excavates, writing the present as the past’s future and the future’s past, measuring the gap between epochs and styles and models, holding up for inspection a word like ‘poplin’, offering the poem as a ‘nostalgia machine’ which comments on its own technology, shows its own working. His is a poetry not simply of things as they are or were, but as they trace the interlinked histories of design and taste and usage:

Remember blotting paper? The Year of the Pen?
Pen, I mean, not roller-ball. Come on, gang —
you guys — applied to girls — those teenagers,
they seem to have disappeared, behind
A fit of the giggles, or a hot flush.
The crew-cuts, the red and green
checkered shirts adorn Dad’s jalopy
bumping away from the zone of focus
like insignia stencilling a boundary
around their tribe and epoch.                    (see Note 6)

Photo of blue car tail-fins

There is, in Tranter’s poetry, an attempt to preserve distance, and a suspicion of simply belonging, even as a dream — for that would mean anonymity, dissolving into things as they are and the party-line of fashion. There can be no going back, but the poem as plot or track takes shape as an erotic or strategic encounter between the poet as ‘the damaged pilot in his new psychosis’ who ‘shall always worry the flight plan to shreds’ (AM, p.22), the ungovernable stream of other traffic, and the terrain itself — the stratified territory of history and geography, literary history and literary geography — always encrusted, inaccessible, fantasmic. (see Note 7)
     Equally, the desires of the author and those of the reader cannot be made to coincide, and that gap — the parallax — is the fantasmic space of the poem itself, the object of desire. Though Tranter’s poetry anticipates, and to some extent incorporates and welcomes, cross-talk and interference, there is also embedded in it a gesturing towards the reader, outside its own framing strategies: ‘Can you see these pictures? Projected / blurring on a wall? Staring through the tears. . .’ (‘Letter to America’, 2, UB, p. 37). An anticipatory sympathy makes a pact between author and reader of mutual disappointment, mutual investment:

Is this all the reward we are offered
for our painstaking attention, for the strain
of our emotional investment? What we asked for
led to nothing, what we didn’t want to see
was made plain.

                    (‘Those Gods Made Permanent’, UB, p. 53)

Every reader’s field of reference is subtly different, but unless one is happy to wander blind and dazed, or to skim for the jokes, Tranter’s poetry makes homework mandatory, and rewardingly so. Most strikingly, it turns towards science in a way that opens up relations amongst technologies — amongst crafts. Reserving poetry’s pole position amongst the hermetic arts, Tranter modernises the ancient links between chemical compounds and mind-bending poetry. Cocaine, ephedrine, halothane, pethidine, librium, nerve gas, mandrax, serepax, tetrahydrocannabinol, methaqualone hydrochloride, hydrocyanic acid . . . a complete list would run to many pages. Tranter’s poems are a veritable chemist shop, staked with uppers and downers, anaesthetics, poisons, hallucinogens, aphrodisiacs, luxury items and ‘cheapskate pharmaceutical[s]’, (‘Shadow Detail’, UB, p. 47): a literal pharmacopoeia which figures poetry as a trip, a cocktail, a ride, a hit, a way of moving:

listen to me: you’re enjoying nothing
seen from this crisp angle
listen to me: I have been travelling for some time
aware of the necessity for choice: move!
if you wish to unravel the sources of your own sorrow
if you wish to divert the river of absolution
if you are desperate for a chance
to break up.

                   (‘Red Movie’, 2)

Pilots, ship’s captains, racing-car drivers, truckers, bikies, commercial travellers, hitchers and comic-book superheroes: this is the cast which circulates through Tranter’s poems as the dramatic instantiation of the masculine subject-in-process and the poem as plot. Through condensed and fragmentary narrative, snatches of dialogue and local detail, Tranter explores the layering of perception and the ability of language to render that density more fluidly than film, revealing the contiguity of the real, the imaginary and the representational, as in the early poem, ‘The Plane’ (one of the poems from Parallax included by Tranter in his Selected Poems [1982]):

The plane drones low over Idaho,
a thundering shadow on the wheat.
The captain is thinking of a dust-cloud
disappearing out to sea.

The heavy wings tilt, a silo
looms abruptly. The cloud
falters on the horizon of his mind.
Taped to the cockpit wall is a photograph,
a piece of Sunday afternoon,
a lawn, a bright dress, flowers.
Soon they will be flying over the mountains
in a halo of ice. The cloud
hangs about, behind the imaginary trees.

Like a parody of a private detective, the poet as narrator is ‘somewhere in the background like a faded image/ taking it in, adding it all up’ (‘Waiting for Myself to Appear’, 2): checking the horizon for omens, watching the time, marking the divisions. A title like ‘Waiting for Myself to Appear’ (which is also the final line of this poem in eight parts) points to the poem itself as the story of the subject’s dispersal in language — first the writing and then the reading subject — not as a disappearing trick, a poetics of impersonality (as Andrew Taylor has argued), (see Note 8) but as a stain or colour or shadow. Our attention is drawn insistently to the edge of the frame, the penumbra, by the promise of additional information, the missing clue which would stop up the gap, complete the crossword, solve the riddle. We are invited to dream of ‘a map/ that gives you nearly everything!’ (‘Letter to America’, 3, UB, p. 37), the Ordinance Survey map of poetry perhaps, knowing that the most we can expect is a ‘false atlas’. Autobiographical clues are noticeably absent. The poems focus instead on processes of perception — the way ‘the field fluctuates as the act of seeing/ imprints the world’ (‘Red Movie’, 5) — and technologies of representation: photography, cinema, animation, strip-cartoon, television, painting, poetry. Not a self-evident member of this set, poetry assumes its place as another technology. Instead of the poem as machine, Tranter tropes the poem as craft — hovering between its nominal and verbal forms.
     Technology as craft; craft as vessel. The poet as ship’s captain is both navigator and master-builder; a kind of owner-driver who pricks a plot marking his location as precisely as he can. But between the first and the second Elizabethans, between Daniel’s and Tranter’s ‘parallax’, the globe has been explored and colonised and mapped, the geographical and territorial boundaries traced and retraced. This poet-explorer is not only late (as all newcomers are), but also one of the colonised: ‘So I write to you “from a distant country” ‘ (AM, p.1). Underneath Europe (Under Berlin), ‘Too near, too far away, not American enough’ (see Note 9), Tranter registers his sense of writing as a late twentieth century Australian, trying to surface in the post-colonial Pacific, as an intensification of already inherent problems of witnessing, representing, decoding, transmitting:

Looking west from New York you can see
a glow on the horizon: it’s NORAD
gearing up for the night shift, a shuffling
under the Rockies as the workers wake up
and start packing lunches. Up above, the radar
nets rotate, catching star whispers and planes
packed with drugs flaking up from Mexico.
Down the rough, uneven slope to the Pacific
the dialects break in through the static —
threats, promises, the sound of dollar bills.

                   (‘Letter to America’ 3, UB, p. 38)

This muscley story-telling, the poetry of action which parodically and unsuccessfully tries on the tropes of exploration and combat, Boy’s Own Annual adventures and Super-hero rescues, plots a masculine territory and ethos which remains gender-specific for all that it is parodied, and which comes with its own disturbing passenger-load of female fellow-travellers: whores and femmes fatales, virgins and friendly wives, waitresses with short skirts, and career-women with lesbian tendencies.

Illustration of tree house

At the edge of this combat zone is the threat of lyric or elegy, an attack of sentiment which calls a halt to movement:

This loss wells up and floods the present,
blurring its dull practical gadgets, the past
making a tear-duct attack — there should be
a flush system to blow out the memory banks
so I could ready myself for these apparitions.

                   (‘Those Gods Made Permanent’, UB, p. 56)

The subject of self-censure, lyric pathos and epiphany, are often granted a big moment at the last minute: a compilation of Tranter endings would produce a very different view indeed — of high modernist despair, linked to a control of closure and cadence as the aesthetic consolation prize. In The Alphabet Murders, ‘lyric poets/ wander through like crippled birds’ (AM, 23), but, for all Tranter’s protestations to the contrary, it may be that the narrative scaffolding of his poetry exists to be broken up by the beautiful accidents of lyric — either to register rupture, the way the view darkens and the swimming pool becomes the drowning pool (‘Shadow Detail’, UB); or to frame pre-elegiac coherence and innocence:

He looks around his son’s room: the bed
unmade, the globe of the world with an
imaginary voyage plotted in blue ink,
the clutter of books and plastic toys,
a life gathering its tackle together and
pushing forward.

                   (‘North Light’, UB, p. 8)

It is not details or stories for their own sake which engage Tranter, but the processes of story-telling and registering and representing, as they intersect with the imminent histories of words, things, forms, places and people. ‘Coloured’ is one of the most heavily-used words in Tranter’s lexicon, along with ‘pale’ and ‘bright’: they point to the technics of perception itself, rather than what is perceived; the possibility of description, rather than description itself. As a way of moving, Tranter’s poetry wages war against ‘cabin fever’ (the title of a poem in Under Berlin) — the claustrophobia of language at its most utilitarian and transparent; the bondage of social codes — and, eventually, against the incapacitating welter of perception:

the faster we drive the younger we grow
     until the fuel boils,
clearing the sky completely. So this is

                   (‘Shadow Boxing’, UB, p. 27)

And this happiness would entail the death of poetry, fantasised in the final section of The Alphabet Murders, the twenty-seventh prose section which exceeds the alphabetical flight-plan, and abandons poetry with

as much poetry as we were able to hint at left as a blur on the horizon as a temporary sign, the more beautiful for being the more easily erased, and even this has strength as it is inevitable and what we have been promised and it is one promise that shall come through: that the slate of verse shall be washed clean ...

                   (AM, 27)

Tranter’s preoccupation with the death of poetry as the silence at the end of the line resurfaces in another major poem, ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’, in a more straightforwardly narrative and biographical context. From the time of his self-inflicted exile, Rimbaud wrote nothing; the ‘heresy’ of Tranter’s title is not chiefly Rimbaud’s inflammatory poetry, but ‘giving up’ (10), against which the text proposes a work ethic and an argument for poetry as profession:

I have crossed a different desert
under the same sky, the landscape
waiting like an empty glove. Arthur!
Give it up! Come back! Six a.m.,
another patient dies for whom no one
writes a poem. Another
day begins, and the traffic.

                   (‘Rimbaud’, 14)

As all-night vigil, as elegy which pays homage to a writing which is cryptic, fugitive, foreign and yet ‘wields a cutting edge’ (8), as a verse epistle addressed to a dead man who is guaranteed not to answer back, ‘Rimbaud’ also offers a dream of an alternative career: one which could steer a path between the antiquarian, pseudo-scientific M. de Banville, Rimbaud’s contemporary, whose ‘flowers . . . wither/ on the slopes of a laughable Parnassus’ (8), and the burn-out and ‘shame’ (9) of Rimbaud himself, poet turned literal adventurer: trader and gun-runner, deserter and circus-manager.
     Though Tranter’s elegy offers its own ambivalent and ‘tardy homage’(11), not least in the act of quotation and incorporation, this disciple is also a turncoat (as disciples must be if they are to labour for their own rewards) who cries traitor, and bestows the gift of his gaze on another sentimental icon, ‘the group photo of the Chinese Poetry Team — / Li Po back left’ (12), seeking there an ancient precedent for the benefits of poetic community:

they used to hold hands, share a blanket
in the winter, and get drunk together.
That was the T’ang Gang, in the old days,
if you survived the purges you were okay,
but you needed nerves of steel and a healthy

                   (‘Rimbaud’, 2)

Rejecting the model of the lone profiteer, or reclusive man of feeling (the image with which the poem opens), the poem also finally refuses to endorse the company ethic: the family that prays together stays together. The Chinese poets are another ‘parable for what has gone wrong’ (2) and, later, ‘rain dissolves / the group photo . . . / into a grey sludge’ (12). We are returned to the solace of joint oblivion and the heretical position which compels and authorises the refection of the adopted father:

Arthur! We needed you in ‘68! — you
cannot accept this burden of pity.
but in that future under whose arrogant
banner we have laboured for our own rewards
we shall both be gone into that
unforgiving darkness.

                   (‘Rimbaud’, 15)

The comforts of the highest possible style, and the resurgence of a self-privileging rhetoric of modernity — ‘you thought yours was the Century of Hell! You hadn’t lived!’ (15) — are the defensive tropes by which the poet keeps at bay the fear of his own contingency, without which there would be no solution, no consolation other than textual suicide, sealed with the author’s autograph:

‘Ma vie est finie: Rimbaud’, it’s obvious,
and the author catalogue agrees, i.e.
No Translations Held in Stock, see Starkie, Enid,
but we didn’t go to Oxford, and we ‘have no French’.

                   (‘Rimbaud’ 4)

But it is this very contingency which preserves the words ‘modern’ and ‘heresy’ as potent floating signifiers, continually emptied and replenished: to be written, to be read. Reception, however, is not a neutral process. Just as the poem rejects ‘a thin talent shrieking imitation’ and ‘the art/ of counterfeiting in a single phrase’ (6) from the trade of poetry, so it sorts out the readers it does and doesn’t want.

A sketch of Rimbaud by Cazals

A sketch of Rimbaud, by Cazals.

Rimbaud mourns the assimilation and recuperation of a once heretical discourse by the wrong readers:

                  ....The library is full of
academics, and they’re reading your book!
How do you like that? . . .

                   (‘Rimbaud’, 1)

It is driven by a double-edged desire, for the right readers (who, the poem suggests, may have to be poets) who will keep the ‘dead poet burning like a virus’ (6), and for freedom from institutionalisation, commodification:

                  ....When you shout
the sound plunges into the tangled bracken
and the bank of tussocks, your voice
is taken away from you and buried in the hills.

                   (‘Rimbaud’, 1)

The university library with its ‘history headache,/ the dialects that glitter in the bookish gloom’ (3), appears as an emblem of ‘authoritarian design’ (3), a crypt where ‘nightmares/ are neatly folded’ (4), ranked alphabetically by author, period and genre, in which a poet’s brightest future is a slot in ‘the poetry selection’ (4):

                  ....Adamson said
he went to Fisher Stacks and saw
two million books — horrible vision!
And that was only Mod. Eng. Lit.!

                   (‘Rimbaud’, 4)

[Robert] Adamson’s cameo as the self-styled Australian Rimbaud, confronting his destiny in the academy, is another deflection, another displacement. which makes us forget that it is Tranter himself who is claiming kin, not with the life (‘Brutal, extravagant, pretty, / ...what a / nasty shit you must have been’ [ 141), but with the life-as-text, in a letter which, on its own admission, is also ‘a self-addressed sympathy card’(1). A conspiratorial merging and sliding of pronouns in the opening section blurs the distinction between author and reader, whether the impossibly nominated recipient, the dead Rimbaud, or any interlocutor waiting in the shadows. The text takes shape as a writing predicated on a reading, and offers this as a process of positive recuperation, against forgetting and oblivion, a ghostly dialogue.
     Writing emerges as a kind of theft, and with it a plea for honour among thieves and co-conspirators. In a culture which has devalued poetry, and consigned it to a purely aesthetic function, Tranter is lobbying for an Australian Poetry Team — not a corporation but a guild — which could earn poetry a place in the front line of ‘the business of excitement’ (15). Tranter’s poetry insists that poetry is a technology of representation, and never forgets the possibility of intervention in the available technologies, or the invention of new ones. Though haunted by the spectre of a future which will be built on the ruins of our ephemeral modernity, by poets who will view our word-processors with the same technological nostalgia which fills these stories of our ‘postmodern’ times, Tranter’s historically responsive poetry is enabled (far more than it is disabled) by a commitment to the exploration of what ‘avant-garde’ can mean in our culture. This is the farm boy become radio producer’s desire for a high-tech, state-of-the-art poetry, even though it will soon be rusty and in need of repair, which consistently advances a masculine ethos of authentic poetry as labour and craft:

The difference between a poet writing a poem and a poet having a lyrical impulse is the difference between ... a farmer ploughing a paddock and [the actor] Bryan Brown playing a farmer ploughing a paddock. (see Note 10)

In a deft move, a pastoral model is powerfully recuperated as the basis of a technologically sophisticated poetics: the poet as tranter. This is poetry which revels in the heresy that poetry has not had its day.

Author’s Note: This paper was originally read at the 1988 ASAL conference, University of Sydney, and was written during my time as a Visiting Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre of the Australian National University. I would also like to thank John Tranter for his generous interest and for providing me with copies of the unpublished manuscript cited above and an advance copy of Under Berlin.

— Kate Lilley      


Note 1. John E. Tranter, Parallax and other poems (Sydney: South Head Press, 1970), published as a special issue of Poetry Australia, No. 34.

Note 2. Red Movie and other poems (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1972); The Blast Area (St. Lucia: Makar Press, 1974); The Alphabet Murders. Notes from a Work in Progress (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1976. Poets of the Month Series); Crying in Early Infancy. 100 Sonnets (St. Lucia: Makar Press, 1977); Dazed in the Ladies Lounge (Sydney: Island Press, 1979); Selected Poems (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1982); Gloria (Sydney: Nicholas Pounder, 1986); Under Berlin. New Poems — 1988 (St. Lucia: UQP, 1988). Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are taken from Selected Poems.

Note 3. ‘I sure could see a lot of gum trees / from our front verandah — “verandah” that’s / not even English, it’s Hindi’, ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’, 5.

Note 4. The Alphabet Murders, 18. Hereafter cited as AM in the text, and identified by section number.

Note 5. ‘Bathyscape’, Under Berlin, p. 25. Further quotations from Under Berlin are identified in the text by UB.

Note 6. ‘High School Confidential’, UB, p. 33.

Note 7. In an as yet unpublished piece for Meanjin Tranter writes: ‘In the space between things, it seemed to me, leafing through the pages of foreign books in the early 1960s — between the high and low, the ‘genuine’ and the quote, the noble gesture and the refusal to gesture nobly — lies an arena full of energy.’ I would like to thank Tranter for allowing me to read this piece in manuscript. [This piece was published as “Four diversions and a prose-poem on the road to a poetics” and is now available on this site, at poetics.html     . . . J.T. ]

Note 8. Andrew Taylor, Reading Australian Poetry, (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1987), p.161.

Note 9. ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’, 6. All further references are identified in the text by section number and the short title, ‘Rimbaud’.

Note 10. Unpublished piece for Meanjin.

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