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John Tranter: Reviewed

Graham Foust reviews Late Night Radio by John Tranter

John Tranter, Late Night Radio, Edinburgh: Polygon, 1998.
This piece was first published in «Verse» magazine, combined issue Vol 15 No 3 and Vol 16 No 1, 1999. It is 432 words or about two printed pages long.

If you’re listening to a ‘late night’ radio, it’s quite possible that your device has begun receiving signals otherwise unavailable during the day. Its sounds have become exotic, unrecognizable; perhaps someone’s speaking a foreign language or playing an unknown rock band’s record for the first and last time.

book cover

     On the other hand, you might be listening to the radio late at night precisely because it is, at that moment, the only familiar thing. An old Motown song about shitty, painful love, Hank Williams on his lost highway. Or maybe there are two of you there in the dark, dancing or making love, and nothing could be less lonely, nothing better. Whatever the case, every possible late night radio scenario has, at its core, signals and darkness, electrical contact and airy enigma.
     Though there’s certainly nothing wrong with this book’s title (for of course it’s all there: the strange, the normal, love and hope and sex and dreams), this volume could have also been named for its last poem, ‘The Popular Mysteries.’ For these mysteries, these things we all know we don’t really know, are the subject of John Tranter’s Late Night Radio, a poetic cross between ‘Dream Weaver,’ a sugary-sweet late night pop classic, and John Berryman’s bitter Dream Songs, which, as their author stated, were meant to ‘terrify and comfort’ (which is to say calm, crack, and contradict):

A fact is as real as
you make it, and your complex
dreaming is a gift factory

as silly as a lucky dip, as
basic as a traffic accident.

In ‘Boarding School,’ Tranter claims ‘We’re imperfect, but that’s perfect’ and that animals are ‘truly happy,’ echoing and expanding on an earlier poem, ‘Parallel Lines,’ in which he says that ‘all animals are perfect.’ The hope that one might be happy is constantly running parallel to the acknowledgment of omnipresent pain, and Tranter’s awareness of these facts asserts itself in several different places and times.
     The old, the young, and the middle-aged seek and find each other in each other. High culture (philosophers, mescal, and airplanes) meets popular culture (B-movies, barrooms, ‘fuck-trucks’ and the news), and these meetings always point to a kind of mutual illumination, both levels containing scraps of, scratches and dents from, each other:

Can you say You fuckwit! in Italian?
No way, but if you play Wagner
loud enough you’ll get rich quick — rich
in the Bloomsbury sense of the word  —
a humus of culture, a knack for sleeping in,
these things adorn you like a froth
and the National Gallery opens its doors
for you, and you alone, at last.

(‘A Jackeroo in Kensington’)

Here we have the public made private and vice versa: the smallness of the body bearing the immensity of the world (‘My left hand does it,/my right hand tells me that it’s right’), the world shrinking quickly as, in the space of a one-page poem (for its ‘purposes’), a San Francisco watering hole is transported to Sydney, Australia.
     Like a radio, late night or otherwise, this book is full of voices, affected by the landscape, and can change its tune on the drop or don of a hat (see ‘Haberdashery’). Jack Spicer thought of the poet as a radio, or a least as the person in charge of fiddling with the knobs, and like Spicer’s verse, Tranter’s can be as shadowy and barren as it is bright and life-affirming. Both poets (and Berryman too) know we can’t have one without the other, that any force, any sound, must hit something to be felt or heard.
     As Tranter’s poems smack and swing their way across American, British, and Australian English, the ghost of Arthur Rimbaud, the poet of both youth and age, plays his (un)usual role as the familiar stranger:

and I’m hoping that the disk-drive holds out
at least till the fag-end of the party
so my drunken guests may go on bopping till they
    drop into their mottoes

as I did some twenty years ago,
embarking on this yacht, this drudger’s barge,
being ‘absolutely modern’ as my mentor taught
    from the embers of his youth

and hardly guessing then what would turn up:
these postcard views from a twinkling and distant
colony, of the twin cities: dying heart of Empire,
    sunset on the Empire State.

(‘Having Completed My Fortieth Year’)

When Tranter asks for someone to ‘Turn on the darkness,’ he’s asking for two interdependent yet seemingly incongruous ways of being. One: Let the mystery increase; let me hear anguish at top volume; its voodoo blues. Two: Betray this darkness, this ‘company of shadows,’ by acknowledging its presence, perhaps even by arousing it. The poems here tune in both light and dark signals, sound and sight, their truest music being the necessary static between the two. This is both how and where John Tranter’s sounds look.

Graham Foust, 2012

Graham Foust, 2012

Graham Foust is moving to Denver in late 2012 where he has taken a job at the University of Denver. His fifth book, «To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems» will be published by Flood Editions in 2013, and his translation (with Samuel Frederick) of Ernst Meister’s «Im Zeitspalt» («In Time’s Rift») is due to be published in 2012 by Wave Books.

Editor’s note: the old drinking song “To Anacreon in Heaven” (London, late 1700s) provided the melody for the “Star Spangled Banner”, written in 1814 and adopted as the US National anthem in 1931. — J.T.


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