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John Tranter: Reviewed

Christopher Pollnitz reviews Under Berlin, 1988 by John Tranter

Christopher Pollnitz reviews John Tranter, Under Berlin, University of Queensland Press, 1988
This piece first appeared in Scripsi magazine, Ormond College, Melbourne University, volume 6, number 1. It is 5600 words or about seventeen printed pages long.

“ My suggestion is that Rimbaud continues to haunt and foster Tranter’s recent poems... because of the close emotional fit that has grown up between Rimbaud’s work and his own. ”

Cover of Under Berlin

“ — Et l’Homme, peut-il voir? peut-il dire: Je crois?” (Rimbaud)

It’s getting late in the day for a review of Under Berlin, a belatedness for which I take the blame and of which I plan to take advantage, by considering Tranter’s recent work in the longer perspective of his poetry since the late seventies. My fear is that what follows may sound at times like those most self-regarding of critical notices, the History of the Critic’s Opinions and Intimate Memoir. My promise, dear reader, is that if you can bear with this for a couple of pages, by mid-essay you should run into that more estimable critical genre, Getting to the Point. In fact, my intersections with Tranter’s poetry in the seventies were minor ones. I wrote two disparaging reviews of The Alphabet Murders and Crying in Early Infancy for Southerly, and in his introduction to The New Australian Poetry Tranter responded (I trust the supposition is not unfair) by taking some of my comments on another poet as symptomatic of the Leavis-derived heavy-handed moralism, the ‘Common-Room Humanism’, which he felt was impeding the reception as well as missing the drift of his New Australian Poets. Fair enough. In most cases I was.
     My dogmatically bewildered reviews have since been displaced by some worthwhile critical commentary, the most useful and perceptive, for my present purposes, being Rae Desmond Jones’s article ‘The Ambiguous Modernist’ (in Australian Literary Studies, 9 [October 19801, 497-501) and Andrew Taylor’s (in his Reading Australian Poetry). Re-reading Tranter’s poems from the vantage-ground of these articles, I have repented my dismissal of The Alphabet Murders, which now reads as a necessary clearing of the decks as well as a substantial and sprightly sequence in its own right. There appears less reason to shift ground on Crying in Infancy. But I was keen to re-read the poems in these books in any case, after my conversion. In 1979 I opened Southerly and found myself laughing with pleasure and confidence at ‘The Great Artist Reconsiders the Homeric Simile’. Since then, I have felt an immediate and lasting attraction to most of Tranter’s poetry. 1979 was a pivotal year for more than just my reception of Tranter’s work. It saw the publication of The New Australian Poetry, with an introduction suggesting the movement Tranter had spearheaded and anthologized was already a thing of the past, and it saw the publication of Dazed in the Ladies Lounge, which collected ‘The Great Artist . . .’ along with other poems indicating a new departure in his work. Ten years after the event is not a bad time to survey the new, accessible Tranter, to ask whether the gains made writing for, or at least about, a recognizable audience have offset surrendering his reputation as a single-minded, rather solipsistic experimentalist.
     A revealing strategy Tranter adopts in his introduction to The New Australian Poetry is the selection of individual poems, like John Forbes’s ‘TV’, for discussion. ‘TV’ is, Tranter notes, a self-conscious fiction that foregrounds its own status as artefact by considering another medium as medium rather than message, as packaging. ‘You’ are asked to disregard the programmes on television and attend to the receiver’s ‘casing’. The poem itself is encased by an imagistic framework within which an attempt to describe ‘the strip of white stillness’ on the screen, ‘like white sand’, leads into a digressive, cinematic narrative of the tropical adventures of an anthropologist. Perhaps this mode of fantasy-narrative, framed but not inhibited by metaphoric space, was first invented by Forbes rather than Tranter — who had the idea for the Lyrical Ballads? — but Tranter has gone on to make it his own, in poems like ‘Radio Traffic 2: Flak Static’ and ‘The Germ’ from Dazed in the Ladies Lounge, and in ‘Bathyscape’ and ‘Shadow Detail’ from Under Berlin. Tranter’s term for the adventure narrative, into which Forbes’s would-be objective critic of television is seduced in ‘TV’, ‘an extended Homeric simile’ is a reminder ‘The Great Artist Reconsiders the Homeric Simile’ is also cast in this mould.
     One of my pleasures on first reading this poem was being able to salute another reader of long Victorian poems, even ‘some long and boring poem by Matthew Arnold’ (Selected Poems, p. 71) Eke ‘Sohrab and Rustum’. Tranter is not just a well-read poet, what he has read most of is poetry. In the notes to Under Berlin he seems to be adding a new city to Peter Porter and Les Murray’s division of Western literature into Boeotian and Athenian camps — Alexandria. Alexandrian poets write out of a library, the library of other poetry they carry in their heads, rather than out of a commemorative rural ethic or an aspiration towards the ‘permanently upright city’. The other source of relief in ‘The Great Artist . . .’’ was not having to give it up, after successive re-readings, as posing insoluble syntactical problems. In the framework of this poem the Artist, none other than Arnold, is shown breaking off from the composition of his epyllion. A central narrative simile compares the Artist’s listless dissatisfaction with his work to the mental state of a man who returns to his apartment to find his ‘junk-struck’ girl-friend missing — she has been ‘framed’ and arrested by the drug-squad — and who wanders the streets, distressed and disoriented but unsure of the extent of his loss. Tranter’s mock-heroic simile is modelled on the climactic Homeric simile of Arnold’s poem. Rustum’s first intimation of what he may have done in mortally wounding Sohrab, the son he has longed for but has never known existed, is likened to the distress of a male eagle who returns to find his mate has been wounded and driven from her nest by a hunter: ‘As that poor bird flies home, nor knows his loss, / So Rustum knew not his own loss’, Arnold winds up. And Tranter:

                  as that poor addict
hides in horror till the heat cools off,
nor knows his loss, so Matthew Arnold brooded
on his failing similes.

Tranter’s imitations and send-ups surprise by their closeness to the structures of the originals. Of course, he is not here renouncing, he is pursuing the attack he mounted in The New Australian Poetry on that moral and critical High Seriousness transmitted from Arnold, through Leavis, to its latter-day saints in the Australian critical establishment. The short-sighted Artist, who is tired of his own similes but can see little beyond them except perhaps ‘a holiday at Dover, or Torquay’ hasn’t managed to make out the shape of the Future, which turns its back on him at the poem’s close. But neither is that Future, as represented in the simile, held up as an age of clear-eyed vision. Even the pathos of the modern world is not immune to satirical by-play:

                  never again
will those disco mirrors catch her image
floating by, nor the bathroom echo her
withdrawal screams...

The long parenthesis of Tranter’s epic simile breeds some insecurity but is ultimately contained within a grammatical structure that brings the narratives into clear relation with each other. It also brings more abstruse relationships into view. In Arnold’s poem the visionless father, resentful at neglect, kills off the best of youth. In Tranter’s the new repudiates the old — the son tramples on a literary father-figure — though what appears of the new is nothing to celebrate. As in most of Tranter’s (and Arnold’s) poems there are only losers, though the prevailing comic tone in Dazed in the Ladies Lounge doesn’t allow the poet to brood on what golden lads and girls all must. But pursue the idea of generation conflict for a moment and it becomes clear that, as Rustum and Sohrab need each other to compose their tragic vignette, so a new poetry has needed a conservative establishment to define itself against. Tranter praised ‘TV’ as the work of a writer

‘...not concerned with persuading the reader to accept his view of human destiny; ethics, morality, religion and mythology are distinctly absent from the writer’s concerns.’

...I should like to take the opportunity here to mention that the late John Forbes expressed keen and vigorous disagreement with that sentence. [ John Tranter, 1998 ]


Given that Forbes’s isn’t a rhetorical poem — that it plays with ironic hints and misdirections of sympathy and valuation, and offers that play as its ground value — it still isn’t as evacuated as Tranter makes out. ‘The Great Artist...’ seems even less so. The composing of its narrations in a grammatical frame-work has made it possible to make out potential, relativist rather than dogmatic, arrangements of ethical, mythic and even religious significance, at play in the background behind the aesthetic parable in the foreground.
     In his introduction Tranter belaboured me for finding similar implications in a poem of Rae Desmond Jones’s, ‘The Front Window’. The Artist of Jones’s poem sketches ‘an old greek woman’ carrying ‘a big brown paper / parcel’, then proceeds, like a cartoonist, to erase his word-sketch. The woman ‘becomes gradually faint / & weak’ and drops the parcel, which ‘sets loose a swarm of angry / bees’. Although I had a neighbour who used to collect swarms in supermarket cartons, I was worried about whether anyone would carry them round in a paper parcel; it’s evidently unwise. At the time I deduced that this old Greek woman with her strange burden was implausible enough to be a manifestation of Graves’s White Goddess, also associated with bees. Again, because ‘The Front Window’ fronted up in a volume with the Hindu title Shakti, it was plausible to read it as a parable about a writer’s imaginative dealings with the Female — about the retribution visited on the artist lacking in compassion for his own female creations. In chastising my reading Tranter had a better grasp of the shifting and merging levels of the poem’s fictions — that it ‘reveals a double view of the creative act in a single frame’. He dismissed as ‘strained’ my proposal that it could be a parable of compassion involving a capitalized ‘She’ declaring ‘Jones is here shrugging off the Puritan work ethic, and making a delightful poem out of his ability to play freely within his text’. But ‘delightful’ is pushing it. Tranter’s insistence on erasing the moral disquiet that Jones’s text persists in arousing is a key to the difference between the two poets. Indeed, ‘The Front Window’ already contains a mise-en-abîme for Tranter’s kind of critical activity. The poem’s conclusion implies that, although an artist’s work begins in amoral play, it ends by drawing him back into the same moral hang-ups he had in the first place, that confusions of life with art and of moral with aesthetic judgments are as ineradicable as are the ‘living’ bees released in fantasies of destruction:

                  ...their tails are fat &
they beat against the glass & live
although i rub them out one by one
they are a plague...

Although Jones has never felt the need to comment on ‘The Front Window’ he has published an analysis isolating those properties of Tranter’s seventies poetry which set it apart from the New Australian Poetry. Jones diagnoses Tranter as a classical modernist, too concerned with the fate of culture to enjoy the relaxed playfulness of the postmodernists he has anthologized. Tranter’s ‘poetry of alienation and despair’ speaks out of ‘the anguish of the believer’ who cannot ‘be persuaded he should believe, even in poetry’. Jones touches on the crucial diffidence in Tranter, whether the poet, without sacrificing his role as Artist for that of ideologue or moralist, can impose value or create significance. The virtue of this analysis is that it opens to view the recurrent dilemma in Tranter’s criticism and poetry, between a writer who has serious things to say about culture and one who feels that any attempt at seriousness falsifies discourse. It is a dilemma which has its roots in the nineteenth-century crisis of belief, in poets like Rimbaud and the much-reviled Arnold. In a more sophisticated Barthesian reading of Tranter, Andrew Taylor characterizes this uncertainty as a ‘distrust of the notion of poetry as a discourse bearing a moral or social message from an identifiable and unified subject, “the poet”’. For Taylor, Tranter’s sense of ‘the subject as construct’ has enabled him to rid his poems of the ‘authorising presence’ of a unified subject. Whereas acceptance of a unified subject as ‘natural’ entails a conviction of loss of control to ‘forces beyond... comprehension and control’ (the subject in the grip of historicist value-systems, for instance), a consciousness of subject as itself a fiction empowers some degree of control over what fictions are authorized. Or not authorized, as seems to be the case, most often, with Tranter.
     I should pause here to explain that I don’t wish to debate Taylor’s theoretical orientation but to use and adapt it to interpret a line of development in Tranter’s work. Taylor provides a theoretical scaffolding from which it is possible to see how some of the (let’s call them) ‘poly-logues’ in Dazed in the Ladies Lounge might work. ‘Leavis at the London’ is one of a series of poems purporting to introduce European intellectual figures to Sydney pub-life. It may be read as passing a particular mood or behavioural model, of truculent individualism, through a series of narratives, social situations, registers and discourse-possibilities, like so many acid-baths, to see just how durable, brittle or empty it turns out to be. Although the mode of address (to a constant if ambiguous pronoun ‘you’) is reassuringly stable in this poem, the addressor of this quasi-consecutive narrative is best construed as not constant — as a succession of provisional and mutating narrators. Such a multiple narrator may derive ultimately from the point of view Eliot eventually assigned The Waste Land to, Tiresias. But Taylor apparently wants a more consistently constructed subject that Tranter provides. Searching ‘Leavis at the London’ for a single constructed subject, Taylor can find little in it beyond an illustration of the indeterminacy of the signifier. But if my hunch is right, that Dazed in the Ladies Lounge contains quite a few such poly-logues, these may be the end-result of a series of experiments ‘with the use of different tones’ Tranter spoke of in 1976 (Martin Duwell, A Possible Contemporary Poetry, p. 25). As a technique for holding in suspension the authorizing subject while at the same time creating verse with narrative excitement and emotional nuance, effects which can usually be achieved only by establishing a unified narrative point of view, these poems represent a signal advance over Tranter’s earlier work, in Crying in Infancy.
     Taylor describes these sonnets in many cases as ‘hermeneutic striptease’ — poems demonstrating how successfully they can resist interpretation. Tranter has denied that the sonnets are obscure, are dream-inspired surrealism or are abstract expressionism. But his denials are not supported by the story he himself tells of sonnet 70 — that John Forbes persuaded him to retain a line ‘It was greasy all over like a widow’, in which ‘widow’ was a mistyping of ‘window’. Does the change make any difference in the quasi-surreal verse of Crying in Infancy? Well, yes, it does. ‘Window’ still makes more consecutive sense in a poem to do with sentimental retrospection, but the ‘widow’ has continued to appear in Crying in Infancy and Selected Poems, an index of Tranter’s willingness to adopt Dadaist or surrealist principles if they help muffle the positive tone of a single voice speaking. Another aid he calls on, or spell he falls under at this time, is John Ashbery’s expressionist syntax. Tranter’s subject might be characterized as metamorphosing between the beginning and end of a single metaphor. In the metaphor the effect can be infectiously comic; in the course of the poem it is painfully inconsecutive. If the author doesn’t quite die despite all the assaults upon him, it is because he serves as an editor vetting the materials brought forward by the various disorderings of the subject. Rather like mid-period Dylan Thomas, the result is a controlled surrealism, very experimental if perhaps a little predictable in verbal texture, and not fun to read in quantity. The too-perfect fit between disintegrated subject and disintegrated syntax produces, not gobbledegook, but a writing that is all tonalities and textures, that lacks narrative impetus and emotive nuance.
     Against the current of Tranter’s own remarks about Rimbaud, that he exorcised the French poet’s influence in ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’ and has outgrown it since, it may be ventured that an ongoing preoccupation with Rimbaud’s significance — this, rather than a formal influence — has directed recent developments in Tranter’s style. The political activist in Rimbaud, the revolutionary who invoked ‘Morts de Quatre-vingt-douze et de Quatre-vingt-treize’, has at most only ever drawn ambiguous assent from Tranter; his notion of revolution has come to be exclusively aesthetic; and in the ‘. . . Modernist Heresy’ he rejected revolutionary practice with an unusual directness:

                  ...I drift through
tropic endeavours where deceit and betrayal
of temporal power is to be excused in favour
of a greater politics. Reading books.
I look for something generous,
beautiful, and profound. Rebel, Revolt,
Revolution — in these contradictions
there is a germ of peace, but at the cost
of war, and in that broil of horror
the possible gestures of love are shrivelled up.

There’s no sign of an unstable subject in these lines, which become rhetorical (war as a ‘broil of horror’) in their declarativeness. Militarism has been a topic on which Tranter has been prepared to abandon his habitual moral negativism and affirm values explicitly. If the near-sentimentality of the passage lessens its poetry, it remains an indicator of Tranter’s willingness to step outside avant-gardism at points where he feels ‘gestures of love’ may not be mawkish, and so looks forward to celebrations of domestic affection in Under Berlin like ‘North Light’.
     While Rimbaud’s discovery ‘JE est un autre’ opened the way to modernist and postmodernist alienations of the first-person pronoun, and his insistence on ‘un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens’ has given a warrant to Tranter’s continuing, if increasingly wary, interest in the drug culture, there is, in Rimbaud’s work, a counter-tendency. It is a love of vagabond youth and working-class verities, a nostalgia for country pleasures and childhood simplicities, for a more innocent, less self-conscious, more ‘natural’ subject. In the words of ‘Mémoire’ a poem Tranter alludes to in Under Berlin, it is ‘Regret des bras épais et jeunes d’herbe pure!’ The same yearning for a more pristine and paradisal consciousness makes itself felt throughout all periods of Tranter’s poetry, though it may be, as in ‘Dirty Weekend’ no more than nostalgia for a disillusionment one stage prior to one’s own:

you should know better, cheap trick, but then
you’re new to the game, aren’t you?
Here, clothe your idiot wishes in a
fifty-dollar kiss and let me sleep that
dreamless sleep that’s more a kind of grieving,
then watch me haunt your future, blurred,
half erased, like a red tattoo.

My suggestion is that Rimbaud continues to haunt and foster Tranter’s recent poems, not because he is, as Tranter has described him, the ‘prototype’ of all the modernisms (Duwell, p. 21), but because of the close emotional fit that has grown up between Rimbaud’s work and his own.
     Regret for innocence is also nostalgia for a simpler subject and poetic voice, such as speaks of familiar backgrounds and congregations in the opening poems of Under Berlin. In ‘Backyard’ there is one unfamiliar presence at the barbecue, ‘the God of Smoke’ for whom the burnt offerings of the ritual are prepared, but his existence, like the gods of the Stoics, only matters if it is allowed to become more than hypothetical. Matthew Arnold can take a rest this round. The kind of poem against which ‘Backyard’ takes up its adversarious stance is Les Murray’s ‘The Mitchells’, a poetry which insists there are deeper, buried significances in social rituals. For Tranter the effort to implant further significance in the ‘tattered arena’ of human custom, or to uncover it from that arena, contaminates the limited significance it already has:

And the brown dog worries the khaki grass
     to stop it from growing
in the place of his worship, the burying bone.
     The bone that stinks.

The poem concludes that it is wise not to ask of this or of other rites more than they obviously offer — ‘some cold beer, a few old friends in the afternoon, / a Southerly Buster at dusk’. In Australia the principal medium for transmitting this note of Horatian stoicism, this Larkinesque refusal to pick up bad habits of expectation, has been Peter Porter; Porter too is the presiding presence over the dying fall, ‘at dusk’; so that, not for the first time, Tranter, writing poems with other poets in mind, seems to be saying No to Murray but No with Porter, a Porter naturalized to the rhythms and imagery of suburban Sydney. For all the literary sophistication that underpins its limpid surface, there seems no avoidance of an authorizing subject in ‘Backyard’. How to write and read poetry may still be a theme, but in the new quiet voice of these poems the falsifying of signification is addressed as theme rather than embedded and enacted in the difficulties of the signifying medium.
     The tone remains cool in all these poems of the quiet voice. There is no colloquial collaring of a reader, and no Romantic self-exhibitionism either. There is, however, the simple or subtle emotional kernel that goes with a unified speaking voice. The lucid murmuring is not hard to overhear, nor does it take long to trace to the heart of the matter veins of reflection, that may seem at first so clear as to be transparent. The first part of ‘Country Veranda’ looks out on a lack of event that is theatre both suffocating and comforting because so well known; the second part considers the semiotics of the same view as opening on to possibilities of exploration, perhaps to Rimbaud’s l’inconnu. But alas, these possibilities have also turned out to be connu:

Behind that ridge of mist and blowing eucalypt tops
    the world waited once:
     exotic, inexhaustible.

You’ve been there now, and found that it’s not much fun.
     On the veranda, silence
     fills the long afternoon.

This is a poetry of litotes, litotes of an extraordinary, quaking power. Poems which seem light and easy at first reading, like ‘The Guides’, gather force and presence without losing their light, unassuming tone. It’s the unprophetic note, and it can hit as hard as the other. The ending of ‘Braille’ shows how the seemingly limited diction can also sustain a satisfying wit. Here an ageing teacher-and-writer’s strenuous efforts to rehabilitate his self-image through the attentions of his student-and-acolyte succeed in producing a wry aporia of predication, a wilful suspension of disbelief.

Believing in it makes it real,
you tell her; and she does.

Traditional dramatic monologues like ‘Braille’ or ‘Moonie’ are possible in the voice, though the latter actually slips from portrait to stream-of-consciousness with a freedom that doubles the image without blurring the focus. It is difficult to imagine another Australian poet entering so wholly into the confusions and idioms of this monologue’s female speaker:

I’m engaged in a group healing seminar
that runs till dawn, recycling dreams
that nobody wants. I’ll cry if I want to,
won’t I? Under the lights? And be a total person
with a tic, collecting dollars in the parking lot.
There’s my Mom, years back, washing up,
imagining the fifties will go on forever.
One day, in the desert, a swarm of awful
things will take place, one after the other,
and I can feel the damage coming...

The preoccupations of Under Berlin are still belief and disillusionment, perception distorted by desperate impositions of value, but these have now been translated into theme, a poetic property only just detectable in Tranter’s most experimental verse. The tonal velleities and variety of the earlier work persist, but attached to stable personae they give the poetry a new psychological edge.
     Things in Under Berlin I’m unattuned to include two long pieces towards the end, in the old expressionist manner of floating narratives and pronouns, and most of the twenty-four parts of ‘Sex Chemistry’. Whether Tranter perseveres with his Sydney Satyricon out of some wish to make up single-handed for the dearth of erotic content in Australian poetry, I don’t know. But unlike Frank O’Hara, Tranter is a better reflective than erotic poet, a collector of the curious, worn-out flotsam bobbing in the wake of Eros, who soon wearies himself into sameness describing fast-lane sex-role changes and glitzy pool-sides. The pointlessness may be the point —

you can tell me what they mean, these
circulating couples, these proposals

— but it is made at length. Elsewhere, though, there’s an impression of old styles being re-run with a new discipline and sense of function. Tranter’s fantasies, ostentatiously constructed out of the idiom and imagery of B-movies and comic-books, have long niggled at one’s critical nostalgia for some sort of seriousness, and perhaps that niggling was enough in its time. In Under Berlin, though, ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’ and ‘Spark’ manage to retain the romping quality of their pop-art models, while also deconstructing the racist and militarist semiotics of Biggles-to-B-movie rhetoric. The fantasies map the bridges and barriers between popular art and the self-aware stuff. In ‘During the War’ Tranter has taken the polylogue a step forward and back by putting it in the mouth of a single speaker — a police informer and / or spy whose confused memory and conscience render him powerless to tell a single story or compose a coherent record. When asked in a recent interview about his ambitions for his writing, Tranter replied, ‘I want to find out how to put all the things I learned over the last twenty years into a poetry that doesn’t appear to be conscious of them’ (Candida Baker, Yacker 3, p. 333). The variety, understatement and control of Under Berlin suggest the programme is already in operation.
     ‘Debbie & Co’ epitomises this undemonstrative compression. Debbie’s point of view is like a vacuum-pump. The more details it adds to her and her friends’ vigil by their less than glitzy public pool the more empty appears their past, present and future. Debbie inhabits another ‘arena’ of custom and fashion, but one whose absence of self-given significance — for Debbie lacks the means to discriminate amongst what is there and to imagine what isn’t — makes it consumerist heaven and existentialist hell. In one sense this is just a harrowingly realistic glimpse of a Western teenage ‘culture’; in another it is Tranter’s bottom line for allowing intelligence to fall into the thick, young arms of Rimbaudian innocence. For there is no Romantic safety-net, no universal mind or female hypostasis, to bear up Tranter’s nostalgics when they regress to youth or simplicity. Regression to an ‘état primitif de fils du soleil’ (Illuminations, XVIII) brings the imagination to the waste land as surely as does progression through the stations of self-sophistication. Indeed, in Debbie’s cultureless culture the way up is the way down.
     ‘Voodoo’ is the artist’s impossible scream out of the same vacuum. His plight is presided over by two figures whom Auden might have called Witnesses. They are incarnated as automobile ornaments in a ‘flash wog’s’ car (a scratch of xenophobic surface noise a reader’s not likely to pass over). On the one hand the ‘nodding dog / blinks out his witless approval’, on the other ‘the dipping bird sips and sips... dries out’,

dries out utterly, totters weakly
on the lip of philosophy
then dips again.

Tranter’s name for these self-born mockers of his enterprise is ‘critics’. It’s not hard to recognize a life-enhancing, yea-saying Leavisite in the one, or a flask-carrying, maudlinly maudit deregulator of the senses in the other. The horror is that both are now recognized not only as critics but as critics who ‘teach us how to live’. ‘Hefted up over the city like ju-ju dolls’ they preside over what the Artist can achieve on his page and over all the chances of partly living in Zombie Sydney. Aesthetic detachment is no more; the good and bad genius of the artist’s imagination have been, all along, the Witnesses brooding over life in his society; and if he can now, like Arnold’s Sophocles, ‘see life steadily and see it whole’ it is because there is nothing to look forward to, or to look outward to, in life or art. As usual in Tranter, the black nihilism of the concluding Arnoldian allusion is produced with such a comic flourish as to shine with energy (‘the icy rain / furious and seething’) and it has some interesting resonances, I think. Arnold and Tranter not only share a humanist interest in the fate of culture, they have a common remedy for the besetting insularities of English and post-English cultures — a well-read, cosmopolitan openness to the foreign and the new. I can’t find any allusions to grave Tyrian traders in Tranter, at present, but one of Arnold’s Homeric similes Tranter might still find effective is the one at the end of ‘The Scholar-Gypsy’ where the trader undoes his ‘corded bales’ for the ‘dark Iberians’. ‘Voodoo’ may be more of a local gripe than an indictment of Western civilisation: Europe gets Sophoclean tragedy out of its ‘flash wogs’ and what do we get — ‘Noddy / and his loopy brother’.
     My favourite poem in Under Berlin, ‘Voodoo’ has all of that paradoxical energy which surges through Tranter’s moral negativism — a Swiftian satirical verve. Not even Swift managed to write without implying some positive values, he just keeps us arguing what they were; and Tranter, even in the avant-garde age of his demountable or disappearing subjects, was espousing the importance of international culture and the excitement of trying to write one’s best as positives. Perhaps these are still inversely projected in ‘Voodoo’, but in other poems, like ‘Having Completed My Fortieth Year’ they seem on the way out. There, imitating a Peter Porter poem with his usual exactness, Tranter transforms an allusion to the ‘dragueur’ of Rimbaud’s ‘Mémoire’ — the ‘dredger’ in his barge dragging the depths of alternative selves — to the ‘drudger’ toiling on with his disk-drive and type-cast identity. As for Porter’s London and O’Hara’s New York, their vision and value have faded to ‘postcard views from a distant / colony... dying heart of Empire, / sunset on the Empire State’. Or consider ‘Lufthansa’ which I shan’t do at length, since Taylor gives a good account of it. It is worth comparing the zest for technology and technique in The Alphabet Murders with the way the parallel exhilaration in ‘Lufthansa’ — the confidence in a tradition of humanist ambition that begins with Dürer’s engravings and ends with the turbo-jets of the plane — is undermined by dread and doubt. The ‘faith’ that replaces it for the passenger, that is ‘sad and practical, and leads back to our bodies’ and to thoughts of friends, might be called a non-literary Personism. It helps at times to alleviate the blackness, but not much.
     If I were a critic teaching Tranter how to live, I’d point out that he needn’t be too despondent about his own craft: there is plenty to be exhilarated by in Under Berlin. In fact, from here on, uncritical obedience of his negativist reflex might flatten out his work to a predictable Anglicised glumness. Peter Porter has already tried so many variations of the memento mori conclusion there aren’t many more likely to turn up in this generation. But rather than play ju-ju doll, I’ll content myself with remarking: Tranter’s best poems — and there are a good bundle of them in Under Berlin — make it clear that he has yet to succumb to any literary formula or -ism. He now has the freedom and the training to shrug off belief and unbelief, and give himself to the developing moment of the poem.

E N D        The Internet address of this page is http://johntranter.com/reviewed/underberlin-pollnitz.shtml