Verse cues turn into Ter­mi­nals

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Heart Starter By John Tran­ter Puncher & Wattmann, 149pp, $25

Iremember on a sunny day in Perth back in March 2011 sit­ting un­der a tree on the Univer­sity of Western Aus­tralia cam­pus wait­ing for John Tran­ter to read from his just re­leased and al­ready lauded col­lec­tion, Starlight — 150 Po­ems. It had been a pleas­ant enough af­ter­noon, Peter Rose was chair­ing the read­ings, Kate Lil­ley and Mark Tredin­nick were also ap­pear­ing and, as is in­evitably the case with such events these days, too great a per­cent­age of the au­di­ence were po­ets them­selves.

When Tran­ter came to the mi­cro­phone I took an es­pe­cial in­ter­est, hav­ing un­til then only ever en­coun­tered his prodi­gious body of work on the page. As soon as he be­gan to read I un­der­stood some­thing that a thou­sand pages of his work could never teach me. Here was a quiet but in­ci­sive voice, so finely honed that it seemed to have smug­gled it­self into the epi­cen­tre of the min­ing boom. His read­ing was phleg­matic, not stud­ded with pompous al­lu­sions but full nev­er­the­less of a wry eru­di­tion.

What struck me most, though, was how funny Tran­ter was. Stand­ing in the sun like some public ser­vant es­caped for the lunch hour, he de­liv­ered his lines in a dead­pan both sar­donic and re­demp­tively gen­er­ous in tone.

Tran­ter’s po­ems of­ten be­gin with the bor­rowed vacu­ity of or­di­nary spo­ken lines. In his new col­lec­tion Heart Starter these in­clude: ‘‘Thanks, I’m feel­ing a lot bet­ter’’, ‘‘God I was bored!’’, ‘‘Just look, will you, at those build­ings’’, ‘‘Thanks: gin mar­tini, straight up, no ice’’, ‘‘I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met’’, ‘‘Well, why don’t you ask him’’. With the canons of verse lit­tered with in­deli­ble first lines — ‘‘Drink to me only with thine eyes’’, ‘‘I wan­dered lonely as a cloud’’, ‘‘Do not go gen­tle into that good night’’ — Tran­ter’s first lines are point­edly de­funct. But as I dis­cov­ered at that read­ing in Perth, they are also metic­u­lously lay­ered, full of lively energy and a nat­u­rally fool-ish air.

When ca­su­ally id­iomatic open­ing lines such as Tran­ter’s first be­gan to ap­pear in the work of 20th-cen­tury po­ets their very or­di­nar­i­ness was a call for lib­er­a­tion. Po­ets such as Frank O’Hara and Allen Gins­berg were rev­o­lu­tion­ary in their time but in Tran­ter’s distinc­tively Aus­tralian case such first lines are rev­o­lu­tion­ary in the lit­eral, rather than the ide­o­log­i­cal, sense of the word. Things go around and re­turn: voices, other peo­ple’s phrases, cin­e­matic cliches, de­motic pos­tures, artis­tic meth­ods and poetic modes.

Fit­tingly, then, Tran­ter does his eaves­drop- ping not just at the bus stop or the cafe but as an ac­tive reader on the in­ter­net and the page. He is one of the most com­mit­ted ex­po­nents of what the Amer­i­can critic Jed Ra­sula calls ‘‘wread­ing’’, that two-way en­gage­ment wherein read­ing and writ­ing be­come the one act. In fact, de­spite the ba­sic bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tail that he was born in the NSW south­ern high­lands town of Cooma in 1943, Tran­ter’s true sense of place and cli­mate lies in the far more mal­leable and por­ous ge­og­ra­phy of poetic texts.

In Heart Starter Tran­ter’s method is to start with the end-words of the lines of another per­son’s poem and from that con­struct a new poem of his own. His pre­dom­i­nant foundries here are two an­tholo­gies, The Best of the Best Amer­i­can Po­etry 2013 and The Open Door: One Hun­dred Po­ems, One Hun­dred Years of Po­etry Mag­a­zine, pub­lished in 2012. He calls the re­sult­ing po­ems ‘‘Ter­mi­nals’’ and the per­sis­tent am­bi­gu­ity the method pro­vides him with is built from con­tra­dic­tory forces: on the one hand spon­tane­ity, on the other a stud­ied pose.

Like most of his work, Tran­ter’s Ter­mi­nals have strong Amer­i­can high­lights but the deeper seeds of these ironic wread­ings lie fur­ther back in fin-de-siecle Paris, with the scep­ti­cal clar­ity of Baude­laire and also with Os­car Wilde’s deadly com­ment that ‘‘all bad po­etry springs from gen­uine feel­ing’’. It would be true to say that just as Daniel Cohn-Ben­dit and the Parisian stu­dents of 1968 were de­tested by Left and Right alike, so too does Tran­ter ex­ist, with a grin, in the space be­tween.

I men­tion Paris 1968 be­cause it is the gen­er­a­tion from which Tran­ter comes, though in his


case not with a mega­phone but a palimpsest. As early as 1963, at the age of 20, he was fir­ing up the Ter­mi­nals method in a poem called Aus

tralia Re­vis­ited, in which he re­ar­ranged rhyme schemes and end-lines of AD Hope’s fa­mous poetic man­i­festo, Aus­tralia. As it hap­pens, Hope was also born in Cooma — and Tran­ter has since ad­mit­ted to a de­gree of ju­ve­nile lau­re­ate-envy in writ­ing that early poem. Nat­u­rally, though, the ma­te­rial he is com­pos­ing in

Heart Starter is less over­bear­ing and the re­sults are far more suc­cess­ful.

The poem Dot­ing on Blub­ber for in­stance, whose first line is ‘‘Aren’t they beau­ti­ful, those jel­ly­fish’’, is seeded by the poem Dif­fer­ence by Amer­i­can poet Mark Doty. In Tran­ter’s hands the mild sugar of Doty’s North Amer­i­can sin­cer­ity is in­flated into a comic paean to un­charis­matic fauna and the ab­sur­dity of all odes. Each line-end cor­re­sponds with Doty’s but Tran­ter ex­cels at rib­bing and revving up the ma­te­rial.

For a start he po­si­tions him­self not at Doty’s sym­pa­thetic dis­tance from the sub­ject but as kin to the un­re­garded form­less blob be­hind the aquar­ium glass. This self-ef­face­ment, as al­ways with Tran­ter, in­volves much cere­bral joust­ing. For just like the jel­ly­fish it­self, Dot­ing on Blub

ber has a rather in­tri­cate in­ter­nal struc­ture com­pared with which its ap­pear­ance is mis­lead­ing. In other words, reader be­ware. Noth­ing is quite at face value in Tran­ter, be it beau­ti­ful or ugly, charis­matic or bland. The poem is a good ex­am­ple of the kind of al­le­gor­i­cal stand-up he de­lights in, where the value of his tech­nique lies in its abil­ity to be ac­ces­si­ble and in­tel­lec­tu­ally com­plex at the same time.

If there is a down­side to Tran­ter’s gen­er­a­tive method it may be that it sets up a frame­work whereby any dis­junc­ture can look co­gent and there­fore even some straight-out bad rhymes can be con­cep­tu­ally jus­ti­fied as part of the icon­o­clas­tic fun. This crit­i­cism con­nects in

a gen­eral sense to the pit­falls of rel­a­tivism in all post­mod­ern art. An ex­am­ple in Heart Starter is

Et in Cal­i­for­nia Ego, trig­gered by Alice Stall

ing’s On Vis­it­ing a Bor­rowed Coun­try House in

Arcadia. Here Tran­ter’s ad­her­ence not only to Stalling’s aab­bc­cdda verse pat­tern but also to end­ing each of his lines with the same word she does, leads to rhymes such as: ‘‘Yes honey you turn to look back but in­stead / the fu­ture ap­pears be­fore you, ev­ery day / longer than the last, your dog … say, / was that your dog Hobo dis­ap­pear­ing be­hind that row’’.

The ‘‘day-say’’ con­straint Tran­ter takes on via Stalling’s poem ends up lame in a way that even his ironic gifts can’t save. This is the risk of an ad­dic­tion to games of for­mal con­straint. At times the ef­fect can come across as facile, the prod­uct of a nerdish cru­civer­bal­ist rather than a poet, when in fact the con­stant in­ter­play be­tween the sub­ject and form of a poem needs al­ways to be more than a game. For even if we ac­cept Wilde’s maxim, an on­to­log­i­cal acu­ity has to ex­ist for a poem to rise above its num­bers, as well as craft by ear. Oth­er­wise it can lan­guish in an ob­ses­sive cul de sac, which in Tran­ter’s case would seem con­tra­dic­tory to the open­ness and flex­i­bil­ity of his voice.

In the last sec­tion of Heart Starter Tran­ter for­goes the Ter­mi­nal method in favour of one of his great loves, the son­net. His in­ter­est in this form has been a con­stant in his work. Long be­fore that af­ter­noon in Perth, I re­mem­ber read­ing his Cry­ing in Early In­fancy — 100 Son

nets, and be­ing at once se­duced and con­fronted by the ease with which he em­ployed and re­jigged the form’s ro­man­tic lin­eage. The ex­am­ples in Heart Starter, 10 of which ap­peared in a 2013 chap­book pub­lished by Vagabond Press, con­tinue that process. Here Tran­ter uses the five vow­els of English —A E I O U — as synaes­thetic nodes within the lines, which seems as much a play on the bullet list as it is a nod to Mal­larme. What­ever the case the blend of lin­guis­tic ab­strac­tion with lyri­cal im­agery is strik­ing. One gets a sense in po­ems such as

Tas­man Son­net, Mou­ton Cadet and Far North Farm of the lan­guage be­ing spring-cleaned by ex­per­i­men­tal­ism rather than merely toyed with. What is also abun­dantly clear is that Tran­ter’s in­ven­tive energy re­mains undi­min­ished even into his 70s.

John Tran­ter’s sense of place

lies in po­etry

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