Starlight: 150 Poems by John Tranter
University of Queensland Press, 2010
John Tranter has been publishing poetry for forty years, and his latest book is published in tandem with a critical companion to his oeuvre, The Salt Companion to John Tranter. As Rod Mengham writes in the companion’s preface, Tranter is “widely regarded by critics as the most important member of the so-called ‘generation of ‘68’”. This generation of poets was in fact named as such by Tranter himself. For some time, his work and its devout experimentalism has been seen as a palliative to the pastoral traditions typified by poets like Les Murray. While such a distinction may seem facile, Tranter is rightly seen as the most internationally cross-germinating of the big names of Australian poetry. And as such, Starlight: 150 Poems is his most radical work so far.
Starlight comes four years after Tranter’s major collection Urban Myths. The newest poems of Urban Myths, its Ern Malley invocations and the cinematic ‘At The Movies’, presented a committed experimentalist. Starlight is no different in its shape-shifting intentionality. The chameleon colours worn this time are that of homophonic translation-interpretations of French poets Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Verlaine in section ‘Speaking French’; situated poetic renovations, working within the constraints of other poems and their forms, in section ‘Three Poems’; film synopses, with a new ‘At The Movies’; and an interrogation of translation through ‘encounters’ with Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal in section ‘Contra-Baudelaire’. Moreover, there’s a John Ashbery quote in every poem in the first two-thirds of the book.
The collection begins with the epic ‘The Anaglyph’. It is an apt topos for this collection, since an anaglyph is two images of different colours that, when viewed through lenses of corresponding colours, creates a 3-D image. I believe in this book Tranter is trying to see what kind of 3-D image might be possible with a fixed, sourced colour as one lens (a word of Ashbery’s, a line of Mallarmé’s), and his own written colour in another lens. Naturally, poetry is more complex than this overlay, the 3-D glasses, if you will, being as magnifying and small, or as enormous and blurry as you might wish.
Sometimes, the Tranter lens is as efficient as red is to blue in rendering a 3-D image, and yet poetry can make an image of a yellow-framed sourced lens or two lenses barely distinguishable. The point is that the anaglyph is always Tranter’s doing, so it remains to be seen how successful he has been at advancing the use of poetic sources as a part of a technology of experimentalism. In this collection Tranter comes to resemble his major influences more intensely than ever before. In past books, Tranter’s experimentations have been properly formal, exploring every conceivable verse form – from the Sapphic fragment to haiku – to using word reordering computer programs. This time, formal constraint is discovered through mining the constituents of that which we contend makes an author, attributes like voice, influence and sensibility. Pseudo-plagiarising approaches like the filling of the lines of Ashbery’s ‘Clepsydra’ from Rivers and Mountains – which is precisely what the 253-line poem ‘The Anaglyph’ in Starlight does, the head and tail of every line of Tranter’s poem being Ashbery’s – perform this, interrogating authorship as well as articulating it by how different the work is to the plundered text. This book proposes something ambitious indeed: to experiment with the authorial self prior to poetic constraint, the self that read Ashbery for decades, the self that aspires to the irreverence of Baudelaire, and so on.
The title is a good place to begin, since for me at least it conjures two specific things: the legendary Aussie bushranger Captain Starlight, and the atmospheres of John Ashbery’s poetry, something like ‘My Erotic Double’ from his book As We Know (1979): “We are afloat / on our dreams as on a barge of ice, / shot through with questions and fissures of starlight …” Has John Tranter been trying to achieve something like a wedding of these two starkly different qualities, of “low bastardry” – to quote Abbott on Gillard – and its vagabond exuberances with language “shot through with questions and fissures”?
Narrative, as usual, is still crucial to Tranter’s work, but its role has changed in Starlight. He is now doing more with less, his acumen for finding narrative possibility in detail and voice sharpened. Consider the opening lines of ‘So Long’ from the ‘Speaking French’ section, which purportedly translates the sounds of an original French poem into English (so, a homophonic translation of a creative kind, of, in this case, Paul Verlaine’s ‘Adieu’):
Go meet the lenders in Polk Street Park,
and you had better bring them their money.
And in such close proximity to the static, abject, visual reality of:
Out past the two-mile limit there are bodies
rotting in a magma pit of boulders beyond
Lyricism, distinct from narrative, can be wielded in peculiar ways in Tranter’s writing, and I think this collection is his most lyrical. For in Starlight, more so than ever, those belligerent statements like “you had better bring them their money” or apprehensions pregnant with concealed peril now remain unqualified as part of a larger narrative and yet make a sharper syntax. More from ‘So Long’: “The perfume climbs,” and this is the perfume of the aforementioned bodies, “into my tree, saying / the rat race originated with the nipple.” One wants to read this as another caustic Tranter metaphor, and yet lyrically it speaks volumes more. Contextual “low bastardry” with “fissures of starlight”? I think the two have become interchangeable, part of one syntax.
The section following ‘Speaking French’ is a poetic combat with Les Fleurs du mal, a section of fifty-six poems. Written during a residency in Umbria in Italy in 2009, the poems of ‘Contra-Baudelaire’ extend the methodology of creative translation into areas unrecognisably translation-like: into dialectics, collaboration, opposition and deviation. Tranter’s ‘The Mask: Allegorical Statue in the Style of Postmodernism’ interrogates an imaginary, cosmetically-adjusted female figure in the place of Baudelaire’s descriptive “Allegorical Statue in the Style of the Renaissance”:
… you were invented
to cast your magic over a bank lobby, and
to charm those few and precious leisure hours
of a currency trader en route to somewhere else
Tranter has never struck me as resembling Baudelaire, however similar they are in willingness to roll in the muck of their relative modern milieus, but here he can come to succeed at that wonderful colour Baudelaire brings to the depraved. From ‘Goats and Monkeys’:
The smell of their shit is everywhere, and
through the night he suffers horrid nightmares:
cleaning the Augean Stables with his tongue;
flinging handfuls of dung at his ex-wife.
This colourful depravity sometimes descends into indulgent nastiness, losing its incisive, insightful grip on its subjects and resembling straight bastardry in poems like ‘You Would Fuck Everybody’. ‘The Bad Writer’ and ‘Lights on the Hill’ both portray little but superciliousness. The familiar Tranter irony hardly redeems these. This is especially the case with ‘Lights on the Hill’, which succeeds in its conjuration of painters Bacon (“one victim choked by a giant crucifix, one / sodomised in the Love Hotel”) and Stanley Spencer (“prowler of backyard allotments and annunciations”) but unsuccessfully questions the “futile blasphemies” of their celebrity. Certainly, the poem asks a complex question: how are artists to be anything but facile controversial figures, works of journalism that define their history? But isn’t this poem itself just another (failed) work of exposition? Why Tranter bothers with some of his less inspired shit-fights comes much later, not to the rescue of ‘Light on the Hill’, but rather to explain the swamps Tranter seems to self-destructively wade through, in ‘The Ideal’:
The real need of my heart, deeper than a gutter,
is you, Lady Thatcher, soul annealed by politics,
or Nancy Reagan, born in the land of lies;
or Kylie the Idol, creature of Jeff Koons –
Kylie, pinned and wriggling in a magazine,
grinning like an inflatable doll in ecstasy!
It must then be schadenfreude. Enjoyment not only of misfortune, but also the unfortunate, however masked, as we see in his profile of modern celebrity figuration in ‘The Mask’. It is these three celebrity women of ‘The Idol’ that he contrasts with Annie Leibovitz, photographic repository of celebrity fantasy, whom he anoints “Laureate of Disney Parks”. Her subjects must surely disagree with Tranter’s tough human failures Nancy, Kylie, and Maggie (each to their own mask). The schadenfreude derived from the ignominious enterprise of writing itself is another common theme in Tranter’s writing, as can be seen in ‘The Bad Writer’, ‘The Duel’, ‘Albatross’ and ‘Paris Blues’. The latter three succeed where ‘The Bad Writer’ fails, since their self-effacement seems ingenuous. ‘Aphrodisiac’ and ‘Perfume’ are more recognisably Baudelairean poems, perfumed with depravity and the ruins of desire, yet they are still redolent with Tranter-manifolds of the urban and the fantastic:
I see a hotel parking lot filled with Cadillacs,
the lobby crowded with realtors and call girls
while the shrieks of peacocks roosting on the roof
echo through the crowded streets and mingle
with the hysterical laughter of the party-goers.
His work is becoming leaner, terser, rent of the narrative mortar that once smoothed over all that bizarre-made-familiar, glossy-made-insidious montages of At the Florida. The writing has become more like the picturesque opening shots of David Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks, punctuated by throbbing images of machinery and industry.
‘The Anaglyph’ is still the best achievement of the experimental vivacity and anaglyphic consolidation of style that I spoke of earlier. Filling the spectre of Ashbery’s ‘Clepsydra’, Tranter’s poem manages to flit between memory, literary reference, anecdotes of more bastardry, that weird sublimation Tranter performs on notions of America, and incisive humour. It is a far more chaotic thing than the temperate, languorous beauty of Ashbery’s floating ‘Clepsydra’. At once, ‘The Anaglyph’ indulges in the abovementioned schadenfreude over the literary enterprise:
… I’ll explain more plainly: the map
Of the literary world is a pantomime, and its longueurs have
Prolongations of our prevarications on bad weather days,
Fine days where things seem okay but are not, those dull
We shall banish from the Ideal Republic. Who called? No, I
Not speaking to that shit: he just wants to be
Opposite me at the literary lunch.
And then moves to resemble something more like the poem’s provenance and point of departure:
Become legible? Hidden behind a screen of rocks
And foliage, the creep quickly inhales the distant
Ether and faints, thank goodness, and what I own
I see before me shining like a dagger.
‘The Anaglyph’ is the most dazzling of the poems within this collection. One wishes for more poems like this that imperil the chameleonic bastard-experimentalist sufficiently enough to name him as such. Perhaps we will see more of this anaglyphic syntax of the body below the tree and the rat race on the nipple, fissures of low bastardry starlit, in Tranter’s work to come. I think a shift in his writing is becoming evident, something greater than the sum of all these translating experiments, extending to a proposal on how we can still absolutely resemble ourselves and our expression. Or, better: an exploration of how we ourselves can come to resemble our experiments.