Trio by John Tranter
Salt Publishing, 2003
Salt Publishing's decision to republish three 1970s collections by John Tranter under the title Trio nicely bookends the army of books no doubt already occupying the home library shelves of his most ardent and serious fans. In reality, this collection appears because the individual collections within are no longer in print; though I venture to believe that Trio marks the point at which Tranter is pausing for sandwiches and thermos coffee — the fork in the road.
With Trio, Tranter looks back at his prolific and envelope-pushing past, consolidating his much dog-eared older titles into a handy, chunky cross-section of work with a blurry close-up of a saxophone to seduce those who buy books solely for their pretty covers. Trio is a chronology of Tranter's 1970s life, influences and experiences, beginning with Red Movie (1972), his second book, and ending with 1979's Dazed in the Ladies Lounge. Wedged between these classic Tranter offerings is Crying in Early Infancy: 100 Sonnets (1977), a title that copped a belting from Gary Catalano in a review upon release. Rest assured, assessment of a literary work based predominantly on adherence to technical formalities is not how I believe the game should be played. Beyond the butchering of the sonnet as form, the poet provides much aesthetic food for 20th-century thought, despite the tendency for him to ‘tell' more than ‘show’ in some places. He does take care, though, in the ordering of his sonnets. Where possible, Tranter keeps settings and characters together in consecutive, related spurts of energy and enthusiasm. Once the muse tires, he wisely moves on to his next subject.
I waded through several pages until I came to a sonnet that subjectively struck me as one worth singling out for a mention. ’20. Double Images' is a short, sweet statement about how life ought to be a book, but usually isn't. This lament for the modern condition runs through much of Trio as a whole; indeed Tranter’s 1970s consciousness would help to seed much of his psychoanalytical interest, later to emerge as The Floor of Heaven, one of the lefty-loose floorboards through which Les Murray so noisily fell.
Jack Kerouac and his beat buddy Neal Cassady are Tranter's inspirations for ’24. Jack's Tracks', a poem that works to arouse an interest in nosing through the anecdotes of On the Road. I should pause to say at this point, that much of Trio has a beatnik flavour: travel, friendship, kicks, jazz and upping the establishment. Romantic fans may find themselves quite put out by Tranter's casual, shoulder-shrugging approach to the big themes of literature. Read with the postmodern spirit, though, Trio satisfies the restlessness and hopeless resignation that lurks deep within most of us.
Committed typo spotters will find one in the title at the top of page 90. They'll also delight in savouring a spacing error between stanzas at the top of page 116. But the mistakes are few, and do not conspire against the overall enjoyment of this book.
Many of Tranter's poems in Crying in Early Infancy: 100 Sonnets have a few very good lines that get undermined by weaker writing; this unwavering adherence to the standard fourteen lines of sonnet form is surprisingly paradoxical in terms of the modern ethos. Devout followers of radicalism may despair, may indeed grow tired of what Tranter is doing. But persist at least until ’64. Position: Poet', one poem which succeeds in touching the creative vein:
You have been provided with a wife and child
and a passport, and a respectable position
with a firm of publishers in the city.
As for the stammering, the occasional
failure of nerve . . . just do the best you can.
Oh — pencil, paper, one-way ticket. Have fun.
Where Crying in Early Infancy: 100 Sonnets lacks the freedom to vary in length and form, 1972's Red Movie both precedes and eclipses with respect to innovation and interest. Red Movie is as fresh now as it would've been in 1972. It's the highlight of Trio, and contains some of the best work Tranter has ever produced.
The poet eases his reader into the collection. The first five titles unsettle, with their short snapshots of nobodies overwhelmed by the bigness and badness of the modern world. Tranter resists falling, however, into a pattern and quickly moves on to critique the weight of devoted political activism on personal wellbeing with ‘Memoirs of a Forty-Year-Old Revolutionary'. It laments loss of both cause and worth. It wounds, like a fourth term of John Howard. It scolds, in its treatment of the fading Marxist dream.
City meets country, as Tranter explores the hormonal energy of relationships in ‘Country Girl'. Country purity wins out over advances made by urban masculinity towards sexual conquest of nature's femaleness. ‘Conversations' and ‘The Raft' are the long poems that precede the collection's title-piece, ‘Red Movie'. People, places and ideologies are then left behind, as Tranter shamelessly lays down onto the page fragmented chunks of stanza packed playfully with contradictions, red herrings and surreal imagery:
a man settles onto the earth
pursuing a small rodent in a dreamy light
hoping for “escape”
a man repairs his only dream with blunt fingers
unused to repair's tasselation, how he
unravels the structure
While only a third the length of his sonnet ‘experiment', Red Movie does achieve more than the middle book and, though the three collections are ordered chronologically, works well as an opener to whet a reader's appetite for more. The tired relief at getting through Crying in Early Infancy: 100 Sonnets is immediately challenged by a barrage of intellectual information at the commencement of Dazed in the Ladies Lounge.
No doubt Tranter had been reading deeply and widely between 1972 and 1979, for this collection oozes with academic pretension and cosy in-house self-referentiality. This is postmodernism in its purest, street-smart form. The opening poem about Rimbaud, I am not afraid to admit, I let straight through to the keeper without disruption to the rest of the book. ‘The False Atlas' comes next. Where Tranter bores with Rimbaud, he delights in this epic about, basically, maps, nationhood, culture and history. Broken into a fragmented arrangement of numbered stanzas ‘The False Atlas' is like Terry Southern's title credits for Kubrick's Dr Strangelove: playful, fun, but never failing to get the point across that some serious cards are on the table.
It's a very long piece: eleven pages. Tranter loses much of his momentum towards the end, and it's with a sip of water and a biscuit that many readers might rest a little before moving on. What follows is a series of thirty-line, one stanza poems on consecutive ‘themes'. Women are first on Tranter's agenda, with poetic portraits of ladies situational. Travel, cars, America and nostalgia whisk the reader along to a pair of poems, the latter of which is titled ‘Butterfly':
She shows me the book she is reading:
see, she says, when a butterfly
breaks out of the cocoon, it is already
delicate and pretty.
This is perhaps the most sensitive Tranter poem in the whole of Trio. It tells, with Romantic melancholy, the sad story of the vulnerable, exploited search for personal identity that so many young people of coming generations would feel compelled to embark upon. It is a portrait of vulnerability, an acceptance of second best.
The thirty-liners continue with a return to Rimbaudian intellectualism in a difficult series for the mainstream reader, on figures from the art and philosophical worlds trapped in postmodern situations, on beaches and in pubs, and so forth. By the time ‘The Wind' is reached, Tranter's random information proves overbearing, and ‘The Germ' provides a welcome detour into sci-fi picaresque.
Last in the book, last in the whole of Trio, is ‘Ode to Col Joye', a long poem of jagged edges and randomness, which presages the direction Tranter, and other Australian postmodernists would take for much of the ensuing decades. Of course, Col Joye means very little, as this is a poem about Australian literary politics. But it is an ode. It works as a humorous, entertaining and critical piece, with direct reference made to famous names and cities of importance in Australian verse.
I must say, as a South Australian, that it was disappointing to find not one reference to Adelaide poetry, to Friendly Street, or even to Harry ‘The Breaker' Morant; and I am still trying to decide whether it's an oversight, a snub, or a compliment. I felt left out, J. T. I felt like a Tasmanian watching the Brisbane Commonwealth Games.
Perhaps I am being mean, or trivial, or naive. Perhaps what I am really saying, though, is that Trio is a book that requires its reader to loosen the tie or put on the pyjamas when reading it. It is a weird, wonderful, fun and playful cross-section of John Tranter's best 1970s output. It will appeal to established fans, and rookie readers alike. It is a well-timed, well-presented, well-meaning indulgence into the forgotten corners of Tranter's back catalogue. Four stars, out of five.
John De Laine was born in Adelaide in 1969, and remains there. He is presently a BA undergraduate at the University of Adelaide, and is hoping to study creative writing there at Honours level. His poem 'Tendencies' won for him the 2004 Bundey Prize for English Verse at Adelaide Uni.