Michael Farrell Reviews John Tranter

6 May 2003

Cover of John Tranter's Ultra

ultra by John Tranter
Brandl & Schlesinger, 2001


At a Carlton party, someone said to me that a number of Australian poets were all right until they started imitating Ashbery: Tranter was the example given. How Ashberian is Tranter? Their mode is similar, the way they range over a topic before resting on a twig or in mid-air, yet Tranter is closer to the ground, less insouciant, more urgent, the phrasing of a private eye who's always on the case, commissioned or not.

Extreme Magpie

ultra's unattributed blurb (which starts with an elision) is presumably by God the publisher. Tranter's long bio mentions various magazine publications, none of them Australian; the excellent online journal Jacket, which Tranter edits, also goes unmentioned.

ultra presents a magpie philosophy.

two magpies quarrelling, saying
today is all that exists, and be grateful for it.
              ('Under The Trees')

That sentiment notwithstanding – for there's plenty of yesterday's existence in the book – the idea that you can make/find your own philosophy and religion surfaces again and again: 'A beat up car, // teaching him philosophy! … And religion is like the traffic, he reasoned … God speaks like a Mack truck' ('Vista'); 'I grabbed the bottle … brilliant thoughts imprisoned in green glass' ('Whitecaps'); 'ploughman as artist' ('My Story'). If this is humanism, it's a Marcelian version, for the narrators and their stories are made up by memories: 'I am here, / I am still here – printed on my memories' ('Whitecaps'); 'the black thing shrieking in the cellar' ('Globe'). Neither the stories nor the past are to be relied upon, however:

My story, a sixpence
shaped like the moon, always standing in
for someone else
              ('My Story')

she reached into her past,
that silent maelstrom, too late
              ('Whitecaps')

her life story
more like a riddle at the bottom of the glass
              ('Locket')

How ultra is ultra? Is ultra exemplified by its relentless form, the brilliant style or more by its refusal of easy epiphanies and resolutions, bathey glows? Two definitions: 'that angry remark/ that was turned into something cool and polished';

Answer me,
you little shit! There you are, sobbing,
hiding under a pile of theories in the corner
              ('Miss Proust')

Who's the little shit? The modernist, the post-modernist, the classicist, even the non- or anti-ists have their theories, whether or not they think they're visible – or dirty? The beauty of a word like ultra is that its definition can be sought in every poem, if not every line. The irony is that the only ultra word is ultra itself: perhaps this is why ultra is the first of Tranter's fifteen poetry books to have a lower-case title. It somehow earths the word – ultra sounds like the name of a planet.

At a Carlton party, someone said to me that a number of Australian poets were all right until they started imitating Ashbery: Tranter was the example given. How Ashberian is it? Their mode is similar, the way they range over a topic before resting on a twig or in mid-air, yet Tranter is closer to the ground, less insouciant, more urgent, the phrasing of a private eye who's always on the case, commissioned or not. The lines and images are shunted together: Ashbery is gentler, more elusive, and ultimately more deadly. One thing they have in common is the use of corny American words: 'chuckled' ('Globe'); 'lonesome' ('Songlines'); 'baloney' ('My Story'), but while for Ashbery such words are knots in a rat's tail of language, Tranter's usage has the effect of yellow glass. Hang on, I thought we were in a nest? (It would be perhaps more interesting to compare him to Celan or Thomas Hardy.)

The repeated form is exciting: like skateboarding for the chair-ridden. A backwards N shaped recovery. To read like an inkjet printer, but don't we always? ('Those dips and sudden swoops, it makes you ill.' ('Limbo')) These are spring poems. Keep an eye in the back of your head. I'd like to know how many he wrote. Were some left out? Or are these twenty-four the only two-pagers/ fifty-liners?

The cover features 'The Search' (Kerrie Leishman, 1995). A search is in the blood of ultra. The grail may no longer exist, but we can still find things. Luck, for example. New readings. Changes in consciousness as precious as any object or meaning. Some people think working class poetry should be given more attention (see recent issues of overland). A simple solution is more working-class readings of poets like Tranter, who provides ample evidence for such a reading. (Like magpies, we can make our own revolution.)

Tranter's enjoyment of popular culture is not that of those who accept such entertainment as their right. 'She was working class, all right.' ('Package Tour') … A satirical line unlikely I think to come from the bourgeoisie. Or more explicitly from 'Per Adua ad Astra':

… the theft of capital, how the bottle
came uncorked, and how the precious essence
of capitalism simply turned into a vapour
and disappeared, destroying whole nations.

And 'of European culture, that had destroyed more than one civilisation, and might do again'. These lines could have been written by a fanciful member of the Auden gang, but 'a rabbit … baked in milk'; 'And that struggle, growing up, dying,' ('South Farm'); 'shit on the boots' ('Serial Numbers') and the poem 'Under The Trees' argue for a 'humbler' viewpoint. In fact, the final line of 'South Farm' ('Take me back to my real parents. I am that detective') hints he may be the father of bona fide working class poet Coral Hull. Another reading: that of 'married man's poetry'. There are other versions of this: the lover of Debeljak or Hart.

Tranter's self-image is of the detective or cowboy, the bi-dimensional screen figure:

I said I was an expression of the times,
nothing more
              ('Off Radar')

The advantage is the irony available, each 'I' a pinprick to the pretensions of those who would sell their depth. 'I was like a wave in a tiny dry-point etching' ('Miss Proust'); 'I disappeared, like I was a bad dream' ('Limbo'). Or try this definition of a poet: 'A rat doesn't need // a degree in entomology, he just carries the plague,' ('My Story'). I don't want to forget French literature. 'Pyramid' reads like a Rousselian exercise. Start with paranoid and end with pyramid.

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Michael Farrell

About Michael Farrell


Michael Farrell's I Love Poetry and A Lyrebird: Selected Poems are both out this year (2017): from Giramondo and Blazevox, respectively. His scholarly book, Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention 1796-1945, was published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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