The Floor of Heaven: some older notes
These “older notes” were prepared for a website managed by HarperCollins, relating mainly to the 1992 HarperCollins edition of the book. JT, 2015.
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Excerpts from Interviews
Excerpt from a talk between John Tranter and Nina-Marie Petrik in Australian Book Review, November 1992:
Nina-Marie Petrik In his earlier poem ‘The Poem in Love’, John Tranter suggests that perhaps the relationship between the reader and the poem is more intimate than the relationship between the writer and the poem, inferring that once a reader becomes involved with the poem, the liaison enters another dimension that has little to do with the poet. He explains this further:
John Tranter …it is true that once you’ve written a poem and published it, it’s just gone, then, and people can criticise the poem and talk about it at parties and review it in magazines and say things about it that you never imagined. A writer can’t determine how a poem will be read by his or her readership. A number of readers can read the same poem at the same time and form different conclusions about what it’s doing for them. Readers also project onto a poem what they wish to find in it, or what they’re afraid of finding in it. I’ve occasionally found people able to tell me about things in my poetry that I haven’t known were there, consciously, but in fact were there, really, all the time.
Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Canadian writer Barbara Williams in 1995:
Barbara Williams What was the initial impetus for writing this work? Why the radical departure in form and style?
John Tranter I can’t remember clearly exactly how I came to start that thing, but I think I was trying to write a novel, as I do every five years or so. I had been inspired by a short story called George by the Australian writer Christina Stead, published in the Paris Review in 1967, issue number 40. This story is the first half of a novella entitled Girl from the Beach, most easily available in the paperback collection of four novellas by Christina Stead entitled The Puzzleheaded Girl (Virago Modern Classics, 1984; first published in Great Britain by Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd., 1968).
Her story is really a monologue, and it has a breathtaking headlong rush that drags you through this character’s life and a love affair that went wrong. I wanted to get that obsessive effect of a monologue that buttonholes you and won’t let you go – one reviewer quite rightly likened The Floor of Heaven to Rime of the Ancient Mariner – and I began the piece that turned out to be Gloria in prose. Eventually I realised it wasn’t going to go the length of a novel, so it became a short story. That kind of thing happens more times than I care to mention.
Then it wasn’t working as a story, so I thought ‘Why shouldn’t poetry get the same kicks as prose?’ and I turned it into verse, with much difficulty. Then I turned it back into prose, with even more difficulty. That didn’t work. After about two and a half years it had turned back into verse again – a kind of loose blank verse – and that’s the way it stayed.
I also wanted to play with the idea Jean-Claude Carrière used in his script for the 1972 Luis Buñuel film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, where a character tells the story of a dream he’s had, and the plot follows him into that dream; in which a character tells the story of a dream he’s had, and the plot submerges and takes us with it into that dream; and in fact as a viewer you never quite get out of that labyrinth, which is great fun if you can handle it.
See Wikipedia for a detailed account of the story.
So Gloria was published in the Age Monthly Review, a very good magazine that is now defunct, at about eleven typed pages in length. Then one day I woke up – I must have had this understanding in my sleep; perhaps I was in one of Buñuel’s dreams! – and realised that Gloria has a sister, and her boyfriend had a brother, and a whole new layer of the story came to be written, which made it about twice as long. Then I wrote the other four pieces, one at a time.
Barbara Williams The Floor of Heaven is arguably your most architectonic work to date, with complex construction: interweavings of shifting perspectives, multiple ‘voices’, accretions of layer upon layer; juggling of numerous intricacies: disruptions to narratives; stories-within-dreams-within-fantasies-within-literary/filmic allusions; transformations: of characters, moods, identities. All these, threaded with occasional echoes/paraphrasing of other poets (Dante, Milton, Coleridge, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot – to name only a few). Did you plan the work out ahead of the actual writing? Did you have a ‘master design’, matching form to function?
John Tranter No, I just had an idea for a story that turned into Gloria – a rather complicated idea, I suppose – and I began to write it. Then I wrote another one. The work grew gradually more complex, it grew accretions bit by bit. Once you have enough characters and enough of their history to make up a critical mass of plot material, it all starts interacting in the back of your head – usually when you’re asleep – and it produces its own incidents, after a while.
To take an example, the character through whose eyes we view the last tale, Rain, was originally a different kind of person altogether. It was only after the story was more or less finished that I realised that the character was probably someone quite different from the one I’d originally rather loosely envisaged, so I rewrote the character.
Barbara Williams How essential is it for readers to "get" your poems in a conventional sense, to look for meanings and specific, accessible messages in your work? How concerned should a poet be about such considerations?
John Tranter I don’t know that poetry really has anything to do with specific, accessible meanings. That seems to me to be the province of newspapers or instruction manuals. The best poetry deals with another order of experience altogether. From nursery rhymes to the funeral service, from childhood to the grave, people want to know something of the meaning of life, and specifically the meaning of their own actual life. That is a mystery, of course. It doesn’t have an answer like the square root of minus one, or a negatively-geared investment policy. The answer, like the question, is a mystery. Poetry has its being in that area, in the realm of rhyme, of doubles, of puns, metaphor, shape-changing and dreams.
I think it was the nineteenth-century French poet Stéphane Mallarmé who said that a poet should always leave a little mystery in his work. That’s what readers come to poetry for. Let me quote Mario Vargas Llosa, from his Paris Review interview:
The novels that have fascinated me most are the ones that have reached me less through the channels of the intellect or reason than bewitched me… I think it’s very important that the intellectual element… dissolves into the action, into the stories that must seduce the reader not by their ideas but by their colour, by the emotions they inspire, by their element of surprise, and by all the suspense and mystery they’re capable of generating.
That’s a fine comment. And there’s another point, to do with the reader’s need to ‘own’ the poem. You have to leave room for the reader to find her or his own meanings in the writing. If you’re too specific, if you try to impose a philosophy or a particular experience on the reader, it’s like trying to make them wear your clothes: they won’t fit, and the colours won’t suit them anyway.
From the speech by American poet John Ashbery to launch the book in Melbourne in September 1992: ‘It’s not often that one picks up a volume of modern verse to find it a rattling good read.’
From a review by Andrew Riemer in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 19, 1992
Tranter’s previous major volume, Under Berlin, revealed him as one of the most abstract, allusive, at times cerebral of contemporary poets. In The Floor of Heaven, he takes a surprising and exhilarating change of direction, exploiting the ancient and honourable capacity of verse to tell stories, to speak succinctly about our common experience in accents not usually considered ‘poetic’ by those who have little ear for poetry.
The Floor of Heaven is a tour-de-force, a devious and profoundly subversive conjuring trick by a poet writing at the peak of his powers. The tales he tells with serene indifference are often brutal and sordid. The language is colloquial, reined-in, avoiding hyperbole and rhetorical embellishment. Yet the book pulses with curious resonance as it recounts its tales of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts, of accidental judgments, casual slaughters and of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause.
The brutal and the horrible are refracted and converted by the fascination of these insistent voices and by the restrained lyricism that accompanies some moments of outrageous Grand Guignol
Despite its delight in grisly horrors, The Floor of Heaven is distinguished by a cool elegance and by a macabre whimsy which reminded me irresistibly of the best moments in Twin Peaks. There is a similar endowing of the ordinary and the commonplace with a luminosity that slips in neatly alongside the horrendous, as well as a strange lyricism that makes the homely details of our familiar world – a ferry gliding over sparkling waters, a dish of shellfish served in a city restaurant, a young girl sitting on the ground polishing her glasses on the hem of her dress – take on portentous significance. And there are, moreover, those dislocations, inconsistencies of time and place, unreliability of voices and cunning cross-references which make the often used (and abused) term ‘post-modern’ seem inevitable.
From a review by Christopher Pollnitz in the Weekend Australian, October 3, 1992:
Each of the volume’s four narrative monologues (I’m simplifying calling them monologues, but it’s their basic impulse) has a link with a floating group-therapy workshop. Each is seeded with a nightmare vignette or little constellation of nightmares. Each, as the monologist struggles to articulate and lay to rest her (or his) trauma, enter the dark areas of narratology – the narrator’s authority seducing the auditor’s complicity, how unreliable a narrator can be before she implodes.
If Tranter’s people did have a self-differentiating power of speech, they wouldn’t be so desperately in search of an identity. They don’t have a voice: all they have is a lie to unfold, a narrative.
The point about The Floor of Heaven is that Tranter has been able to achieve a full, postmodernist range of dismantlings of his voice and deconstructions of his poetic armoury without sacrificing a generous lucidity, a complete but rangy accessibility.
From a review by Penelope Nelson in Quadrant magazine, July–August 1993:
There are elements of the ‘talking cure’ – in the first poem, a young woman named Gloria whose identity blurs at times with her twin sister Marjorie and her other sister Karen, confides in a Dr Masterson, who seems to be running a group therapy session. Guilt over what happened to Karen haunts Gloria and her sister (or are the twins really one sister?)… Even when he has no family left, Blake is not free from memory and guilt. Nor is Karen; nor the sister who tells the story in Masterson’s group. Tranter embroils the reader in an eerie complicity, an obligation to share the pain of the lives paraded as one narrator after another takes on the role of the Ancient Mariner [in Coleridge’s poem of that name]… Reading the poems is like trying to keep track of complex relationships in a big group as the night grows long and the mind becomes confused.
There are echoes, too, of [Australian writer Frank Moorhouse’s novel] The Electrical Experience, the politics of small-town Australia a few decades ago, a milieu (‘always hives of gossip’) both Moorhouse and Tranter know from their childhoods – Again death, violence, America, art and that subtle social urge are key elements – It is an important and haunting work, a poignant portrait of the sex/drugs/rock’n’roll generation.
From a review by Keith Russell in The Newcastle Herald, December 5, 1992:
Regardless of its compass, The Floor of Heaven does not pretend to deal with ‘the contemporary world for us in all its dazzling parade of choices’. Some choices are made by some characters, though these choices are minus the kind of resolving self-knowledge that might accompany an Aristotelian drama. The Floor of Heaven deals with a limited range of events and incidents and it eschews any notion of clear choice… The people falling together apart in The Floor of Heaven are never allowed the resolutions offered by plot or character or identity. None of the figures has sufficient problem or energy or desire to hold together more than a scattered personal story. What is offered to the reader is a kind of gentle dissociation. A version of post-modernist fragmentation allows the poem to bludge on confusions. Some of these confusions are coy; most are spurious…
The magic moments in [the nineteenth-century novelist] Dostoevsky, where a minor figure blurts out a weird but unavoidable tale, might be instructive but Tranter’s characters have no such tales to tell. Tranter’s characters have suffered lumps of moments. The reader groans as yet another car accident or male-act-of-extreme-violence rushes in with its video close-up of incidental change… The number of characters who feel responsible for the death of a significant other is astounding. The title of the book might have been I Think I’m Guilty But I’m Not Sure… While the narrative is focussed on a group brought together for the talking therapy the psycho-linguistic aspect of the stories are of little interest. There is no attempt at an epistemological, phenomenological, semiotic or ontological account of any of the characters.
In Tranter’s method the characters appear as narratively dysfunctional: they don’t know what they are missing; they don’t know what they have lost; they are not really aware that they might inhabit another narrative space in which alternatives existed… This book is deeply dissatisfying. The occasional moments of lyrical insight float like Minties papers in the wake of a harbour ferry that has its termination but not its journey.