12 John Tranter

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[The New Australian Poetry, page 145]

John Tranter


She remarks how the style of a whole age
disappears into your gaze, at the moment
of waking. How sad you are
with your red shirt, your features
reminiscent of marble, your fabulous
boy-girl face like a sheet of mist
floating above a lake.

Someone hands me a ticket
in Berlin a hunchback
is printing something hideous;
my passport is bruised with dark blue
and lilac inks. Morning again,
another room batters me awake
you will be haunting the mirror like silver

Now the nights punish me with dreams
of a harbour in Italy — you are there
hung in the sky on broken wings
as you always have been, dancing,
preparing to wound me with your
distant and terrible eyes.

A younger and more hirsute John Tranter than you'll find him today, 2016, with his son Leon, around the time this anthology was printing, 1978. From a Polaroid photo.
A younger and more hirsute John Tranter than you’ll find him today, 2016, with his son Leon, around the time this anthology was printing, 1978. From a Polaroid photo.

[The New Australian Poetry, page 146]


The plane drones low over Idaho,
a thundering shadow on the wheat.
The captain is thinking of a dust-cloud
disappearing out to sea.

The heavy wings tilt, a silo
looms like a hill. The cloud
falters on the horizon of his mind.
Taped to the cockpit wall is a photograph,
a piece of Sunday afternoon,
a lawn, a bright dress, flowers.
Soon they will be flying over the mountains
in a halo of ice. The cloud
hangs about, behind the imaginary trees.


Her desires cluster in a gathering of symptoms
like a new disease. She wears a certain colour
for complex reasons to do with the weather,
a feeling in the market, a tendency to anger
in the group she knows. Her hair is long, then short,
brown and gold, reflecting passion in a constant flux.
She wanders in the rooms where the talk
founders on the shelves of glass and liquid,
working out the early morning map of sense
with its ragged borders and shifting tides,
plotting out a fresh assault on love.

Her children froth and knock each other in the pool
drinking up the light with an easy greed
that beats against the glass. Yachts collide
in the windows’ bright reflections, soft music
soaks into the corners. She frets, clutching her knuckles,
wondering if the new pain has gone awry, struck the target,
husband or lover; working at the tapestry of living

[The New Australian Poetry, page 147]

John Tranter

with an angular grace and a change of colour
for the new weather, for the latest mood,
for the hopeful market of repair.


So a witty vindictive inventiveness overtook them all;
Julie is dead. Her body smoulders,
releasing a sky full of rain, its own remedy.

Julie smiles, baits her tongue, waits at the end of the hall.
So a soft burning grows from her comedy;
red flesh on her shoulders: Julie is dead. That is all.

The shovel gathers some leaf on the drive — gravel scatters from the claw. Jackdaw and brother
break summer’s dream — Julie’s alive
at foot of garden, bed of stream
somewhere in leaf-mulch and water.

So a damp cloud blots out the hill
and the track of a lewd pursuit — all to the good.
A sequence of notes to remember, cipher clutched to the breast;
dishevelled memory, lack of repair due to a sudden thrill
that laid out Julie like a stroke of lightning and left the rest
wiping off a collective grin, fiddling with the dark hood
in the gloom of morning, the sky flushed red,
the sun flooding out a boon of benison. Julie is dead.


Mark finished it himself, choosing midnight
and a garbage-littered swamp. He scrawled a note
and stuffed it in a pocket: ‘Like shooting a dog.
The Vibrations. Someone please try to bring me back.’
They pulled him from the mud and dressed him up
and put him underground again. A week before that
he’d grabbed me in the street, shaking,

[The New Australian Poetry, page 148]
John Tranter

speaking in a foreign tongue. Lost for seven years.
‘It’s all right, I’ll move along,’ he said. Cosmic radiation
fried his brain. He had tapped a private source
of horror cliches; nightmare rushed out,
and the gestures that he used in self-defence
ere worn threadbare with too much fingering.
He wove a plot to save the masses; loners,
misbegotten, drifting on the edges of Night City.
All he needed was ‘charisma’. One day he left a note:
‘The Princess: She must be saved, even at the cost of death,
her own death, if need be. I’m sorry that I cut the Cross
against the grain, damaging the door. Yours. Mark.’
Vibrations called him from a network
on the other side of town. He had scuttled off
by the time the medics came to strap him down.

Once, years ago, when he was ‘elegant’, he brought us wine;
we ate well, and drank by candlelight. It seemed that sanity
was easily bought; one needed only to be young.
Methedrine, in moderation, kept him on the track.
‘I’m not interested,’ the doctor said, ‘in arty
reminiscences. Find the stupid prick and bring him back.’


That which can be studied is the pattern of processes which characterise the interaction of personalities in particular re-current situations or fields which ‘include’ the observer.

Harry S. Sullivan, Tensions That Cause War

1 The New Field of Knowledge

when the new alphabet soup of the earth
is raised into a flag, the inevitable wind appears
with its own ‘sister to breath’.
the streamers appeared, he grew forward,
as though a new field of knowledge
drew breath, promised itself

[The New Australian Poetry, page 149]

John Tranter

a blue field will always invade you.
here, you can become a little more
becoming: the streaming sister,
enveloped in a flag of brutality, draws a ration
of sense, bleeds rationality…

a willow’s image follows me into the dark
a delicate cowboy, so blue, his dawn


we breathe like fish in this
glass-tinted gloom.     the music room.
plugged in.     headphones.     out there

the grass deepens from a washed-out yellow
to a solemn green.

we drift across the lawn.

standing at the entrance
to a cold landscape filled with rain
firing into the trees, the gun
bucking against your heart.

London.     5 a.m.     summer.
the sodden corpse of a monkey
floating on the oiled canal.

evening.     the woman crouches in the flare
reflected from the new ocean.

thoughts of silver oppress the lake
                :such light

opening a way through …
                I’m thinking

[The New Australian Poetry, page 150]
John Tranter

      2 Extract from the Ice Diary

he apologised for the delay
owing to illness
one accurate acknowledgment of the place of dirt
one brief flirtation with ‘owing to illness’
a couple
of reparations, cancelling the attainment

I will always want something like you


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 despair’s tasselation, how he unravels
the structure of the small animal
‘in the hope of discovering an opening!’


the creek bleeds with a little blue

we see the pieces of the dream
carefully arranged, but lacking a certain touch
the pressure, the requisite alchemy

so the cloud, the rain
complete the picture
almost to perfection     the creek

a dreaming flag billows out
a wet stripe of green


an experiment which succeeds, he said,
wiping the breath from his face
which had started to congeal
is no longer an experiment, but has become
a demonstration of the obvious.

[The New Australian Poetry, page 151]

John Tranter

this said, as he struck out at the images
gathered on the mountain
to drench him with the gust of life.


hunger developed a bitter attitude.
we were more deprived
as the night grew, finally filling the sky.

one thing I prophesy: light will spread
from the other rim of cloud, and bring a season.
treat it well


a desert, this appalling gaze
allow it to pervade the skin
that encapsulates a bitter taste of blue
proffer the blade
in the hope of an eloquent movement

forgive her face
for what it cannot conceal
offer something without hope
of a receptive ‘attitude’

I will always invade you

prepare to ascend the stair
loosen up, become aggressive
let her warm you up
if that becomes a problem

depart! depart!

‘ma faim ’

the poem will allow you to move.     a girl is burning
in her underwear.     leaving this continuum in rags
shattered desert … he can allow me to travel
from this insight:

[The New Australian Poetry, page 152]

John Tranter

stopped the track, if this trick
I will allow you to depart

‘if it’s all you want’; how piteous, such a mistake
brings back a river of what you can least afford
in your present extremity: God bless you

in your present grasp
of an unidentified illusion

as if resisting a new stripe of colours
a whole street … I’m thinking …
in a new suit of hands
                    … as though fallen
from a shelf of ice, newly frightened,
he prepared the scent of mint for the roadway

a new cloud appeared.     a helicopter chopped its way
through the blue
his blades


the small man polished up the regiment:
they stood about on dawn parade.
the sun drifted through the mist behind the trees.

across the gravel road, in the bushes
were some bona fide travellers, also
skulking.     something else happened.     to the poem


an experiment which has failed is no longer
an experiment.     it is, he smiled,
nothing more promising than a failure.


listen to me: you’re enjoying nothing
seen from this crisp angle

[The New Australian Poetry, page 153]

John Tranter

listen to me: I have been travelling for some time
aware of the necessity for choice: move!
if you wish to unravel the sources of your own sorrow
if you wish to divert the river of absolution
if you are desperate for a chance
to break up

choose the song most suited
to your movement, to your fatal
and impossible beauty

summer’s tattered flag your winding sheet
fate’s tackle and gear
drops you by the neck

whatever song you bring
to the country of hope

      3 The Death Circus

the death circus moves in.
all you’re worth is in it
the man with the plastic face
opens up his graves for you to see

the lady with the soft legs
opens up in the night
all the moon
long, the bitter light
chews at our faces.     you will not like
the happy flame circus in the roaring dark

we were taking a ride
way out south, somewhere you have never been
into a country of cold beauty
the salamander circus
followed like a hungry dog

[The New Australian Poetry, page 154]
John Tranter

      4 The Failure of Sentiment and the Evasion of Love

morning hunches like a gathering of men
in damp overcoats, waiting for something to happen

shudders into light: the death transfusion breaks
some news: confusion of tongues

flesh in the oral cavity! slips
across the lip as the big dude
breaks down: sack of slack meat on the flash divan

broke up and cried like a baby.
you’ll help me pick up the pieces,
won’t you, my prince of light …
won’t you, won’t you,


she disheartens into a dirty bed
huddling a knoll of pleasure to herself.

the light goes peachy.     something
trundles out of the forest.     morning
edges a little nearer.

he investigates the hospital where her mind
will have to be repaired.     nothing he could do
would warm the unwilling flesh,
none of his movements
blunt the starved edge.

he thinks he is ready to go somewhere
but the gasoline reeks out of the tank
blood runs from the fingers like red ink
from a leaking pen.

now the girl stands in the concrete yard.
her eyes go white, reflecting
the sky she has come to love,
that has so little of the human in it.

[The New Australian Poetry, page 155]

John Tranter

her look turns back against her with a jealousy
beyond repair.


he said: I could have moved, but
only to wound.     unlock
the gentle embrace.     like water.

much later, the return:
his sight broken,
drowned, his face
soft as water.

whenever he altered his appearance she would cry
he became less concerned

how do you know I have loved you?
why do you return?     is it my flesh?     you want?
to touch?     why do you inflict yourself?
how am I guilty?     who is it,
in the shadow of the forest?

‘ce n’est rien: j’y suis, j’y suis toujours…’


there is something about flesh
which defeats me.     or hair
flowing into light.     you
you know these movements,
you with your ‘big smile’.
come here, bring me the liquid
left overnight to breed
‘big dreams’. I hear the blind man’s tap
tapping at the pane.     he brings his own music.

as your body moves in the glass, your hands
wound me.     thus.     moving.     such
music, music, music; the mind
preparing the re-entry programme
controls the tiny movements of air.

you say this music

[The New Australian Poetry, page 156]
John Tranter

has the power to maim;
I know such a gesturing of flesh wavers
on the border of its own reflection.     movement.
love.     the wall of noise.


I am leaving in the morning, says the
young husband of a few days.     yes.
break my heart if that’s what you want.     that’s not
what I want.     bring me the coffee.
cold again.     why I love you

look at you, you’re crying, shit you’re a nasty
coward, to hurt me.     like this.
look at your eye, blowing up,
filled with water.


your breast is very round, if such
geometry were possible.     juice,
of a sort, is promised.     he says
let me alone, he says bitch teeth

later they are alone
with an animal for company they call
cat, or the night
trembles into neon, or the morning
hurts over the sleeping city, crying
breast, breast,


he throws away the glass
prepared to be damaged
he makes machinery of his arms

that were accustomed to giving
a black hood protects him
from Nothing

a shout from the street
breaks red into his vision:

[The New Australian Poetry, page 157]

John Tranter

he desires something like himself


shaving, the razor warps in the glass
and slides beneath a film of rusty green,
behind his shoulder, a window
choked with white.     she
slouches at the end of the hall, an angry girl
gaping at the bright windy hill and the sun
washing the street.     youth breaking into age
corrupts reflections of itself

when I sleep lately it’s a black kingdom
pulls me under like a tide

Khan coming out of Mongolia —
changes from the outside,
Egyptian traits…

the question that inevitably comes.

      5 The Knowledge of Our Buried Life

the dreadful sailor fills the dark
with his strange descant, building

sepulchres of ruin in the past.
to make him go, the dumb tongue

wallows in the mouth.     in the courtyard
rain flares on the cobbles

the fountain flails the rocky lip
and will not cease.     he reaches an exhausted sleep

late at night, and dreaming of Asia.
darkness resumes the tables, and the sailor

filled with night and the ocean, departed
as one leaves a sleeping port

[The New Australian Poetry, page 158]
John Tranter

at dawn, the water gleaming from below
and the harbour silent.


improbable alterations overtake the coolest nightmare:
though each is a clear flag of the dreamer
it turns up the soil in his own field like a stranger.

the struggle of objects against their fate
is not cancelled: the field fluctuates as the act of seeing
imprints the world with the reflections of a colder dream.


the fog grows from the harbour’s leaden mirror
discovered by a pale dawn

correcting the village’s advance
into day. aube, he said, aubade

at a faint distance someone cried a noun
as some presence awoke from the steep hill

and moved down to the sea which was crying
in the voice of gulls




I am sorry you are departing
in an attitude of choice
I would like you to unwrap the mood
most suited to your present grasp
as though you could control the desire
of your own wasteful preparation

I think we are in winter again
if you are ready
we can begin

[The New Australian Poetry, page 159]

John Tranter


They hold no holidays at the Guadalcanal Motel;
the Sergeant stumps about the dusty yard
trying out his new leg and the President weeps
in his spider-web study, while the peons
run chattering off the rocks and drown themselves
in the grey Pacific. They make no mourning,
keeping part of their trivial sorrow in reserve
for the day when it will be needed again,
for the night when the blue troops splash ashore
and rake the sandhills into patchwork ratshit,
bringing the Guadalcanal Motel into the arms
of the New Republic amid a litter of spent shells.
They haunt the American conscience like a rotten nightmare
in a flicker of old movie clips: ‘Platoon Five!
Take the hill!’ They take no leave,
beating the stubborn earth with blunt clubs
in a travesty of agriculture, and ripping up
whatever foliage they might encounter, which is not much,
green being a surreal and worthless
luxury in the Motel trenches.
Each morning they salute the statues

of the ancient king who sold them into slavery
and the franchise king who brought them
money, poverty and Coca Cola.


Peta made it easy for the boy: good food,
a dab of poetry, a lust for dictionaries.
She was amusing, all right, moving fast
to keep the mistakes under control.
‘How difficult,’ she complained to me once,
‘how tiresome to wear a whole society like a pack!
The weight! the stupidities! the greed!’

[The New Australian Poetry, page 160]
John Tranter

Nonetheless she made a job of it. She
made it difficult for all of them: bad faith,
a stab at honesty, abusive literacy.
‘How simple it would be,’ she told me,
‘to shuck off the whole greedy pack. Friends,
lovers. Chuck the lot of them!’

‘I keep making some synthesis,’ she said,
‘and it never works. Speed, power, greed.
Do you call this living?’
i>John Tranter


It was too late to leave for France, with the snow
embroidering the brown sky. There was a rime of dirty ice
along the edges of the gravel, and sour green
where rotting leaves splashed the lawn.
‘So we stayed with the Countess,’ said Peta, ‘though
we knew she wasn’t real.’ Two lightning flashes laced
the uniform she wore. It was predictable:
history repeating itself across the lake, justice
perverted to a cruel luxury. The dark came early,
moved down from the alps in a silent avalanche
and filled the grounds. So they lived, for an afternoon,
in an ‘atmosphere of monstrous corruption’.
She would talk about it later as a watershed,
a time of sickness when the will became infected
and led the spirit to stumble through the future
with a repetitive spasm. ‘You know I look sane,’
she said, ‘and beautiful; but by God
you don’t know the half of what I lost.
When things are possible, their value, good or bad,
can come to less than nothing. Is that right?

It was too late to leave for Paris. Vast hail
slaked the damp grey countryside. ‘We were very
young,’ said Peta. ‘It would seem.’

[The New Australian Poetry, page 161]

John Tranter


If you think of Bali, that strange
colour stains the horizon. Recognise it,
it belongs to you, even though
it will always be too far away
to be of any use. Think of calculus
and how it has benefited mankind.
You are pleased as well as benefited,
though you’re too thick-headed to recognise it.

Be pleased, quickly, and go to Denpasar.
Denpasar is at the heart of Bali
as tiny increments are at the heart of calculus,
though Riemann, Boole and Lobachevsky
long ago ridiculed the role of algebra
in the creation of profitable works of art.


The famous Chinese poet finds a home at last
on the Northern Border. The troops, those
still loyal to the Emperor, those few
not frozen or shot, weave the pattern of battle
they have devised with tired economy.
Years ago they rode out into the Northern Border
to find a desert, bleached bones and arrows.
Somewhere someone waits for them, but not for long.

And already the famous Chinese poet
has sent back to Tientsin for green wine
and writing paper, though he presents a bland front.
The soldiers loathe his ideology, but his mind
fixes on a young disciple, and the image of the moon
‘glowing like a skull in the waters of the Yellow River.’


How lucky to live in America, where
supermarkets stock up heavily on writers!
Thinking of the famous poets floating home
to that luxurious and splendid place

[The New Australian Poetry, page 162]
John Tranter

inhabited by living legends like an old movie
you blush with a sudden flush of Romanticism
and your false teeth chatter and shake loose!

How it spoils the magic! In America no writers
have false teeth, they are too beautiful!
Imagine meeting Duncan in your laundromat —
in America it happens all the time — you say
Hi, Robert! — and your teeth fall out!
And you can’t write a poem about that!


Giving up women is worse than animal laxatives,
it leaves you with a spiritual pain in the head
and conforms its shape to a manual of instruction,
a list of spare parts dealerships in New Mexico,
a mournful gift, and how to fall in love with men.
We got up early to look at the river, or the many rivers
reflected in the multiple prism of the strange air.
Men moved like spoons across the drippy landscape.

Golly, said Helena, there goes my sanity! Indeed,
in full view of the dealers assembled on the bank
she stripped off and jumped into the truck.
It was wet when we got back. I think
if we tape the last few lines into the manual
we’ve got something useful at the end of the river.


Yeats rises in the breathless air
as simple as a spelling error
and by the time I’m dry I’m furious.
I travel in a sticky raincoat
and when I buy the gallery I fume,
amazed at ‘what paint can really do’.
I’m a monster…why, your breasts appear reversible —
If you drink that soda hot you’ll foam!
And we see stomach pumping as a parable
like easy for you, difficult

[The New Australian Poetry, page 163]

John Tranter

for me. Robert’s won the Froth Gift,
but is he happy? Tac tac
goes the pump. He’s gushing.


Just under the water sheet you can see
dim grass photographs, two prints
coloured to the temperature of glass
that glint from one sky refraction to another.
Between the surfaces a reluctant prediction
for an invisible childhood, damaged by the future.
Under the glass and the broken starlight
the water stained with darkness

soaks into the earth. Somewhere below
a portrait is moved slightly
by a wish or a failure, to form
omens that point into the past
and indicate ‘That promise, how
a tiny growth drains all your effort.’


Today broke like a china plate,
rain and cloud, drifting smoke;
tonight fell like a suiciding athlete
or a bad joke.
I went to bed with a startling headache
and was distinctly no better when I woke,
I remained dumb in the company of those
who were happy only when I spoke.

Something new has moved uncomfortably close,
something not previously seen:
a talent for aiming the poisoned dart,
for detecting the touch of the unclean,
for discovering that, in the pure of heart,
there is something unforgivably obscene.


Nothing new arrives from Rio, again.
The geography prevents it. There is a faded

[The New Australian Poetry, page 164]
John Tranter

portrait of a general on the wall,
a short-lived rebellion on the muddy plain
and an Englishwoman who moons at a window
and hopes that something will arrive
but nothing ever does.
A rose bush clutching at the rusty fence

dries into brittle sticks. Far away
across the Atlantic, a storm full of rain
swells like a bruise and floods the sea.
The lady moons gently to see her hopes decline.
Across the misty ridges, behind the breeze,
is South America. Just over there.


      for Reinhold Karlssen
Waiting and waiting, there’s an end to it.
Eating bad food, sleeping on the floor,
there’s an end to that too. One day
your enemies reach out of your head quickly
and take you to the cold and dirty places,
and you’re too old for that sort of thing.
The bad music keeps you there, and makes you cruel,
and you are the loved one you are least kind to.

Waiting and waiting for the good weather,
there’s a hard art in that, and a sour man —
too old for that sort of punishment — does it badly.
But one day you wake up and go back home and if you’re
tough and lucky you leave most of it behind. Eating
good food, accepting kindness — there’s an art in that.


My daughter’s playing with her bloodstained
doll again. And the wireless is breathing unevenly
in Frank Moorhouse’s novel, grieving that the old
petrol stations are unattended, that all the decent
Rotarians are missing in action in Korea,
the only war to feature the Sabre,
the modern examplar of warfare,
and the ruthless MiG. It’s goodbye to the glue

[The New Australian Poetry, page 165]

John Tranter

that used to hold everything together,
it’s goodbye to the trembling Rotarians
and their bereaved children in the light
of stinking kerosene lanterns, it’s goodbye
to the countryside of honourable rifles.
Welcome the doll, the terrible doll.


In a distant field, small animals prepare
for sleep, under the huge rising moon.
For foreign peasants, dusk is none too soon.
The bombers fade into the melting air.
In a far harbour boats make for their mooring,
in another town the citizens are glad
the lights are going out. The morning’s bad,
the waiting news is cruel, the job boring.

A painter pours a cheap and bitter drink
and drinks it down. His hand’s unsteady;
on the table brush and pen and ink
lie scattered. Half his work’s no good,
the rest is sold for rent. He’s ready;
the loaded gun discharges as it should.


I’d like to throw an epileptic fit
at the Sydney Opera House and call it Rodent.
That’s what separates me from the herd.
The hand forgives the cutting edge
for what the hand guides it to do.
The knife has no pleasure in it.
I’m eating my way through my life —
they said it couldn’t be done

but here I am in the Palace of Gastronomes
crazy about the flavour!
Moonlight along the blade of a kitchen knife
belongs to the ritzy forties, it’s nostalgic
like playing the comb and one-hundred-dollar bill
and calling it the blues.