Ode to John Tranter

This morning a soggy newspaper on your doorstep announces that all Australia has become a suburb of Melbourne, Sydney is just a dream and Queensland a form of neurosis which will go away if you try hard enough. And you think it’s going to be one of those days. The Labor government you elected is somewhere to the right of Ezra Pound, the only Liberal you know has started to wear pink t-shirts and that operation Peacock had was really a sex change. But it’s not just the politics— only 9am, and already the next generation of new poets is bleeding loudly on the airwaves and a little voice inside your head tells you, “Les Murray can’t walk on water. You must believe me!” and you know it’s true but what waves it would cause if he tried! You realise suddenly that it must be an Overland day! because you can’t see any women in your kitchen except one on the back of a packet of corn-flakes, and even she’s only a token, but no, perhaps it’s a Quadrant day? after all it is their government that’s in power and Barry Humphries still looks good in a dress. Under the shower you try to forget everything that’s gone wrong, to wash away your unemployment like indelible ink or freckles. So it may be just another boring day, a Hansard day, or an Age Monthly Review day and you could sit in front of the bar-heater smoking pages of the Times Literary Supplement one by one and learning to write by osmosis or spontaneous combustion, because you don’t give a damn about cancer or mixed metaphors or your neighbour’s dangling participles— you just want to be a famous artist and have the government (any government) proclaim you a living national treasure so you won’t have to beg for food from the Australia Council Soup Kitchen, so the Literature Board will send you a leather jacket and every Monday a carton of tailor-mades and a six-pack of Coke will arrive by certified mail and you could do John Forbes or Gig Ryan rip-offs, in public, and no-one will know you’re faking it! In fact it may be a Scripsi day because only one hour after you thought it was an Overland day there still aren’t any women in your life and you always wanted to travel by proxy, except that you couldn’t tell the difference between Michel/e Tournier and Butor if it hit you over the head with a bi-lingual dictionary and no-one you know would dare speak Swedish in polite conversation. No, it’s definitely not a Scripsi day but it could be a Meanjin day! because you’ve always wanted to go fifteen rounds with an editor who thought (s)he could make the lame see and the blind talk and you know if you submit a poem to anyone from Melbourne University there’s always a good chance the empty gin bottle will stop spinning at your name, and that bonsai-epic verse about the forces of light and darkness you sent will be read by every socialist household in Moonee Ponds. Then it hits you! a kind of existential panic only West Australians are really familiar with— it might not be any kind of day at all, it might be a Going Down Swinging day when nothing happens and years pass you by like artistic brain-damage or Sisyphus in a Maserati. No, no— it feels like one of those days, a day for writing odes to John Tranter when all the most beautiful and irrelevant words in the world sing with one voice in praise of poetry and their own impotence, a day when Jacques Derrida is a brand of ice-cream or any drug that melts in the mouths of poets, when not being yourself is a pleasant change, a day for cleaning the sky of static and all those bleeding hearts, and you step out on the world singing: Heaven is my woman’s love, That’s the place I want to be. Heaven is my woman’s love, That’s the only place for me.
Originally published in Meanjin in 1984. Then, in Ashbery Mode, edited by Michael Farrell, Tinfish Press, 2019.


perform allegro con brio

when i fell its got to stop its because im afraid of what it might do to me if it does stop and im not ready to feel its got to stop because i might be pulling myself silly and the time when its got to stop might never come

when i feel its got to stop i take long walks under the sky under the words i left hanging in the air

when i feel its got to stop i eat bran and read logic so my conversation wont feel like an early mornings constipated pushing and groaning in the toilet

when i feel its got to stop im too polite and ask if i can interject your logorrhoea like rubber suppositories or cigarette butts in the kitchen sink

when i feel its got to stop i tell you i dont love you any more and mean it for at least as long as it takes me to say it and when you do think i mean it i want to die

when i feel its got to stop i call you at three in the morning and ask for a fuck and you give me the address of a friend whos out of the country and wont be back till next year

when i feel its got to stop i wont come at to your parties because i dont like talking philosophically about the aristotelian origins of wittgenstein and i dont understand how the tractatus can teach me to say i love you without farting

when i feel its got to stop its because i still love you enough not to want you to know that i feel its got to stop because when i feel its got to stop

when i feel its got to stop its because the six doughnuts of our love affair werent enough and after checking the contents of my box one last time you guiltlessly replace my sweaty body on the supermarket shelf between the baked beans and the chicken noodle soup

when i feel its got to stop i get lost in the city mapping the tedious plan of streets waiting for the place where the pain and sorrow of our last argument will fall out of the night and tear my guts apart leaving me to survive till morning by licking the remains of our last sensuous rain out of the gutter

when i feel it got to stop its because im afraid of what it might do to you if it does stop and youre not ready to feel that its got to stop because you think that the time when its got to stop should never come

This poem was published originally in Overland (1980) and then in The Oxford Book of Australian Love Poems (1993).

The possibilities of language

… They’re perhaps not suited to our kind of publication, with its emphasis on exploring the possibilities of language.

A rejection slip sent to a young writer

He explores the possibilities. Regularly. In this regard, at least, he is very regular. Someone said once that nobody ever had a really good idea while writing in a large room — so he is exploring the possibilities of proving this theory correct while seated in the smallest room of his house. There are many ways of approaching the problem. He thinks. Should he at any time in the near future begin to have a large idea, what then should he do with it? If it is a specially large idea, it may demand taking to a slightly larger room, to give it space to develop and mature. This is interesting. He thinks about John Milton. If John Milton were with him the room would not be big enough for both of them. John Milton was not a big man, but he had big ideas. John Milton wrote about god. There is no way anyone could fit John Milton and God in the same, small room. He decided to start with something smaller and see how far the thing will grow before he has to move to a larger room. He thinks about Babel, because he is thinking about language. He thinks about God, but only for a moment. Ideas like that are difficult to sustain. He thinks about bananas, because the room he is in reminds him of bananas. It is a purple room. He thinks about Babel again, and then he thinks about bananas, because they sound good together. Like peaches and cream. Suddenly, a scenario evolves in his head. There is a man. The man is in a car. It is a small car. No. He starts again. The man is in a banana. The man is in a large banana, eating a car. It is still a small car. The man is munching away on his ripe, yellow car and quite happily enjoying the scenery. John Milton knocks on the window of the man’s four-wheel-drive banana and says, “Ah … hello. My name’s John Milton. I was wondering if you’d like to spend some time discussing the possibilities of language with me?” The man thinks for a while, takes another bite off his car, and says, “John, I’d really like that, but I don’t think this banana is big enough for both of us.” “Well,” says John, realising that this is a valid problem, “I have a large peach parked across the road. I’m sure that it would be large enough to accommodate our ideas, at least to begin with.” The man says, “OK,” and gets out of his banana. He looks across the road and sees the peach. It’s enormous. An American peach with mag wheels and GT stripes along the side. Even more incredible is the fruit which it is towing. The man stops, amazed, and stares. “It’s so big!?” he says. “Oh, yes,” says John, “peaches are just fine for love poetry, but for God I need a watermelon.” The man and John enter the peach. They talk about love. They talk about peaches. They talk about love, again. Which leads them to politics. Which leads them to Marx. Yes, they even talk about Marx, and they are still quite comfortable in the peach. The peach is large. Marx is not large enough. Marx was a big man, but his ideas were smaller than a peach. Their conversation comes to a natural pause, which is what often happens to conversations about Marx, and John looks at the man, and the man looks at John, and John looks back at the man and asks, “By the way, my good man, what is your name?” The man begins to panic. He thinks way back to his childhood. There is nothing there. “I don’t know,” he says. “For as long as I can remember I have always been called The Man.” “But if you are The Man,” says John, “then you must be the Son of God!” The peach seems altogether far too small. They are standing at the door of the watermelon. John opens the door. Inside the watermelon is red and juicy. John looks in through the door and says, “It is sad, isn’t it? I have been eating this watermelon for 300 years and it is still not finished. I sometimes think that I will be eating it forever. Almost every afternoon I come in here to eat and let the juice run down my neck. I work at it very hard. Whenever I find a pip I write an epic poem and I think about God when I spit it out.” John reaches inside the door of the watermelon and pulls out a box. It is full of pips. “What I really want to know is, will you help me eat the watermelon? I think that it is nearly half eaten, so that if we work very hard we could be finished in a hundred years. By that time we will have written a thousand epic poems and there will be enough space in here to consider the universe. What do you say?” The Man looks into the watermelon and He is hungry, so they start to eat. They eat for a hundred years or so. The juice runs down their necks. The juice is everywhere. They write epic poems and consider the possibilities of God. They spit the pips into the box. When they have finally finished eating the watermelon, they consider the universe. And they think it is sad. But determined that 400 years of writing epic poems and thinking about God will not go to waste, they bundle the pips into the back of the peach and drive to Milton’s farm in the country where they plant the pips in the ground and grow watermelons. But John and the Man have had their fill of the red, juicy universe, so they decide to eat nuts instead. They sell the watermelons to other people who wish, against their best advice, to explore the possibilities of infinite things.

This work was first published by Writers’ Radio, 5UV (Adelaide), in 1984.

Big orchestra

What we need is a big orchestra of at least one hundred players. We should make a surreal painting of our lives and be able to say, as though it were the only true utterance that ever stuttered off our lips: this is what life is like: a briefcase, a glove-box, stuffed full with an enormous orchestra of violinists, cellists, flautists, pianists, organists, trombonists, french-horn-players, clarinetists, timpanists, cymbalists, the whole-bang-lot, that we could open up like a magic box in those quiet moments for which our language has no words. You know the moments I mean, don’t you? You could be sitting at a table just looking out the window, or reading a book, or a friend may have just decided that it’s time to go home and leaves you, or the music from the record-player may have just stopped, and the room is suddenly quiet, and you then look up from your book or your dinner, or have stopped at an intersection waiting for the lights to change, and then, as though your eyes had been pulled out of your head and taken ten feet away and pointed at you, you see yourself, your whole self, and you wait for something, for anything. A car may pass on the street outside, or someone may make a little sound in the next room, or a fluorescent lamp in a shop window may be flickering on and off, or the books in your room may stare out at you, a company of objects full of meaning no-one entirely understands. And standing there, or sitting there, just waiting there, you become an object. You are the object that arranges for the kettle to boil each morning, the fastidious object that periodically puts other objects back in their proper places, the object that, because it is not entirely without pity, sometimes almost spontaneously, acts with compassion toward some other object, a dog, a cat, a person, and sometime afterwards wonders whether it acted selflessly, and if so, Why? For what reason? That mad, suffering, ridiculous object which each day opens up its head and tears its brain apart, atom from atom, then throws them into the air, into the darkness. The atoms are like stars; the space between them the sum of all unanswerable questions. Or else, they are something more humble: specks of dust suspended in a beam of daylight. Whichever, you are the object standing there, watching, with its arms open to them as they fall. Coming through each day is a miracle: the atoms, the stars, the dust falling into your arms. It’s a miracle how nothing is lost. Each memory persists: the dust and the stars falling into your hands, and all the atoms combining to make you whole again, the complete object, the perfectly still object with not a single word in its head. Words could not explain what it is like to be just a thing, an object. No language has words for such a terrible idea. It is a moment like that when you need a big orchestra; not just a radio or a record-player, but a real orchestra, made of real people and real instruments. You need to have it straight away. There’s no time to go out and look for it; it has to be there, ready for you. And then you would want it to start playing slowly and quietly, there at the street corner, or at your table, or in your room: a single violin, or a piano beginning to play so quietly that you tilt and turn your head toward it, before all the others join in, making the music louder and faster, but even then only by slow degrees. It must be slowly, painfully slowly, because something terrible and unforgettable is happening to you. You had lost something and now it is being given back to you.

This ‘prose poem’ was first published in a radio broadcast (5UV, Adelaide) in 1984, and then in A crowd of voices. It is included among dream reports because it was originally a dream. In later years I abandoned attempts to turn dreams into stories and concentrated, instead, on finding a way of writing dreams that allowed them to remain, more obviously, what they were.

The king of hate

Years the beast spends
dining on his own flesh,
inexhaustible passions
coming from who knows where
beyond the breach.
My arms outstretched
find a way through
glowing darkness back
to where the hate began
a life of forgetting,
bandaged head, a mask.
Come in. Come in.
He says, this dark house
is larger than love,
your heart unwired
will warm to knowledge
of superb pain,
will grow to fill
its infinite rooms.
He crowns me king
of beasts, winds me
in red fields and war,
promises all the void
will sing my name;
if only I would stay.

The breach

Hide and seek is the game
we play, alternating
parts, clinging to walls
just beyond reach.
Who can live with me?
he says, mocking.
Come out. Come out.
He says hands on head,
to your knees. He says
shout, then says die.
He gives the lie to
harmless thoughts,
then settles down
in the dark house,
corrupt little animal
gnawing at the heart
and baring teeth
that cut up memory.
Sleeping and dreaming
he’s more alive,
feeds on each hurting
image, gorged and lying
safe beyond the breach.