Articles - April 2011
John Tranter and postmodern poetics
Originally published in Jacket 27 (2005), this provocative abecedarian essay, by Kate Fagan and Peter Minter, explores John Tranter’s self-selected, internationalist poetic-cultural heritage, particularly as it is formulated through his long poem The Alphabet Murders. We reprint the essay now, to acknowledge and celebrate “the outward or extra-national turn” that organized John Tranter’s Jacket and continues to inform his work.
… though the profit of this striving
is not in the final chapter but in the zooming
between two worlds of action.
— John Tranter, The Alphabet Murders
Introductory note: The following collaborative text was commissioned by Rod Mengham for The John Tranter Reader (Salt Publishing, Cambridge). Its form responds to the structural provocation of The Alphabet Murders by John Tranter (1976). Tranter’s poem has 27 sections; the first 26 begin with the letters A to Z while the 27th returns to the letter A. The 28 paragraphs of this essay also follow the alphabet and Tranter’s scheme, concluding instead with the letter B. Written alternately and independently by the authors, they were subsequently interleaved and edited into this final version. An extract was co-presented at the ‘Poetics of Australian Space’ conference at the University of Sydney on 12 February 2005.
The original 1976 edition of The Alphabet Murders is out of print. A complete and slightly revised version can be found in John Tranter’s 2001 volume Heart Print, from Salt Publishing in Cambridge UK.
“And I was also rather interested in trying something new, [but was] having difficulty in doing this, living in a country where the language spoken was not my own.”
John Tranter’s early poetry, specifically that written between his first volume Parallax (1970) and Crying in Early Infancy — 100 Sonnets (1977), reveals a primary stage in the development of an Australian postmodern poetic. The 1976 publication of his fourth book, The Alphabet Murders, marks a critical moment in that history — a febrile, fatal rendezvous with tradition and experimentation, identity and alienation, centrality and provincialism. Tranter has always harboured a desire to ‘make it new’ as an Australian, English-speaking poet directing keen attention to European and American turbines of literary innovation and power. Particularly revealing in this respect is an interview Tranter conducted with John Ashbery in May 1988, the year white Australia celebrated two hundred years of settlement and Indigenous Australians protested two hundred years of colonisation. Tranter asks Ashbery whether
the fact that you were away from America and away from the magazines and reviewers and friends and so on, whether that may have had something to do with the fact that you felt you could go right out on a limb.
Ashbery speaks of his younger days in Paris, feeling that his first book had “fallen into a bottomless pit,” desiring ‘newness’ but at first experiencing estrangement as a foreigner without a full grasp of the language. Tranter too had surmounted alienation by becoming-alien. Between July 1971 and September 1972 Tranter lived and worked in Singapore, experiencing a “crisis of faith in poetry.” He “was sick of poetry... Poetry appeared disgusting and overwritten,” and returned to Australia with a “very bad novel, since destroyed” and a substantial poetry manuscript, parts of which were eventually published in 1974 as The Blast Area. Tranter’s cross-identifications among foreign natalities and literary transformations, combined with a longing for poetic equivalence and precedence, provide a fine entrée to thought on the eruption of postmodern figures in Australian poetry. Just as histories of cultural production are formed by the idealisation of artistic affect at sites of cultural intensity, Tranter’s anxious iterations of tropes of newness, modernity and foreignness are at the heart of his poetic breakthrough.
Blazon or effictio (from the Latin fashioning): Personal description (outward appearance); the head-to-toe (in that order) itemisation of a heroine’s charms, common in earlier English poetry.
It may seem contrary to begin a reading of John Tranter’s The Alphabet Murders by citing a feminised figure of classical rhetoric that signifies a mode of categorical, oratory portraiture — especially when Tranter has styled his serial anti-epic as the product of “a revulsion against the artificiality of poetry,” and claims Arthur Rimbaud’s injunction to “take rhetoric and wring its neck” as the poem’s murderous raison d’être. Blazon is a form of simultaneously public and mythic address that takes for its subject (and object) the body of an allegorically constituted and potentially absent lover. It thus provides an important clue to The Alphabet Murders’ narrative scheme. And since this poem is all about clues — it steals its title from one of Agatha Christie’s most famous crime novels, after all — we are well advised to follow Tranter’s plot directives, “the clues fizzing like a fuse,” and start decoding. “The puzzle glittered in the ruins of the street / beneath a building like a broken tooth,” offers Tranter before slipping into characteristic deadpan: “The message / was a simple one, and new: ‘No reward.’” Tranter’s mock deterrent reminds us that his poem courts the regard and affections of a rarefied kind of reader. “To get close enough to grapple” with this work and its cargo of evidence, “you’ll have to crawl / behind the frames”. To decipher is to “breathe for a short time” and enjoy the ride. “[O]bservers / without the keys to fit their own responses / so that a poem is merely rhyme and meaning” need not apply.
Critical work on Tranter has authorised a small but useful group of exegetic figures. Early reviews, essays and interviews deliberate on Tranter the “cool, self-conscious stylist” and, contiguously, Tranter the sardonic “new modernist.” Between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s he was described variously as an urbane herald for a bleak “confusionist fallacy,” as a nervy, compulsive shape-shifter “in voice, tone [and] perspective,” and as “the world’s best ‘anal’ poet.” Linking identity manipulation and, paradoxically, definitive expressions of cultural capital, the ‘Tranter’ brand became synonymous with an internationally derived but self-consciously Australian postmodern poetic. Over the last decade or two, as Tranter’s works have become successively less experimentally self-conscious, critical attention has turned to the mechanics of canonisation: the gears of historical placement and displacement at work in academic analysis and interpretation. To “new modernist” and “cool stylist” have been added figures such as postmodern “master-builder,” “post-Romantic parodist,” neo-“existential” ironist and, most recently, “quasi-satirist [of] meta-metrics.” This bloom of critical attributes over time — mere coolness submerged by a panoply of discrete ironies, parodies and satirical potentialities — belies a contrary movement toward stylistic and rhetorical homogeneity in Tranter’s more recent oeuvre. Early texts by Tranter are exemplary for their testing drive, but also for provoking a relatively narrow range of critical responses, obsessed for the most part with getting a handle on his postmodern contests and making preliminary territorial projections around them. As Tranter’s poetic underwent a gradual condensation in tone, subject matter and affective range, it conversely attracted an efflorescence of discursive conditions. A parallax of sorts, the cross-hairs centred on the years between 1972 and 1977, when Tranter resolved for himself the critical problem of an ironically disintegrated poetic essence and began to acquire a now familiar tone. If we seek to uncover the scene of dismemberment, resolution and self-constitution, The Alphabet Murders marks the spot.
“Detective stories are not about guilt and innocence, that is, not about morality; they are about details,” suggests American poet Lyn Hejinian. She continues:
The clue is a detail that solves a specific crime when appropriately observed by a detecting person.... The specialness of the detective lies in his or her ability to combat the inexact and muddy, since it is they that cause or conceal the crime. The detective turns a detail into a clue by heightening the particular.
There is certainly a lot of mud to combat in The Alphabet Murders: “muddy images and loose packs of themes;” “tropic mud;” “the clay of life;” the poem’s final, oneiric “harbour mud” with its ephemeral flowers; and an impressive catalogue of scatological muds including “trunks full of shit” and “hard poetry turds” that inhabit an outpost somewhere between ribald Chaucerian artifice and gaudy poetic-coprophilia, to which I will return later. For now I want to stay with Hejinian’s description of the detective as a person who “turns a detail into a clue by heightening the particular.” To heighten the particular is the precise function of rhetorical blazon. And as John Tranter knows, the particularising purpose of blazon is double: it allows readers or listeners to join in a legitimate public-erotic fantasy, while drawing telling attention to the dexterity and ‘fashioning’ skill of its writer or speaker.
Edward Said, in his foundational text Orientalism, argues that his subject “is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.’” Tranter begins The Alphabet Murders with tropes of ontological and epistemological displacement, complex riddles about foreignness and frontier, border and self-constitution, so he can “write to you ‘from a distant country.’” What is that “distant country” and why is Tranter “off / like a rocket, ...zooming through the lecture hall where / ...a new horizon promises revenge”? Said’s “style of thought” may assist in understanding Tranter’s antipodean angst and his will to travel close to its ironic fulcrum. Orientalism is more than a figure for specific forms of European empiricism and colonisation. For Said it functions as a discursive mode or style by which many ‘Other’ relations can be scrutinised. As such, while transitive in specific instances or spaces of enquiry and articulation, discourses about Orientalism can remain productive when directed toward any imaginary context. Said goes on to suggest that
the phenomenon of Orientalism... deals principally, not with a correspondence between Orientalism and Orient, but with the internal consistency of Orientalism and its ideas about the Orient... despite or beyond any correspondence, or lack thereof, with a ‘real’ Orient.
Put differently, ‘Orientalism’ as an episteme or discursive grammar produces diverse constructions of otherness. Indeed, Said’s “style of thought” can be employed to reveal a distinctly ‘Orientalising’ force in Australian poetic reflections on the European, or more lately, the American. Tranter might like to loot “the bloodstained burning battlements of Art” — but, as Said reminds us, “[we] must take seriously Vico’s great observation that men [sic] make their own history.”
For detectives, details are stock trade. The first detail to mark a murder story is often the most blindingly obvious: a corpse. Its discovery makes retrospective sense of previously overlooked details while permitting a subsequent plot to unravel. The corpse is never exceeded, however. To enable and direct the story’s action, the corpse must be invoked and reconstructed at every turn by the detective and her/ his attendant narrators. A murder tale would be lost without its guiding body, whose over-repeated textual sacrifice eventually engenders a ritualised restoration of proper order. Following the lead of its precursor The ABC Murders, The Alphabet Murders displays a dazzling array of corpses that appear from the outset as plot catalysts:
Before this complex thought begins attacking
what we have left behind — riddles, packaging —
itself must generate enough good luck for the whole voyage.
After trunks full of shit flung overboard
and the page aflame with noise and verb geometry
I’m ready and lunch jumps into sight and we are off
like a rocket, zooming through the lecture hall where
history becomes a kind of thick paralysis and breaks
down into spasms and morality and all we can remember
through the foggy explosion is how we thrilled
and brought back memories of Captain Marvel
wriggling on a pin....
A skewered Captain Marvel lines up with the paroxysmal oeuvre of academic history, alongside drowning, abjected remnants of the poem’s Anglo-literary inheritance. What we have left behind is John Tranter’s core motif, a satiric jingle that enters like a theme song every time a particular “complex thought” graces the poetic screen. The second stanza, excerpted above, is a direct replay of the poem’s opening lines: “After all we have left behind / this complex of thought begins / a new movement into musical form, much as / logic turns into mathematics and automatics / turn into moonlit driveways.... we mean / poems right away and no fooling.” Midway through, the poem riffs on “leaving behind everything we possibly can,” while its final cinematic slow-shot offers yet another version of the trope: “After all, we had left poetry behind before this trip had even begun.” A-ha! Poetry, then, is the exquisite corpse Tranter ultimately affords to his detective-readers! What else could be implied by such strategic repetition? Irony by now is oozing thickly as the poet’s beloved mud, with “as much poetry as we were able to hint at left as a blur on the horizon as a temporary sign, the more beautiful for being the more easily erased.”
Good poets make their own history too. The Alphabet Murders represents a notable instance in a poetic culture for which modern and postmodern self-constitution unfolds via specifically ‘Orientalising’ turns. Following Said’s way of thinking, Australian poetic ‘essences’ are often enlivened by spectres of the exotic, Romantic European or metropolitan American. Tranter is
...moving, through a dense topography
keeping an eye on how the colourful natives
act out a plausible way of seeing it
for our benefit as we hike away,
leaving behind everything we possibly can.
Getting out is easy, but how you get in —
say, back through a locked window...
The movement here is from periphery to centre, a shift doubled by Tranter’s inversion of both figures in an emblematically Orientalising manoeuvre. Tranter’s authorisations of poetic text and poetic identity are over-determined by persistent segues between natal and foreign spaces, the inside and outside of “‘the best that Western Literature / has to offer,’” while drawing on complex cultural anxieties. As both tourists and colonisers, white Australian male poets often have derived symbolic substance from the centrifugal and centripetal forces constituted by an inverted Orientalism. ‘Rimbaud,’ ‘Mallarmé,’ ‘Baudelaire,’ ‘the French Symbolists,’ et al. constitute key figures in unlocking a particularly Western window onto a canonical poiesis that promises eternal, paternal enfranchisement. Such nostalgic hyper-identification with the exotically Romantic demonstrates an idealising and implosive boundary between the rhetorical and social — a boundary across which glamourous, homosocial genealogies are cathected as signs of poetic ‘essence’. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Australian poets such as Christopher Brennan began looking to the French Symbolists for compelling models for poetic history making. Brennan’s fin-de-siècle visions of Stéphane Mallarmé were part of his quest for a uniquely Australian post-Romantic poetic. They mark the eruption of a peculiarly antipodean Orientalism, one trying to escape the shadow of a transplanted and claustrophobic English poetic tradition by transferring generative force to figures of young, noble, savage European men. Brennan’s Symbolist derivations opened the way for later and more radical investigations of ex-centric literary modernism by poets such as Robert Adamson and John Tranter, who found their earliest inspirations in Mallarmé and Rimbaud. By 1973, Tranter had briefly explored aspects of Zen Buddhist philosophy, and had even tried to learn to play the Indian sitar. His impulse, however, was to demolish rather than entertain Romance.
“Hunger kills vacancy / and means lunch straight away,” quips the poem’s ninth line, sharpening its blades. The “Legendary Poem” — a.k.a. “The Impossible Profile of Desire” — is bumped off in almost every section of The Alphabet Murders. It is paralysed, retired, exploded, butchered and pushed out to “play in a cold / and futile light that sweeps in from the sea / reminding us of those even further reaches / where shapeless things toss on a dark wind.” It is “thrown up,” “swallowed” and “shat out on the lawn.” It is “smashed through the window” and “punched in” and “worried to shreds.” Following murder-fictional logic, the dead or dying poem is exhibited time and time again to propel the narrative, and to structure its temporality around patterns of re-arriving consequence. In Tranter’s closing lines, something resembling poetry is still being repudiated, recycled and asphyxiated: “After all, we had left poetry behind before this trip had even begun, and all the while we have been bereft of its silly promises of beauty.... the slate of verse shall be washed clean.... the flowers in the mud live and breathe for a short time and then return us to our dreams.”
...it might work in a stable society but don’t
try it here sonny; we’re on the lookout for mistakes
you’ll be the first to go we generate
information in the bowels of the earth
and call it ‘Happy Holiday, my Good Consumer!’ —
the heart abandoned and the tongue forked...
One of The Alphabet Murders’ prime targets is the orientation of poetic discourse and self-construction of literary authority within implicitly a-poetic environments. A similar trend is common in many Australian cultural spaces: cultural authority is both assumed and construed via the specularisation of expressly European or American cultural quintessences that function as arenas for identity projection and constitution. Arthur A. Phillips famously called this the “cultural cringe” 26 years before the publication of The Alphabet Murders. Tranter’s breakthrough in the early 1970s was to ‘postmodernise’ the cringe factor by taking on language itself. Between 1968 and the early 1970s, Tranter was associated with a coterie of hip urban experimentalists who succeeded in crawling out from underneath the conservative monolith of postwar Australian culture, a movement propelled in part by the very ‘modern’ assumption that poetry and poetics were transparently political. In this sense Tranter’s “stable society” — meaning both the establishment of conformist literary coterie and the security of hierarchies of taste — was the chief target during a period of dramatic contestation and reassessment. Tranter “began to see more clearly around 1965 that there was a ruling hierarchy in Australian literature... [that] stood for things that I strongly opposed.”
It is easy to forget that by the 1950s domestic Australian poetry had been written for a century only, and its colonial English legacy had only begun to decline by the time of Tranter’s childhood. In an early interview with Martin Duwell, Tranter notes: “The difficulty with being a poet growing up in Australia is that the poems you read at school... are either very old and very boring and very second-rate English poems... or equally boring Australian poems.... [T]he poets we have had in Australia for the last 100 years have been fairly useless as an influence.” Tranter grew up when ‘classic’ Australian poetry meant imitations of eighteenth century, Victorian or Georgian modes “transposed to Australia in the way that convicts were transported in the early days.” ‘Modern’ Australian poetry had only just begun to emerge from a nascent exploratory phase. The work of Brennan, Kenneth Slessor, James McAuley and Judith Wright, among others, was internationally informed but mostly not formally innovative. Tranter and his contemporaries wanted an “antidote” to both tradition and conservative modernism and to the cultural cringe of their local environments. Their methodology was to separate Australian poetic discourse from the “stable society” of English nativism and Leavisite predictability. Tranter’s own antidote to this forked tongue was a poisonous, savage homeopathy:
when the whole thing explodes you have an eruption
and millions of gallons of stuff pour out
into colours of hot orange and vivid green,
material which may be revolting and even deadly
at the time, but which forms a useful ground
for supposition in later ages.
John Tranter knows fantasy always follows at least two rules: prolongation and self-consciousness. Good fantasy does not exhaust itself too soon. Intrinsic meanwhile to its design is a manner of suspended disbelief, i.e., knowing that a dream is just a dream. Glamourised fantasies of exploratory geo-poetic exile pervade The Alphabet Murders. They have literal depth, since Tranter began some sections of the poem in 1971 while living in Singapore; but their figurative weight is more compelling and encourages a glance back to the poet’s prior works. In 1974 Tranter published ‘The Poem in Love,’ a fifteen-part sonnet sequence that spans the last pages of his second full-length collection The Blast Area. It concludes with a bitterly comic apostrophe to an apparently self-cannibalising poetic form:
I drank a Pepsi like they do in N.Y.
and that fizzy noise was like how
you could hear the Sonnet feasting on itself.
Goodbye hopeless poems! Kiss me! Kiss me! Goodbye!
Published in 1976, The Alphabet Murders is Tranter’s chronologically public answer to the stagy blast-off of ‘The Poem in Love.’ Writing anew “from a distant country” that could be Australia, depending on the poem’s imagined audience, Tranter deploys a figure of the male writer as ultra-informed and somewhat self-deprecating adventurer, whose poetry absorbs conventional form and then excretes or ejaculates new material, “bare and empty, / giving meagre nourishment to those who follow, / and baneful and pernicious in its influence.” Advance-gardism, it would seem, is an anxious and inevitable cycle of hollow repeats and potentially colonising explorations, “nothing but a loony fantasy.” Carried over from The Blast Area (“Goodbye hopeless poems!”), Tranter’s knowing, experimental and satiric fantasia sets up two sufficiency conditions: repudiation and futility.
Kantian aesthetic philosophy, in its Romantic and early Modern inflections, formed the posts and rails of Tranter’s intolerably ‘stable society.’ His attack was focused clearly. Against the discursive edifice of bourgeois codes of rational disinterest, necessary universalism and correlative alignments of aesthetic autonomy and moral judgement, Tranter declared “the last thing we need at the present stage of Australian poetry is just such a set of principles of good taste and appreciation of beauty.” The conflict was explicitly ideological, with the Generation of ‘68
[calling] out for new freedoms in their lives and their poems: freedom from conscription... freedom from bureaucracy and capitalist exploitation, freedom to experiment with drugs, to develop a sexual ethic free of hypocrisy and authoritarian restraints, and freedom from the handcuffs of rhyme and the critical strictures of the university English departments.
Rather than being disinterested, Tranter and his contemporaries were radically interested in producing poetic statements with tangible political effect. A newly roused poetics, urgent and excessive as the political and social milieu around it, thus found its primary condition in functions of corporeal and linguistic embodiment. “Life,” “freedom from conscription,” “drugs,” “sex,” “restraint” and “handcuffs” form a small constellation of tropes in which sensation — its extension or limitation — is signalled as both lifestyle and leading aesthetic mode. Heightened sense and embodied response were important poetic weapons against middle-class expectations and repressions. Thankfully, however, Tranter was no hippie. His early poetry, at least up to the end of the 1970s, is remarkable for its uncompromising interrogations of sensation in language. Tranter knows poetry is almost always stalked by the bourgeoisie, and that the pressures of textuality create formal difficulties for sense and feeling. We can read The Alphabet Murders as a laboratory in which Tranter tries to resolve problematic tensions between invested language and judgement, and a carnality that eschews both romance and repression. How successful is this attempt at resolution and independence?
Looking closely at The Alphabet Murders’ cornucopia of bodily syntax, readers repeatedly encounter a zone between inside and outside whose signifiers include “shit,” “spasms,” “tears,” “rubbing between palm and arse,” “slobbering” and “piss[ing] into each other’s throats.” The poem fantasises a kind of intensely corporeal cross-inhabitation, a perverse and deft blending of boundaries that indicates, among other things, a crisis of sexual and textual genre. Tranter promotes a volatile and abject mix of poetic types and tropes, poached from centuries of Anglo-European literary myth-making and hurled through the high pass filter of post-1945 Americana (“the page aflame with noise and verb geometry”). He trades sardonically upon the future significance of such experimentation:
First there is an accumulated substratum of fact,
and secondly a kind of thermal pressure built up
over decades of suppressed fantasy. Thirdly,
when the whole thing explodes you have an eruption
and millions of gallons of stuff pour out...
material which may be revolting and even deadly
at the time, but which forms a useful ground
for supposition in later ages.
This eruption crowns the poem’s 26th section, lettered Z for Zero, chosen by the poet to resemble a volcanic mouth or human arsehole. “Something like a nothing is what we find / at the final port of call on this cruise,” writes Tranter, who by now is “stained and weary” from such border transversions. He wastes no time however in re-launching his hybridising fantasies, and as credits roll in the 27th and final section, “the liner leaves the dock” for the umpteenth time and the poem “flowers in the mud.” While the first words of sections 1-26 are lettered A-Z, the poem’s denouement returns in deliberate prose to the letter A. The debased Sonnet — whose body we left in The Blast Area — has been replaced by a stylised US-savvy alphabeticism, a new materially focused and erotically charged poiesis. By exceeding the numerical system of an ABC (26 parts + 1), Tranter performs a murder of category and contained referentialism. And by returning to his opening gambit he prolongs a fantasy of future textual progeniture, a dream of writing yet to come: “We came back to that liner / who drew the line at the unreachable horizon.” This endless supplementary promise is also encoded in the poem’s original published title, The Alphabet Murders: Notes From a Work in Progress. Tranter never quite lets the poem exhaust itself in arrival, and this lends an admittedly repressive quality to the writing — “a kind of thermal pressure built up / over decades of suppressed fantasy”. He nonetheless is quick to satirise the “explosive” effects of continual vacillation between formalistic Euro-paeon (“the luminescent map of armies / burning on the plain”) and New York School-inspired cosmopolitan glib: “all I can do (me! me!) is eat page after / page of this ‘plain speaking’ in a rhetoric / dazed with ambiguity.”
...more like Mario Lanza than Frankenstein,
though more like Frankenstein than President Kennedy,
and less like President Nixon than a quick fuck.
Early postmodernism in Australian poetry was typically anxious about nominating its inheritance. Modernism per se was complicated in the Australian context by historically specific and unresolved nervousness about a swag of colonising vectors. Classical and popular English modes formed the bedrock of mainstream writing and its history, but were of limited use in postwar urban environments. Early modernist experimentalism had been nipped in the bud by the Ern Malley hoax of the 1940s.
The ruse played out in Angry Penguins by James McAuley and Harold Stewart, and the subsequent obscenity trials, had profound effects on Australian literary culture. That episode now represents a remarkably pre-postmodern turn — but at the time, it sturdily fortified “the anti-modernist forces in Australia.” The challenge for Tranter was to produce a postmodern poetics from amidst a literary culture in which modernism had never really cohered. In an interview with John Kinsella, Tranter points out that even in the late 1960s he was still “trying to come to terms with some of the strategies of late classical modernism. In other words, by the time modernism arrived here to any real effect, it had transmuted into postmodernism.” He goes on to quote Lawrence Norfolk: “modernism met its match in Australia... [it was] a succession of short-lived attempts, never quite a movement.” Tranter’s response was to enact a simultaneous, two-fold recuperation of “classical modernism” and its postmodern consequences. Exposure to American postmodernism in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945–1960 concentrated Tranter’s efforts. In keeping with conservatisms of the day, Australian censors initially banned the anthology because of a ‘fuck’ in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. However, Tranter was quick to absorb its manifold influences once it finally appeared in Sydney in 1964. By 1968 Tranter was navigating a chiasmic cultural parallax, attracted to both American metropoetic and post-Romantic French Symbolism. This contest defines the direction of his first three books — the final ‘crisis’ of which is played out in The Alphabet Murders. Tranter’s solution to history was an inverted, Orientalising dialectic, and its synthesis was in the seminal figure of Arthur Rimbaud.
“No more literature. The dream is done.” The Alphabet Murders, particularly in its opening stages, is obsessed with tropes of renunciation, expulsion and exile. In a publication climate of risk aversion following the Malley saga, ridiculed in the poetic-punk misbehaviour of Gen ’68, a repudiation of capital-L literature was both intrinsically necessary and, for some writers, capital-R romantic. The Alphabet Murders employs a mock-heroic separation fable to legitimise the cultural distancing it affects on several fronts: literary, academic, technical and ontological. Tranter is coolly desperate to innovate (“it seems that voyages of this type have a purpose”), while finessing a laconic-ironic style to dismiss certain local cultural topographies: “The annual outing of the Literature Society was held / on the foothills near the Epic Volcano, an area / noted for its inhospitable terrain and noxious gas.” Tranter here is echoing anxieties that have shaped white Australian cultural practice since terra nullius became a legal excuse to nation-build on the back of genocidal dispossession. Once it is acknowledged that Anglo-cultural claims to ‘belonging’ entail a systemic occupational lie, English poetic heredities begin to take an increasingly unsteady and complex place in Australian landscapes and literary scenes. Knowing this, and writing in 1972 with the Indigenous Tent Embassy in full swing outside Canberra’s Parliament House, how does Tranter proceed in The Alphabet Murders? I want to focus on a single, genealogical aspect of this much larger question, while keeping in mind syntactical traces of acute anxiety about Indigeneity and ‘the primitive’ that appear across Tranter’s poem (“the colourful natives”). By passing as illegitimate within The Alphabet Murders — an experimental outsider in strategic thrall to anti-establishment rhetoric — John Tranter enacts a drama of family selection. He asserts a freedom to choose his poetic-cultural parentage, rejecting “some long and boring poem by Matthew Arnold” and instead laying desirous claim to the “absolute modernism” of a French-American queer male line of innovators: Arthur Rimbaud, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara. This adoptive evolution is emphasised in a larrikin rewrite of T. S. Eliot’s ubiquitous ‘Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ — “the smoke that ‘wipes its arse upon the window-panes.’” Tranter’s un-accidental fetish with anal tropes and asides in The Alphabet Murders suggests a double entendre of progenitorship that accompanies his choice of ancestors, and provides further means by which the poem complicates issues of ‘generation’ and heredity. Qualifying his acceptance of a colonial writerly lineage, Tranter contributes to a historically-specific and fretful Australian poetic that still has currency: unresolved about its colonialist past, equivocal about a possible neo-colonialist future, and fantasising an eternal full-sail voyage between “English autumn” and Texan “Art” tourism.
‘Odi et Amo’, Tranter’s review of Charles Nicholl’s Somebody Else — Arthur Rimbaud in Africa, begins with the mock-lascivious statement: “When I was seventeen, I fell in love with a sodomite.” Tranter’s teenage crush endured and matured into a complex relationship. By the late 1960s the signifier ‘Rimbaud’ had become a magnet for various figures of revolutionary, anti-bourgeois poetic subjectivity. It became the most favoured location for cathexis of revolutionary desires amongst many young Australian male poets — especially Tranter and Robert Adamson. Their iterations of Rimbaud’s affectivity indicate an early attraction to, and investment in, highly romantic visions of an unruly and essentialist poetic embodiment. In 1976 Tranter described Rimbaud as “a poet and a person who lived his poetry... a rebel, an outlaw; he is French... a seminal and perennial influence.” More recently, Tranter has represented Rimbaud as
an intoxicating role model for a rebellious teenager.... poetry was the essence of his life.... [he was] intellectually brilliant... [and wrote] the most dazzling and gifted poetry of his period, perhaps of his century.... [his poems] combine revolutionary modernist methods... with an intense lyricism.
He also describes his pin-up vagabond as
one of the most dazzling poets of all time... [with] a very moving lyrical urge underneath all he wrote.... a Lucifer figure in many ways, and we always admire the bad boys more than the goody two-shoes.... I’ve never really moved on from Rimbaud.
This collocation of precocious poetic essence, stupefying lyricism and seditious brilliance sets up Rimbaud as the Romantic-Modern poet par excellence. Cross-supplementary transmutations of dazzling brightness and Luciferian darkness construct an attractive, seductive and dangerous figure, a kind of European ‘noble savage’ who stalks the boundaries of an anxious Australian poetic imagination. Tropes of moral and material threat — sexually charged, masculine and unpredictable — are Orientalised under a slippery rubric of exotic aesthetic transcendence. ‘Rimbaud’ becomes Tranter’s glamorous meta-brand, a sublimate junction between erotic hyper-essentialism and high modernist investments in proto-romantic self-constitution. Arthur Rimbaud may have given poetry away to spend his later years in Africa. He may have put the horse before the art. But beyond all else “he wrote like an angel.”
Perhaps there is more to John Tranter’s laboured pyrotechnics of voyage and departure than fantasies of onanistic isolation reinforced by the parodic serial ‘murder’ of certain Poetries — including canonical modernities advanced by Eliot and W. B. Yeats, who cops from Tranter the epithets “flatulent prose” and “far more / enduring than a bar slob and twice as sickly.” Lines like these beg closer reading:
These are not restrictions, but equipment
for use in experiment or exploration
such as it is well to have in hand
when leaving main roads for open country, though
often thrown away in side tracks that lead into
dead ends. Moreover tradition is not just an impulse
out of the past; it is a progressive movement
overtaking the present and helping carry it
into the future. To step aside from tradition could be
one way of being left soon in some small corner
which the present has already deserted. But poetry itself
always sorts out the poets it requires
and gives the best of them their orders...
... you can always strip that work
of ill-framed accretions and their polyphonic noise
without pulling the whole thing down.
The first 13 lines here are Tranter’s absurdist rewrite of a contemporaneous article by Australian poet R. D. Fitzgerald, published in Southerly magazine, in which younger poets are “castigat[ed]... for embracing experiment and abandoning tradition.” Tranter’s intention was to lampoon Fitzgerald, not to emulate him (‘after R. D. Fitzgerald’). However, his own identification with either ‘side’ of this static (and unhappily lasting) poetical binary is ambiguous, and he remains the imaginative opportunist who prefers to garner literary “equipment” from both. Referring to this exact sequence of lines in a 1981 interview, Jim Davidson asks: “You are in many respects quite a traditionalist, aren’t you?” To which John Tranter replies: “Oh yes.... and the strongest influence on the verse isn’t really the Americans or the French Symbolists, it’s the English prose writers. In fact there’s a line in The Alphabet Murders about Maugham’s prose style, which gives it away a bit.” Tranter compels us to read these clues alongside the poem’s ostensibly antithetical hectoring: “what can you / make of us, who are so deprived? That we simply guzzle / sound, experience and meaning and are thus disposed / to throw it up? No?... / We who have swallowed ‘the best that Western Literature / has to offer’, and shat the lot out on the lawn?” Somewhere in a gap between sharp satire and confessions of seduction by “a lovely chorus line of English prose,” Tranter’s narrative reason begins to glimmer. Although it flexes ironic claws at simplistic, critical dissections such as traditionalist vs. experimental, Tranter’s pastiche effectively recuperates Fitzgerald’s patrician clause of poetic aspiration and allows it to retain some heat: poetry itself always sorts out the poets it requires and gives the best of them their orders. Tranter may be “leaving main roads for open country” in his travails. But he is very careful to avoid “pulling the whole thing down,” a “dead end” strategy that ultimately would rob him of a place in literary history, however ironised. Why “kick the European jukebox in” when it might be playing your song? Despite the smoking fury of The Alphabet Murders’ blast-off, the poem reinterprets and consolidates some high-equity old-school verse parameters. Its iambic meter is sound, if broken in parts. It explicitly aligns itself with “the best of them” in a faux-combative version of a cream-rises-to-the-top ethos, and cites a requisite array of male literary who’s who. Even as it satirises their significance and works them through a demotic mill, The Alphabet Murders paradoxically remains dependent for content upon poetic epistemologies that delineate certain heavy-weight topoi and public discourses as the core business of poetry proper: philosophy, high “Art,” “Western Literature,” “the Muses” (routinely depicted as female whores), narratives of knowledge, “Genius,” Realpolitik. The poet’s ambition toward an erudite, masculinist and elevated fame eventually wins the day: “and though you may hold it in your hands briefly / it will depart again for its working is mysterious / and has a logic like that of holiness / in its frenzy.”
Queer as it might seem, Tranter always had doubts about his dazzling paramour. Having first discovered Rimbaud via Enid Starkie’s early biography, he knew Rimbaud could be “a shit of a human being.” In a tropic environment whose barometer is characterised by swings between angelic and demonic elements, Tranter’s collocation of ‘human being’ and ‘shit’ suggests some fascinating explorations of erotic homosociality. While attracted to Rimbaud as a ‘seminally’ productive figure of poetic self-constitution, Tranter was also strongly ambivalent toward any identification with “gush.” One of Tranter’s lasting contributions to Australian poetry has been his interrogation of the Romantic subject. His work consistently tries to decode the problem of ‘ego.’ As a desired subject both exotically present and viscerally abjected, Rimbaud is one of Tranter’s most complicated solutions to the puzzle. Tranter’s queering of Rimbaud does not re-invest the young “sodomite” with surplus exoticism or sublimity. Rather, by appropriating Rimbaud under a meta-sign of ‘language’ and the fecundity of linguistic matter per se, poetic essence becomes poetic material. A dialectics between ‘angelic’ gold and homogeneous excretion produces a metalinguistic synthesis, a repudiation of “Romantic gush” and its attendant overtones of transcendentalism. The hinge between angel and devil, noble and savage, constitutes part of Tranter’s specialist, Orientalising turn: a European moral order traced through poetic language and a distinctly corporeal arrangement of corresponding ideological and religious tropes. Tranter’s ‘Rimbaud’ thus signals an occurrence of Orientalism, the exotic and essentialised angel and aristocrat providing Tranter with both the poetic and linguistic material required for romantic self-fabrication. But exotic meets abject — devil, “sodomite” and “shit” — suggesting both the absolute limits of romantic ego and a point at which self-consciousness becomes self-parodic. For the Australian postmodernist, the Romantic European is partly debased or demonised in order for the ‘sovereign’ writing subject to be cleansed of traces of empire, and to inhabit ‘just’ form. Poetry damns in its salvation.
Returning to the impossible romance of a whodunit scenario usefully underscores the spectre of Tranter as Poet Select, who is possibly suffering the anxieties of influence, in a Bloomian sense — or at least a little sociability panic. “[A]s much poetry as we were able to hint at” may have been carried out on The Alphabet Murders’ formal stretcher. The poem may have been “left behind” or “flung overboard” or “turn[ed] away from domesticity” and fired “off / like a rocket.” But once the opening carnage has been shot from various angles, and tropes of narrative departure done to death, we gradually realise that the poet is still in the building. Like the quintessential butler he has been standing by, orchestrating the murderous action from the outset. As credits roll and the houselights go up, the detective sees only this: pen, paper, poet. The liner endlessly leaves the dock. The usual suspects — among them Rimbaud and Mallarmé — are summoned and spurned by a non-committal and potentially manipulative lover. The “great voyage” has been a Sting. “Don’t cry at the end of that novel,” schools Tranter. “It’s ridiculous.”
‘Shit’ and ‘self’ are transposable elements in a double movement whereby the postmodern Australian poet may invoke parallel traces of embodiment and disembodiment. Tranter’s Orientalisation of the twin empires of European and American poetics results in an excessively productive, volcanic disembowelment. As one motif for the gush of corporealised personality in language, shit becomes attractively valorised along a multifaceted hinge linking abjection, repression and reification. Under the sign Rimbaud, the trope ‘Tranter’ emerges and grows from an excrescence of poetic matter: the linguistic waste produced by a synthesis of poetic essence (its condition as angelic or noble brilliance) and poetic material (as primitive flesh and devilish drive). The Alphabet Murders returns repeatedly to this primary generative node in which ‘poetry’ and ‘personality’ can be recast as ‘essence’ or ‘shit’:
The annual outing of the Literature Society was held
on the foothills near the Epic Volcano, an area
noted for its inhospitable terrain and noxious gas.
Suddenly the mountain-side shudders, belches
and blows up with a lewd cracking noise,
showering the explorers with hard poetry turds
that drive them crazy. These little pieces of lyric
fall like tiny brains from the sky
fertilising the lakes and great rivers.
This expressive/ repressive, exotic/ banal dynamic is symptomatic of Tranter’s Orientalising drive. On one hand it fetishistically legitimises the subject ‘poetry’, while on the other limiting it to mere ‘style’ that is always available for colonisation and commodification as poetic form. Poetry as lyric commodity “drive(s) them crazy” by producing a risky but “fertile” affect loop. Orientalisation of ‘Rimbaud’ and a Euro-American poetic prepares the ground for antipodean self-constitution in language. Abjected, the Orientalist romance is then sublimated into the ‘body of language’, only to become volcanic shit that returns as poetic form for Tranter’s displaced, spectral self. John Forbes addressed this circular textual contingency in 1983 by asking:
But how do you write, knowing that the poem can never escape from Literature and, at the same time, not wanting merely to demonstrate the obvious? The long poems ‘The Alphabet Murders’ and ‘Rimbaud and the Pursuit of the Modernist Heresy’ both strike me as circling around this problem. In them Tranter is like the coyote chasing the roadrunner, using a great deal of energy and cunning, but never catching him. And while the roadrunner can paint a tunnel on a cliff face and disappear into it, the pursuing coyote just smacks up against the painted stone, despite all the assistance he’s got from ACME Products (Historico-Cultural Divison).
Like the forever self-destructive and reconstituted coyote, Tranter’s ‘subject’ appears and disappears along consecutive prolapses of narratorial narcissism. Tranter works hard to kill off self-construction as Romantic or Modern ‘personality’, only to resurrect it as ‘modality’. In a double murder-suicide, Tranter’s Orientalising cathexis of ‘Rimbaud’ and ‘the antipodean’ causes a rupture between modernism and postmodernism. It is via this movement that The Alphabet Murders produces a breakthrough event in late Australian poetry: it digests Euro-classical, American metropoetical ‘voice’ and produces ‘shitloads’ of commodifiable ‘style’.
The Alphabet Murders’ eleventh section reveals an important structuring device:
And think of this: each Russian movie masterpiece
bears his stamp, more than an individual approach,
which is like — uh — like a buried emblem
of the work itself, a tiny mirror for the plot —
or maybe narrative — and in this frame
the image, drift and meaning of the total work
act out their small and wistful life.
Outside this interlocking blazon, a life-style
called ‘the film’ takes place happily
night after night millions of times
as wasteful and expensive as a Russian dictionary
and more misleading than the tracks it leaves
entering and leaving your life,
and what is that? Snow, politics, the cruel city,
that goodly pedagogic food you ate....
Getting out is easy, but how you get in —
say, back through a locked window
into a room and a dead love affair
you abandoned the night your future called —
Tranter is director, projectionist and radiographer, standing in a darkened room behind “that grey machine they wheel in in a sheet,” or rolling film “happily / night after night millions of times.” As the potential sole audience for his poetic home-movie (“and what is that?”), he resigns himself to a certain rarefaction in the face of televisually-dominated culture: “I’m thinking that perhaps poetry / used to be the shot that flung the faulted bone / across the lens, huh?” The colloquial flip barely conceals Tranter’s nostalgia for classic roles — from the old black and whites, perhaps, a twentieth century stage for foibles and morality plays (“the faulted bone”). Implicitly comparing his poem to a “Russian movie masterpiece,” Tranter creates a rhetorical blazon, “a buried emblem / of the work itself, a tiny mirror for the plot” intended to display the skill of its maker. His technique pays homage to John Ashbery:
In almost all of [Ashbery’s] longer poems there is a little bit somewhere that actually condenses emblematically the whole of the poem in which it appears. And I thought it would be interesting to put inside one of the poems in The Alphabet Murders a reference to that fact, which of course becomes its own ‘blazon’ immediately it appears there.
Tranter’s blazon is a clever disappearing act. It is a blazon about blazon, an emblematic description of a descriptive emblem. In this sense it perfectly mirrors The Alphabet Murders’ narrative logic: a mise en abyme or play-within-play structure that multiply defers arrival, symbolised in the poem’s return to the letter A. Perhaps Tranter’s gesture of non-arrival exceeds its filmic set-up and anticipates a new Australian manner, a global-local version of what Pierre Joris calls nomadic poetics — a language-smart late 20th century replacement for the collage aesthetic privileged in sundry strains of poetic modernism, and embodying “no at-home-ness... but only an ever more displaced drifting.” Tranter’s well-timed delays permit a certain fluidity of identification, whether with poetic heredities or homoerotic deports. He is selectively evasive about either fit while claiming cultural capital from both. The Alphabet Murders is a modernist long poem by one reading, a postmodernist anti-epic by others; a romantic courtship of French-American cosmo-sexuality on one hand, and on the other, a retreat to the perverse safety of the solo slide night.
Ur-art, Arthur? Having abjected relations between ‘voice,’ ‘material’ and ‘form,’ Tranter’s ‘murder-suicide’ re-produces drives toward the circulation and trade of poetic ‘style.’ As both murderer and the corpse remaining, ‘Tranter’ trades on an intra-infinite moment of endless alphabetic traffic in which coprophilic and homoerotic volcanism cause a poetic potentiality that is ‘beyond essence.’ Tranter’s solution imitates both the logic of late capitalism (sic) and that of a disruptive écriture (sick). His commodities are endlessly repeatable and, under the authorial knife, Ultra-finite:
Zero is the shape of the volcano’s orifice
as seen from above, as it is of the human’s as seen
from below, and this witless natural joke is a clue
to the purpose, function and economic value of art.
“Very pat and tricky,” Tranter’s blazon also encapsulates an inevitable counter-effect of The Alphabet Murders’ deflective satire. Despite turning his “post-postmodern” poetical topic through a range of adventure vignettes, genres and linguistic registers, Tranter at poem’s end is poised knowingly on the edge of his own subject-trip. He is both principle architect of the blaze and a romantic investor in disposable outcomes (“the more beautiful for being the more easily erased”). With a last ironic flourish — melodramatic only in the extent to which it fails to conceal Tranter’s real care for the medium — the poem’s narrator becomes near-rhapsodic at having experienced or consumed at least some fulfilment of poetry’s pledged affections, regardless of contingency:
the liner leaves the dock and one sees wavelets, sodden streamers in a million colours, and some damp flowers drifting downward through the clouded water to that harbour mud.... even this has strength as it is inevitable and what we have been promised and it is one promise that shall come through.... the flowers in the mud live and breathe for a short time only and then return us to our dreams.
This is not about romantic achievement of “voice”, a term Tranter successfully ironises across The Alphabet Murders via procedures that include quotation, appropriation, textual inset and ventriloquy (enter A. Christie and J. Ashbery). Rather, in their lyrical nostalgia, these somewhat Orphic lines glance upon the inescapability of authorial circulation within the world-stage production of Poetical Commodity: “and in this frame / the image, drift and meaning of the total work / act out their small and wistful life.” Have brand name, will travel.
Who needs a voice when you’ve got style?
Xenos, as a figure for the stranger encountered at a subjective border of culture and language, offers a useful way of reconceptualising John Tranter’s faux deportations of the early 1970s, while bringing readers up to date with the poet’s continued career in acts of localised displacement. In 1997 Tranter established the online poetry magazine Jacket, whose snappy title nonetheless signifies a certain distancing anxiety (the ‘protective’ coat surrounding material in a published volume, rather than the material itself). In part, the magazine has accurately predicted a futurist arcane that is built into early exemplars of web-based publishing — and perhaps internet technologies more generally — by adopting a high-modernist, museum/ arcade aesthetic in arranging its contents. These are chiefly international poetic materials with a North American bias. Unmistakably, Jacket introduces its browsers to Tranter’s Own America — and indeed to Tranter’s Ideal Modernism, Postmodernism, and a neatly convertible Internationalist Poetic:
I can discover a new poet whose work I like on some Internet site in Scotland, say, one Monday morning, email her or him that day and ask for a contribution to my Internet magazine, Jacket, receive a reply containing a few poems that afternoon, and publish them for all the world to read that evening.... As it has turned out, most of the contributors and I guess most of the readers are from the USA and the UK.
No editor courts readership in such a seemingly random way, and the phrase “turned out” is revealing in several senses. Perhaps most interestingly it is a flag of xenos, marking the outward or extra-national turn Tranter has made with Jacket’s highly credible, advance-guard intervention into a globally distributed world of online poetry zines (which, contrary to Tranter’s understandably utopian assertions, are “free” only to people with access to requisite computer and internet technologies). Jacket demands that Australian, North American, British, Scottish, French, Irish, Canadian, et al. poets encounter one another across the mediating bridges of English language and Microsoft technologies. Perhaps such meetings still take place in the shadow of Rimbaud, the intrepid innovator who forsook his birth ‘nation’ to live in geographic and virtual-poetic exile. Whether or not Jacket bears witness to a repudiation of nation (and I would suggest it doesn’t), the magazine continues something of The Alphabet Murders’ willed embrace of “distant country.” It shows Tranter-the-2004-editor and Tranter-the-1974-alphabet-murderer to be at a similar impasse, at once xenophilic and strange. Via the peculiar techne of the worldwide web, Jacket performs a familiarisation of foreignness (xenia). Simultaneously, the poet and his productions are estranged from the familiar: viz., a frustratingly enduring Australian poetic-cultural ethos that continues to reject gestural and practical ‘internationalism’ as modish, pretentious or threatening. In the (post-Howl) era of 1960s Australiana, John Tranter saw the ‘best minds’ of his generation and didn’t identify.
“You might say that / no career is adequate to my melancholy.” You might also say that after The Alphabet Murders, Tranter’s career displays a series of melancholic obsessions with ghostly traces of poetic style and narration. Having dispatched the muddy corpse of pre-post-modernity, Tranter effects a final solution to the poem’s onto-linguistic crises by asserting the pre-eminence of narratorial time. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Tranter clearly shifted his Orientalising fantasy from Arthur Rimbaud and the Rimbaud-logo to John Ashbery and the figure of ‘Ashbery’ as premiere icon of an urban, ‘quintessentially’ postmodern American poetic. Ashbery himself had already adapted French Romantic pre-modernism and European modernism to his New York School postmodernism. Subsequent to The Alphabet Murders, Tranter began to identify with and imitate more closely Ashbery’s artefactual, narrative mode — and an Ashbery-esque manner has remained a critical focal point for his ongoing poetic projections. This is foreshadowed to some degree by the prose poem that completes The Alphabet Murders in a prize flaunting of authorial intervention. Returning to the letter A at the alphabet’s material finale, Tranter takes one small step into prose, and so makes an absolute pact with teleology. Section 27 thus signals The Alphabet Murders’ most radical scene of departure. Tranter finally kills off the romantic subject by reviving writing:
After all, we had left poetry behind before this trip had even begun, and all the while we have been bereft of its silly promises of beauty... and as much poetry as we were able to hint at left as a blur on the horizon as a temporary sign, the more beautiful for being the more easily erased, and even this has strength as it is inevitable and what we have been promised and it is one promise that shall come through: that the slate of verse shall be washed clean...
Here, Tranter signals an arrival into the terrain of his mature style: a prosodic bricolage in which narrative modality, dramatised as style, functions via a spectral subjectivity that moves across linguistic space. Having murdered gushy ‘personality’ and its dazzling, crap-shooting alphabets, the poem becomes a site in which Tranter can produce and collate artefacts and traces of being as they occur in narrative time. Following The Alphabet Murders and the ensuing Crying in Early Infancy — 100 Sonnets, Tranter’s poetry goes on to project an infinite circulation of melancholic, fin-de-millenairian écriture. Perhaps Tranter still writes home to the loss of his beloved Rimbaud.
A poem... — The context — The context necessarily dealing with a world outside of it....
A poem. The context based on a world. 
“An Objective” continues to tender one of the most provocative twentieth-century tools for the reading and exegesis of poetry, not least for conceptualising the poem as “an object in process,” a suggestively ambiguous but tidy formulation applicable to disparate writing environments. Gary Catalano took a shot at John Tranter by proposing the avant-garde’s “incoherence” to be a form of social “naturalism in disguise.” Innovative modernism, Catalano argued, was at best a kind of transparent representation of social and political incoherence: if the world outside of the poetic object was demonstrably fragmented, then a poem privileging disjunctive modes could be recuperable as a form of high realism. When applied to The Alphabet Murders this thesis fails on at least two levels. First, social incoherence is not the poem’s express subject. Tranter’s formal game explicitly concerns the proliferation of poetic styles and their engagement with temporality — an expression of multiple sense rather than nonsense. Second, Catalano’s ‘disguised naturalism’ mistakes the sophistication of Tranter’s irony, which aims for the supra-representational, not the super-real. Tranter’s postmodernism insists on staging the performativity of simulacra rather than idealising possible realities. As “a context based on a world,” The Alphabet Murders distributes meaning via channels that outstrip metaphor and substitution to suggest prototypical Australian inquiries into metonymy and its discontents: “a locomotive whistle / late at night becomes a linguaphone and then / jumps into bright focus.”
“And I was also rather interested in trying something new, [and was] having difficulty in doing this, living in a country where the language spoken was not my own.” So we return to our distant country, and the protests and advances of John Tranter’s extra-repressive murder of an already composting poetic culture. Tranter and his nearest contemporaries moved deftly away from the pathological straightjacket of Australian post-Malley terms and taxonomies. In criticism, however, their poetical oeuvre has often been limited to a single annuity: Generation of ’68, the bloom of a lone calendar year without guaranteed future returns, preserved on a specimen pin at the moment when Europhilic poetical modernisms and formally smart postmodern styles faced-off over colonised campground. Critical detectives have been gazing, star-struck, at the imaginary spoils of a time when select innovative Australian poets reset their coordinates by a newly imperial compass, its dial minted fresh in the factories of America. Like the best serials, The Alphabet Murders perhaps gives a snapshot of a greater puzzle yet to be acknowledged and solved — in this case, within discourses about contemporary Australian literature: a murderous alpha-beta of poems that seems ever “adrift in the city,” condemned to carve up Country in repeated territorial projections.
but country development experimentation fact go his in July kind Linking manipulation new of panoply quest Romantic shadow transplanted us verse washed Xenos you Zukofsky A
1. John Tranter, The Alphabet Murders: Notes from Work in Progress (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1976; A&R Poets of the Month series, No.2), p.41. Unless otherwise stated, all subsequent references are to this edition and are signified by AM.
2. John Ashbery, interviewed by John Tranter, ‘John Ashbery in conversation with John Tranter,’ 1988, available online here.
3. John Tranter, Parallax and other poems (Sydney: South Head Press, 1970), published as a special issue of Poetry Australia, no. 34; and John Tranter, Crying in Early Infancy: 100 Sonnets (St Lucia: Makar Press, 1977). Unless otherwise stated, all subsequent references are to these editions and are signified by PX and CEI.
4. See ‘John Ashbery in conversation with John Tranter.’
6. John Tranter and his wife Lyn lived and worked in Singapore from 7th July 1971 to “late August or early September 1972.” Communication with the authors, 14th November 2004.
7. John Tranter, interviewed by Martin Duwell, ‘A Possible Contemporary Poetry: an interview with John Tranter,’ Makar, vol. 12, no. 2 (December 1976), p.7.
8. See John Tranter, interviewed by Kate Lilley, ‘An Interview with John Tranter,’ Southerly, vol. 61, no. 2 (2001), pp.6-23.
9. Adapted from Richard A. Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms: Second Edition (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1991), p.29 and p.61.
10. See John Tranter’s introductory note to excerpts from ‘The Alphabet Murders’ on the Tranter site of Australian Literary Management: http://johntranter.com/poems/alphabet.shtml. Tranter writes of the poem: “It quotes Rimbaud: ‘Take rhetoric and wring its neck!’ and aims to attack and destroy rhetoric, its own apparent reason for existing.” Tranter is actually mistaken here, as the Rimbaud quote appears not in ‘The Alphabet Murders’ but in Section 12 of his later poem ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’: “now a paste of / bullshit obscures the surface of the legend / that cast out flattery and took rhetoric / and wrung its neck.” See John Tranter, ‘Rimbaud and the Modernist Heresy’ from Dazed in the Ladies Lounge (1979), republished in John Tranter, Trio (Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing, 2003), p.109.
11. Tranter, AM, p.37. Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders was originally published in 1936. “The Alphabet Murders” (1965), a black and white noir-esque thriller directed by Frank Tashlin, was the first film version of the classic novel.
12. Tranter, AM, p.35.
13. Tranter, AM, p.44.
14. Tranter, AM, p.48.
15. Tranter, AM, p.45.
16. Citations in order from Gary Catalano, ‘Review of “Crying in Early Infancy: One Hundred Sonnets” (Makar Press, 1977)’, Contempa magazine, vol. 2, no. 6, available online; Thomas Shapcott, ‘John Tranter and Les Murray,’ Australian Literary Studies vol. 10, no. 3 (1982), p. 381; and Jennifer Maiden, ‘Review of “The Alphabet Murders,”’ New Poetry, vol. 24, no. 2 (1976), p.9.
17. Kate Lilley, ‘Tranter’s Plots’, Australian Literary Studies, vol. 14, no. 1 (May 1989), p.41.
18. Citations in order from Lilley, ‘Tranter’s Plots,’ p.46; Alan Urquhart, ‘Hacking at the Pattern: Post-Romantic Consciousness in the Poetry of John Tranter,’ Southerly, vol. 53, no. 3, September 1993, pp. 12-29; Michael Brennan, ‘Becoming ‘“Absolutely Modern”: Adamson and Tranter’s Abandonment,’ Departures: How Australia Reinvents Itself, ed. Xavier Pons (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2002), pp. 225-235; and John Kinsella, ‘Distortions, On Questioning the Primacy of the Accented Syllable: notes on alternative spatialities for poetic rhythm,’ Journal of Commonwealth Literature, vol. 37, no. 1 (2002), pp.133.
19. Lyn Hejinian, ‘Two Stein Talks,’ The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), p.91.
20. Tranter, AM. Citations in order from pages 38, 40, 45, 48, 27 and 30.
21. Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (London: Penguin, 1978; all citations to follow from 4th edition, 1995), p.2. Emphasis added.
22.Tranter, AM, p.27.
23. Tranter, AM, pp.27-28.
24. Said, Orientalism (4th ed.), p.5.
25. Tranter, AM, p.29.
26. Said, Orientalism (4th ed.), pp.4-5.
27. Tranter, AM, pp.27-28.
28. Tranter, AM. Citations in order from pages 27, 36, 48 and 48.
29. Tranter, AM, pp.36-37.
30. Tranter, AM, p.40.
31. See Brennan, ‘Becoming “Absolutely Modern.”’
32. Tranter, AM, p.27.
33. Tranter, AM. Citations in order from pages 27, 28, 30, 31, 34, 40, 41, 43 and 44.
34. Tranter, AM, p.48.
35. Tranter, AM, p.32.
36. A.A. Phillips, ‘The Cultural Cringe,’ Meanjin, vol. 9, no.4 (Summer 1950), pp. 299-302.
37. John Tranter, in untitled interview by Jim Davidson, Meanjin, vol. 40, no. 4 (Summer 1981), p.432.
38. Tranter interviewed by Duwell, p.10.
39.Tranter interviewed by Davidson, p.430.
40. Tranter interviewed by Davidson, p.431.
41. Tranter, AM, p.47.
42. Tranter, TBA, p.36.
43. Tranter, AM, p.27.
44. Tranter, AM, p.48.
45. John Tranter, ‘Anaesthetics: some notes on the new Australian poetry,’ The American Model: influence and independence in Australian poetry, ed. Joan Kirkby (Sydney, Hale & Iremonger, 1982), p.99.
46. Ibid, p.104.
47. Tranter, AM. Citations in order from pages 27, 28, 37, 32, 43 and 40.
48. Tranter, AM, p.27.
49. Tranter, AM, p.47.
50. Tranter, AM, p.47.
51. Tranter, AM, p.48.
52. Tranter, AM, p.33.
53. Tranter, AM. Citations in order from pages 47, 45 and 29.
54. Tranter, AM, p.39.
55. Julian Croft, ‘Responses to Modernism, 1915–1965’, The Penguin New Literary History of Australia, ed. Laurie Hergenhan (Ringwood: Penguin, 1988), p.420.
56. John Tranter, interviewed by John Kinsella. The interview, composed by Tranter and Kinsella between 1991 and 1997, appears in a number of locations in various manifestations. I refer to the online version available here.
57. John Tranter, in conversation with the authors on the 9th December 2003, confirmed that The New American Poetry 1945–1960 arrived in Sydney in 1964.
58. Tranter, AM, p.28.
59. Tranter, AM, p.30.
60. Tranter, AM, p.30.
61. Tranter, AM, p.36.
62. Tranter cites Rimbaud’s now-ubiquitous flourish of poetic renunciation, “One must be absolutely modern,” in Section 21 of The Alphabet Murders (Tranter, AM, p.43). See Arthur Rimbaud, “Farewell” from A Season in Hell, trans. Louise Varèse (New York: New Directions, 1961).
63. Tranter, AM, p.37.
64. Tranter, AM, pp.28-29.
65. John Tranter, ‘Odi et Amo,’ review of Somebody Else — Arthur Rimbaud in Africa by Charles Nicholl (London: Jonathan Cape, 1997), available online at http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/tranter/reviews-by/nicholl.html.
66. Tranter interviewed by Duwell, pp. 9, 10 and 14. Emphasis added.
67. John Tranter, in interview with CK Tower, ‘Word for Word,’ Riding the Meridian, ed. Jennifer Ley, vol.1 no.1 (1999), available online here.
68. John Tranter, interviewed by Guy Shahar, The Cortland Review (September 1998), available online here.
69. See John Tranter, ‘Four diversions and a prose-poem on the road to a poetics,’ first appeared in Meanjin, vol.47 no.4 (Summer 1988), pp. 588-592, available here.
70. Tranter, AM, p.41.
71. Tranter, AM, pp.42-43.
72. The authors are grateful to John Tranter for communicating these details. Citation from notes prepared by Tranter for US critic Robert Hahn in 2003.
73. Tranter interviewed by Davidson, p.440.
74. Tranter, AM, p.40.
75. Tranter, AM, p.45.
76. Tranter, AM, p.43.
77. Tranter, AM, p.47.
78. Tranter, ‘Four diversions,’ pp. 588-592.
79. For Tranter on ‘gush,’ see Tranter interviewed Kinsella (1991-1999), and Tranter interviewed by Tower, both online.
80. Tranter, AM. Citations from pages 48, 27, 28, 28 and 27 in that order.
81. Tranter, AM, p.36.
82. Tranter, AM, p.30.
83. John Forbes, ‘Accelerated Subject,’ review of John Tranter’s “Selected Poems (1982),” Meanjin, vol. 42, no. 2 (Winter 1983), p.251.
84. Tranter, AM, pp.36-37.
85. Tranter, AM, p.46 and p.37.
86. Tranter, AM, p.46.
87. Tranter interviewed by Davidson, p.436.
88. See Pierre Joris, ‘The Millennium will be nomadic or it will not be: notes toward a nomadic poetics [version 1.02b],’ available online here.
89. Term borrowed from Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht and Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991).
90. Tranter, AM, p.47.
91. Tranter, AM, p.44.
92. Tranter interviewed by Davidson, p.430.
93. Tranter, AM, p.48.
94. Tranter, AM, p.48.
95. Tranter, AM, p.36.
96. Tranter interviewed by Tower, online.
98. Jacket is set in Trebuchet, Verdana and Georgia fonts, each created by Microsoft. In a different and interesting light, this means non-Microsoft browser settings will skew the magazine’s design intentions and produce radically different versions of the journal.
99. This applies a principle of xenia as developed by Lyn Hejinian in the essay ‘Barbarism,’ The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), pp.318-336. “The xenos figure is one of contradiction and confluence. The stranger it names is both guest and host, two English terms that are both derived from the single Greek term and are thus etymologically bound in affinity,” writes Hejinian. “Every encounter produces, even if for only the flash of an instant, a xenia — the occurrence of co-existence which is also an occurrence of strangeness or foreignness.” (p.326) The argument also draws on Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky’s principle of poetic ostrenanie or estrangement/ defamiliarisation. See for example Shklovsky, ‘Art as Technique’ in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge (London and New York: Longman, 1988), pp.15-30.
100. Tranter, AM, p.29.
101. Tranter, AM, p.48.
102. Louis Zukofsky, ‘An Objective,’ Prepositions: the Collected Critical Essays of Louis Zukofsky (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1981, 2nd edition), pp.12-23 at p.5. Interpolation included.
103. Catalano, review of Crying in Early Infancy, online.
104. Tranter, AM, p.27.
105. Tranter, AM, p.35.
The new face of Chinese poetry
It is impossible to convey the baffling complexity of the Chinese poetry scene, or rather scenes, for China is a huge and fragmented country with thousands of poets spread across millions of square miles. Further, China is but one of several countries or “renegade states” (as some Chinese politicians refer to Taiwan) in which poetry is composed in the Chinese language. It is nonetheless possible to observe some general trends, of which the most salient, in my view, is the impact of the Internet. While many scholars have described the Internet’s influence on the publishing and consumption of Chinese poetry, I have yet to see anyone discuss the profound influence that it has had on the form and content of Chinese poetry.
At the risk of sounding cynical, most poems written in China today aspire to the condition of an elevated blog entry. The poster child for this trend is Yin Lichuan, the most prominent and influential member of the still controversial (but no longer active) Beijing-based Lower Body Movement, which was the first poetic movement to write about sex, adultery, drugs, crime, bar life, lowlifes, and other unsightly blemishes on the grimy underbelly of China’s new urban culture. Now, however, she is but one of hundreds and possibly thousands of Chinese poets who write in a similar vein. Interestingly, although the Internet and Internet culture have also had a profound effect upon poetry’s presence and prestige in Taiwan, poets in Taiwan have responded rather differently to this new media landscape, embracing print publication and book arts, although they too now seem to be moving in the same direction.
But China first.
The late nineties and early years of our new millennium — when Chinese poets began going online — saw online poetry forums, bulletin boards, and journals spring up like mushrooms across the Chinese Internet. Although many of these ventures were relatively short-lived and had few readers to speak of, others became hugely popular alternatives to print publication. These included the Shanghai-based Under the Banyan Tree; the women’s poetry journal Wings, operated out of Beijing; and Poetry Vagabonds, whose servers and moderators were located in the Guangdong area. Although these sites typically relied upon a visually unattractive HTML format, they allowed readers to instantly post comments and exchange messages with authors and other readers, which created extraordinarily active online communities, at least for a time.
For many readers, or “net-friends,” to borrow the Chinese term for Internet users, interest in poetry was fueled by the opportunities it provided for social networking, particularly for those living outside major urban areas who enjoyed little if any access to poetry books or poetry-related events. However virtual and fugitive these communities may have been, they allowed scores of “outsider poets,” Yin Lichuan among them, to cultivate a devoted following. Even once software for creating personal blogs became easier to use and poets abandoned these collective platforms, their followings tended to remain. While a few of these online forums and journals persist, the quality of the poetry and the quantity of the posts have fallen off dramatically, and many of the more prominent avant-garde venues, such as Poetry Vagabonds, have been inactive for years.
The alpha male of this vast tribe of virtual “escribitionists” is probably Yang Li, a “third-generation” poet who rose to prominence in the eighties, long before most people in China had heard of computers, much less the Internet. The fifty-six-year-old Sichuan-based poet learned how to go online only in 2000, but he took to the new medium readily. Yang Li’s poetry is, to put it mildly, an acquired taste, for much of it consists of tell-all confessions on provocative topics such as the rights of sperm or why he has lost interest in giving oral sex as opposed to receiving it. Indeed, his most famous poem is an epic-length meditation on “The Big Cannon,” a Chinese euphemism for masturbation.
Yang Li's Glorious
Yang Li’s obsession with sex can be read as an example of the return of the repressed. Like other poets who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, when nearly all books without the party stamp, including collections of classical poetry, were routinely seized from private homes and destroyed on the spot, Yang Li had little exposure to poetry besides some then-banned classical poems a neighbor would recite to him and the poems of Mao Zedong, in an irony that makes me wonder about the Chairman’s commitment to socialist realism and the proletarian revolution, were written in a classical form dating back to the Song Dynasty.
There is, of course, the much simpler explanation that sex sells or at least prompts hits. But this should not be reason to write this poet off. As his first English translator Simon Patton has noted, Yang Li’s poems are all the more engaging for their apparent lack of craftsmanship. For instance, “Albania,” which was inspired by a socialist propaganda film the poet was forced to watch in his youth, is a most engaging depiction of life during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Even his more provocative efforts, such as “Spring Days” and “When We Eat We Never Talk about Sex,” have unexpected depths. Written in Beijing some five or six years ago, they bear witness to the massive transformations that city underwent in order to become the symbol of China’s emergence as a major world power.
As urban historian Hanru has aptly observed, “the traditional substance of the Chinese city is the hutong — a mat of courtyards impressive for its intimacy and versatility, but often casual in its construction.” Beijing in particular was once a perfect warren of close courtyards and narrow lanes, but these have been swept away to clear the ground for parking lots, skyscrapers, and huge, multistory condominiums such as the one Yang Li describes in “Spring Days.” Seen in the light of this new urban reality that isolates people even as it forces them together, the poet’s account of the deterioration of his relationship with “Ms. Chrysanthemum Wang” and “Xiao Yang” can be read as both symptom and critique of the general loss of intimacy and community that have followed China’s efforts to reinvent itself as a modern urban society.
Virtually every major city in China has experienced a similarly traumatic makeover over the past two decades, and the infusion of global capital and commodity culture has done much to diminish the presence and prestige of poetry in a nation that, for more than two thousand years, regarded the writing of poetry as its most revered cultural practice. In the eighties and early nineties, when even outsider poets enjoyed an almost heroic status, poetry readings were major events, in part because there was so little else for people to do during their leisure hours. Unlike in post-Maoist China, where “to be rich is glorious,” poets did not have to compete with the likes of cable television and tabloid news, pirated videogames and DVDs, porn, shopping, or those most alluring and addictive practices of eating out and playing the stock market, as Zhang Er describes in her prose piece “The Husband of a Younger Cousin on My Father’s Side.” Moreover, as tea houses have been gradually replaced by Starbucks-style coffeehouses, fast food restaurants, karaoke bars, malls, and other urban spaces where muzak, video streaming, and the endless chatter of cell phone and laptop conversations make it all but impossible for anyone to read aloud, there are fewer and fewer places where poets can present their work in publicassuming of course that anyone would want to hear them. As Yu Jian’s “Executing Saddam” suggests, with the invasion of cable television and American-style news programming, even the private home has become subject to the intrusions of an aggressive visual and consumer culture that has little room for poets or poetry. Small wonder that China’s poets have turned to the blog and in their effort to reach out to readers have reshaped their work to fit this more intimate format.
Zhai Yongming (in red) at White Nights
The “blogification” of contemporary poetry in China has had a tremendous leveling effect on individual style even among poets who came into their own before the Internet. Take the work of Zhai Yongming and Yu Jian, for example. In the nineties, the breakout decade for both, their poetry had little in common in terms of form or content. Zhai, who runs “White Nights,” a wine bar in Chengdu, and used to write elegant free verse that is deftly captured in this translation by Andrea Lingenfelter:
For Women Poets
Don’t worry your pretty little heads over poetry
Their desks piled high with
Ink cartridges, CD-ROMs, blank paper
want it all:
an iBook Estee Lauder
a printer paint and powder
When I stand beneath a concrete ceiling
Its geometric structure abstracts into a heart
I even fancy I could snatch that cube
for my own personal compact
Some years ago from an airplane
I looked down and saw those carbon dark strata
They’d passed through prehistory acquired significance
How long ago was that?
Before there were women or men
Yu Jian, on the other hand, is regarded as one of the founding fathers of post-Soviet Chinese poetry and lives in the relatively remote province of Yunnan, where he has spent much of the last decade documenting the natural and cultural life now threatened by rampant development. Yu Jian established his reputation as the author of Whitmanesque inventories comprised of telegraphically short phrases sprawled across the page. His signature work and magnum opus, File 0, is a twelve-part prose poem modeled on the personal dossiers the state once compiled for virtually every citizen in the country, covering the whole lifespan, from elementary school until death:
5 thought report
(brought to light and compiled on the basis of conjectures and suspicions of comrades with
a grasp of the particulars)
he wants to bellow reactionary slogans he wants to violate the law and public discipline
he wants to go into a frenzy he wants to be degenerate
he wants to rape and defile he wants to strip naked he wants to go on a killing spree he
wants to rob a bank
he wants to be a billionaire a big landlord a big capitalist wants to be king president
he wants to lead a life of debauchery dissolute to the nth degree be a local despot act
the tyrant ride roughshod over the people
he wants to surrender he wants to betray he wants to give himself up he wants to make
a political recantation he wants to turn against his own side
he wants to riot take frequent action rampage rebel overthrow a class
Both poets, however, now write colloquial confessional verse that is not all that different in style and register from that of Yin Lichuan, Yang Li, and company. Although there are important differences in their work, the distinctions have much less to do with form than with content, tone and degree of irony or confessional disclosure.
To be sure, there are a number of important Chinese poets whose work has remained relatively immune to the trend I have just described — Bei Dao, Duo Duo, Han Dong, Xi Chuan, Zhang Er, and the late Zhang Zao, who passed away earlier this year, come readily to mind. However, most of these poets either live outside China or are employed by Chinese literature or foreign language departments that reward or require them to publish their work in books or print journals. There are also many performance poets who write with a view to public recitation, but the vast majority of these poets are salesmen (or saleswomen) for commercial ventures or the Communist Party, or rank amateurs with naïve dreams of being snatched from obscurity. Among the exceptions worth mentioning is the rocker poet Cui Jian, whose songs and lyrics are almost as famous in China as Bob Dylan’s and Leonard Cohen’s are in the English-speaking world. Yan Jun, whom I had the pleasure of seeing perform a few years ago in Taipei, combines computer-generated soundscapes and video clips with a recitative style that simultaneously evokes religious incantation and the iconoclastic antics of the edgier sound poets. His Dutch translator Maghiel van Crevel astutely observes that Yan Jun’s poetry “qualifies as nothing less than theater,” but very few poets in China have followed his lead in exploring the possibilities of multi-media.
I suspect the trend toward “blogification” will continue until something more alluring replaces the blog, but it is hard to imagine what that might be, as most of the other Internet services and technologies that could conceivably provide an alternative platform and template for poetic composition and social networking, such as Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and YouTube, are more often than not blocked by the Chinese authorities. For better or for worse, the personal blog seems destined to remain, for the immediate future, the platform of preference for the lion’s share of poets in China.
If the blog entry is the current default setting for poetry in China, this is not yet the case in Taiwan. Here, too, the rise of the Internet and the proliferation of blogs, coffee houses, videos and other forms and forces of commodity culture and globalization have had a drastic impact on both the readership for poetry and the genre’s presence and prestige in the society at large. Poets on this side of the Formosa Strait, however, have been much less willing to abandon the book for the blog. There are several reasons for their persistent investment in print culture. For one thing, during the martial law period of the Nationalist government or Kuomingtang (KMT), which lasted from shortly after World War II until 1987 — the longest martial law reign in modern history — poetry enjoyed an enviable currency and centrality thanks to the prevalence of coterie journals, newspaper literary supplements and state-sponsored poetry competitions that actively sought interesting lyric poetry and paid contributors a respectable fee for the privilege of publishing it as a distraction from divisive political and social issues.
For the same reason, the island’s major poets, most of whom were former soldiers who had fled to Taiwan after the “fall of China,” turned to surrealism and other Western modernist movements so as to avoid state discourses of “anticommunism” and “moral reconstruction” without prompting the ire of the army of censors employed to keep a lid on public criticism of state policies. Many of these “second-generation modernists” who came up in the late fifties, sixties and early seventies, such as Guan Guan, Ji Xian, Zheng Chouyu, and the late, great Shang Qin, who passed away last June, became household names during the martial law period. Even after this period ended, their reputations were so firmly established that they felt little need to alter their poetics or to turn to the Internet as an alternative to print publication. Quite a few of them are contributing editors to the literary journals and newspaper literary supplements that continue to publish poetry, or serve as judges in the highly-publicized poetry competitions these publications regularly sponsor, which has helped to keep the genre alive.
Although Taiwan has had its share of Internet poetry forums, bulletin boards and blogs, even avid Internet users still prefer to publish their verse in print form. Indeed, the triumph of the Internet in other spheres of life seems to have intensified the desire for print publication. This may have something to do with the island’s relatively small size and the concentration of its population in the greater Taipei area, which diminishes the difficulties of distribution, promotion and public recitation. Another possible reason is the growth of specialty bookstores and upscale bookstore chains such as Eslite that rely upon poetry and poetry-related events to advertise their cultural sophistication and are always on the lookout for novelty publications that can be used for book displays and point of purchase items. But the biggest reason for this persistent investment in print culture is the publication of the avant-garde journal Poetry Now, which since 2002 (as I have written in Jacket) has “served up more interesting verse in more interesting formats than the rest of the island’s journals combined.” Their newest “Heartless Poetry” issue, for example, is designed along the lines of a glossy fashion magazine sans stories, with each page containing one or two poems set against a backdrop of digitally retooled, full-color ads stolen from the pages of the journals it imitates.
The pioneer here was Hsia Yü, who was one of the founding members of the journal and the driving force behind its emphasis on rethinking the possibilities of the codex book and enlarging the notion of the poetic text. Hsia Yü was the first poet in Taiwan to insist on designing her own books, which she fills with poems that draw attention to the book as a material object and to reading as a visceral and sensual practice. Her innovations in poetic form, content, composition, and book design, which rival those of Johanna Drucker and Keith Smith, had a tremendously liberating influence on the island’s younger poets, many of whom subsequently joined the Poetry Now coalition or contributed to its publications. In particular, poets such as Hung Hung, Amang and Ye Mimi, have followed Hsia Yü’s example by designing their own books or hiring someone to do so. Their publications have helped to prompt a renewed interest in book design that has included such innovative formats as “big character” wall posters, accordion books, poetry calendars, “Poetry in an Egg,” “Poetry in a Matchbox,” “Poetry in a Sleeve,” and other novelty items. These innovations have encouraged concomitant experimentation in poetic style and content. While the poetry that has been published in Taiwan these last seven or eight years is not necessarily better than what has appeared in China, it is certainly more stylistically diverse and lends itself to more diverse forms of engagement: as aesthetic object, as gift or intimate possession, as script for recitation or browsing.
But there are downsides to this investment in novelty. Not only are many of these publications difficult to come by and relatively expensive, many of the best poems lose something in translation when they are reprinted in anthologies or posted on the Internet by the growing number of readers who prefer to read poetry on a computer screen. Hsia Yü’s “Tied Up and Waiting” and Ye Mimi’s “Sunlight’s Dotted Line,” for example, both have a flirtatiousness and musicality that make them a pleasure to read in almost any presentational format, but their closing lines make little sense outside the pages of a book. What is lost in the translation to the screen is fairly obvious in the case of Ye Mimi’s poem, but I should probably point out that the volume for which “Tied Up and Waiting” was originally published had a sewn binding and uncut, untrimmed pages, and was comprised of poems that play off the various ways in which authors attempt to ensnare readers and how readers, in turn, accept, resist, or ignore these enticements.
The other downside to this investment in novelty is that it eventually runs up against the law of diminishing returns. Here, too, Internet culture has become increasingly hard to resist as attention spans shrink and more and more people spend less and less time reading and tend to browse even when they do read, which helps explain why the new Poetry Now was designed to look like a glossy magazine. The oft-quoted paradox that there are more people writing poetry than reading it is not that far from the truth in Taiwan. Most poetry collections and anthologies published in the past few years have had few if any readers and simply molder on dusty shelves in the remote corners of bookstores if they manage to get into the stores at all. Moreover, the institutions that once generously supported poetry readings have not been unaware of this diminishing interest. Last year was the first time in almost a decade that the city of Taipei failed to host the Taipei International Poetry Festival, which was cancelled in order to free up funds for the International Flower Show. Several of the more established newspapers and journals continue to consider poetry submissions for their literary supplements, but the poems they publish tend to be but a few lines in length and read more like jokes than poetry, which has prompted some literary critics to predict the triumph of the “Twitter poem.”
This is a depressing trend, so much so that I sometimes wish I were in China rather than in Taiwan. But then again, when I’m online, I often am.
1. There are many articles in English on Internet poetry communities in China, of which the most informative I have read is Michel Hockx’s “Virtual Chinese Literature: A Comparative Study of Online Poetry Communities,” in The China Quarterly 183 (2005): 670–691.
3. Simon Patton, “Yang Li,” in the Chinese section of the online archive Poetry International Web.
5. This translation originally appeared in Full Tilt 3 together with an interview by Andrea Lingenfelter, whose collection of Zhai Yongming translations, The Changing Room, is forthcoming from Zephyr Press.
6. My translation of this section of Yu Jian’s “File 0” is indebted to Maghiel van Crevel’s version, which was originally published in its entirety in Renditions 56 (2001): 19–23 and subsequently reprinted in Maghiel van Crevel’s Chinese Poetry in Times of Mind, Mayhem and Money (Leiden: Brill, 2008), together with the Chinese and an extensive commentary (223–280). Readers are also directed to Robert Hass’s “Two Poets: A Generation after the ‘Misty School,’ Chinese Poetry Has Come Alive,” in the online journal The Believer (June 2010).
9. See Michelle Yeh’s “‘On Our Destitute Dinner Table’: Modern Poetry Quarterly in the 1950s,” in Writing Taiwan: A New Literary History, ed. David Der Wei Wang and Carlos Rojas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 113–139.
10. “Is This the End of Poetry Now?,” in Jacket 35 (2008).
11. The best study of Hsia Yü’s poetry and agenda in any language is Zona Yi-ping Tsou’s MA thesis, “The Pleasure of the Work: Making Senses of Hsia Yü’s Poetry,” which I had the immense pleasure of directing.
Chamoru poetry and the work of Cecilia C. T. Perez
Where do we go from here? We are in uncharted waters, or maybe in familiar waters, unable to recognize the signs that show the way. Am I a navigator? Am I the navigator? Are we moving? Are the islands moving? Have we been following the navigator, so well-guided we don’t even know the navigator is here?
— Cecilia C. T. Perez, Signs of Being
Located in the northwest Pacific Ocean, the Mariana archipelago consists of fifteen islands, including Rota, Tinian, Saipan, and Guam, and is the homeland of the Chamoru people. For an introduction to the literature of the archipelago, the scholarship of Robert Tenorio Torres is a good place to start. His three essays, “Pre-Contact Mariana Folklore, Legends, and Literature” (2003), “Colonial and Conquest Lore of the Marianas” (2003), and “Post-Colonial and Modern Literature of the Marianas” (2004), stand as the most sustained critical commentaries in the field and the first serious attempts to articulate a Marianas literature. In the latter essay, Torres defines the “modern literary tradition” of the region as post-1940s writing by both Chamoru and non-Chamoru writers who write in and aboutthe Marianas.
Torres not only analyzes the most visible works by Chamorus; he also examines representations of the Marianas by outsiders, tracing what Paul Lyons terms “American Pacificism” in the Marianas (2006). An important source for Torres’s commentaries is Mark Skinner’s “Contemporary Micronesian Literature: A Preliminary Bibliography” (1990), the first bibliography of Micronesian literature (of which Marianas literature is a geo-literary subcategory). Skinner lists approximately 800 works published since World War II by nearly 400 indigenous and nonindigenous writers.
I hope to modestly contribute to this ongoing mapping of Chamoru poetry. This essay presents a noncomprehensive listing of poetic works, providing an overview of post-1960 Chamoru poetry. I then provide an extended analysis of Cecilia C. T. Perez’s cross-genre work Signs of Beings: A Chamoru Spiritual Journey (1997), one of the most important works of contemporary Chamoru poetry. I emphasize the interrelationship between Perez’s decolonial politics, aesthetic tactics, and multilingual crossings as she explores the major themes of Pacific poetics: indigenism, colonialism, tourism, militarization, missionization, and historiography.
Many of Skinner’s citations are drawn from literary journals produced by the University of Guam (UOG): Xanadu, Xanadu II, and Storyboard. Xanadu, published in 1966, featured work by students and faculty members of Chamoru and non-Chamoru descent. The journal was resurrected from 1981 to 1983 as Xanadu II. Dating from the same period as the first publication of Xanadu, one of the earliest Chamoru poetry books is Juan A. Sanchez’s History’s Four Dark Days: An Ode in Honor of the Late John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1965). This epic ode, comprised of sixty-eight quatrains, is written in Chamoru but includes an English translation by Father Andrew San Agustin. Sanchez expresses his fond feelings for President Kennedy as an ally of the Pacific nations, as well his sadness over Kennedy’s death.
In the nineties, San Francisco–based writer P. C. Muñoz published two books of poetry, currently out of print and unavailable for review: The Daily Balance (1991) and Half-Truths (1995). The university also began production of Storyboard: A Journal of Pacific Imagery, published 1991–2001, 2006, and 2009 (currently in electronic format). This journal featured works by many Chamoru writers, including Anne Perez-Hattori, Cecilia Perez, Muñoz, Keith Camacho, and Tina Taitano deLisle. Recent issues include seasoned writers Peter R. Onedera and Evelyn Flores, as well as younger writers Kisha Borja-Quichocho, Fanai Castro, and Michael Lujan Bevaqcua, to name a few.
The heavy reference to university journals and unavailable titles in Skinner’s and Torres’s work, and in my own list here, illustrates that while many important books of Chamoru poetry are out of print, many other works have yet to be printed in book form. Recent anthologies have addressed themselves to this dual difficulty. Chamoru Childhood, coedited by Michael Lujan Bevacqua, Victoria Leon Guerrero, and myself, was published by Achiote Press in 2009. This anthology features poetry and prose by seventeen Chamoru writers. The Space Between: Negotiating Culture, Place, and Identity in the Pacific (2009), edited by Marata Tamaira and published by the Center for Pacific Islands Studies, presents several poems by Chamoru writers Michael Lujan Bevacqua, Kisha Borja-Kicho’cho’, and Angela T. Hoppe-Cruz. As of this writing, an anthology of Micronesian literature is being edited by Evelyn Flores and Emelihter Kihleng; it will include an ample selection of Chamoru writing.
It is clear that this situation is changing: besides myself, at least two other Chamoru poets have received MFAs in the United States: Clarissa Mendiola (California College of the Arts, 2009) and Lehua Taitano (University of Montana, 2010). In 2008, Hawai‘i-based Tinfish Press published my first book of poems, from unincorporated territory [hacha]. My second book of poems, from unincorporated territory [saina], was published in 2010 by California-based Omnidawn Publishing. In both works, I attempt to capture my grandparents’ experiences during World War II as well as my own experience growing up in Guam and living in California. Much of my work also explores the devastating impact of U.S. colonialism on Guam’s environment and culture.
Further, in recent years, the spoken-word scene on Guam has blossomed. In particular, the Sinangan-ta Poetry Slam was created in 2005 by Jovan Tamayo, Kie Susuico, and Melvin Won Pat-Borja. Sinangan-ta (“our spoken words”) is the only spoken word and slam poetry event on the island. According to Won Pat-Borja: “Spoken word poetry is a way for our people to reconnect with the oral traditions that our ancestors practiced centuries ago. It may look a little different with stages and microphones, but it is still a vehicle that allows us to share our stories, songs, and histories.”
One of the most important Chamoru writers is Cecilia Catherine Taitano Perez, also known as “Lee” Perez and “Hagan Ita” (Daughter of Ita or Blood of Ita). In 1997, Perez published her master’s thesis, Signs of Being: A Chamoru Spiritual Journal, with the University of Hawai‘i’s Center of Pacific Islands Studies. Comprised of poetry, prose and commentary, this cross-genre, multilingual book is described by Perez as “a documentary in the form of creative writing, on the politics of cultural identity and historical memory in the process of decolonization of the Chamoru mind and senses. It is written from the self-reflexive view of an indigenous Chamoru woman writer from Guam, whose sense of physical sight is blurred.” Her journey through a “Chamoru mindscape” travels across five chapters, or what Perez calls “passages”: Hinasso (Reflection), Finakmata (Awakening), I Fina’pos (Familiar Surroundings), Lala’chok (Taking Root), and I Senedda (Finding Voice).
In one of the opening poems, “As I Turn the Pages,” Perez depicts the invisibility of Chamoru people in western-authored histories of Guam. According to the commentary that follows the poem, the speaker was sitting in the theatre at UOG, listening to a lecture given by a history professor on “romantic and tragic” portrayals of Guam’s history:
In the drama
of what is called,
“The History of Guam,”
the stage is set:
Nanyo, extension of Nippon,
bastion of American democracy.
One of many scenes
Foreign actors walk in
float in fly in bomb in
the passive props. (4)
Here, Perez asserts that Chamoru invisibility is a part of the colonially constructed narrative of Chamoru history, in which Chamorus were considered “passive props” in the struggle between various colonial powers to claim Guam. This narrative begins in the seventeenth century after Guam was “discovered” by Magellan and Spain colonized the Marianas. Following the Spanish-American War of 1898, Spain ceded Guam to the United States and sold the remaining northern islands to Germany. Japan occupied the Northern Marianas in 1914, and a League of Nations mandate recognized Japanese control. In 1941, Japan invaded and occupied Guam for three years; however, the U.S. recaptured Guam in 1944 and occupied the Northern Marianas. Guam, again, became a possession of the U.S., while the Northern Marianas came under U.S. control through a mandate from the United Nations (the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands). In 1950, Guam became an “unincorporated territory” of the U.S., a status unchanged to this day. The Northern Mariana Islands became a commonwealth of the U.S. in the late seventies, thus cementing the severing of the Mariana Islands and the Chamoru people-cum-“passive props.”
Perez’s poem continues with the speaker remembering how she’s “turned those pages” of history, often ending up at these words: “‘And in the end …’ / ‘in one final gasp of life …’ / ‘the last Chamorro died’” (5). The poem ends:
who am I
and how is it
I sit here
The speaker herself is proof that Chamorus survived four centuries of colonialism, despite the “fatal impact” thesis of many historical texts. This theme of cultural survival is further articulated in a prose essay, “Signs of Being — A Chamoru Spiritual Journey,” which appears in the second section (Finakmata):
I always come back to the idea of cultural survival. We are here. We are now. But what is it that brought us, as a people, to this point? Despite years of governance by colonial powers, our language and our ways persevere. We are not pickled, preserved, or frozen in time. We are not measurable or validated by blood quantum, ethnic breakdown, physical characteristics or DNA. We are vital, and vitalized by our tenacity and joined inner strength.
It is not in words spoken that we have been taught, but rather in the silent teachings of our Saina. What we learn is to open ourselves to the “collective memory” of our People who came before us and help us to move ahead — I Taotaomo’na. They show us how to remain in spiritual love and connectedness with each other and our homelands.
Where do we go from here? We are in uncharted waters, or maybe in familiar waters, unable to recognize the signs that show the way. Am I a navigator? Am I the navigator? Are we moving? Are the islands moving? Have we been following the navigator, so well-guided we don’t even know the navigator is here?
With my diminishing eyesight, I try to expand my vision. I have stopped looking for signs and started feeling for signs. The islands are moving, and we are being guided. I felt my first wave, felt my first star and felt my first island here in recent memory. (24)
This essay morphs into literary nonfiction, and the speaker describes a trip to the neighboring northern island of Luta (Rota) with a friend. They walk through a Latte quarry site. Latte are stone monoliths constructed with a vertical pillar and a bowl-like capstone that our ancestors used as the foundations to various buildings, such as homes and canoe houses. Latte sites house ancestral spirits, and Chamorus consider these places sacred. The speaker’s friend, Lina, leans down to a fallen capstone and asks in Chamoru: “Guella yan Guello, hafa na ti un na’fonhayan i che’cho’-miyu? What happened to make you leave your work?” The speaker believes that the fallen Latte is a sign: “It is from within the row of Latte that we feel our strength. It is the severed capstone that gives us Their message, “Ti monhayon I che’cho. We will not rest until the Latte is whole” (26).
Throughout Perez’s work, she implores Chamorus to listen to our ancestors struggling to speak through the silencing effects of colonialism. The poem “Kafe Mulinu” (Ground Coffee) begins with a “we” drinking coffee in our modern homes:
encase us in
and keep us from seeing
keep us from feeling
the surrounding sesonyan. (17)
Perez draws a link between the air conditioning of modernization and the mind conditioning of colonialism. Because of this dual conditioning, Chamorus are blinded from seeing the surrounding “sesonyan,” or wetlands, which have been “poured thick” with concrete. The moment of bilingualism in the poem is important because it signals a momentary return to seeing the indigenous surroundings. Another Chamoru word propels the next stanza:
our beloved ancestors
Cries from the past
whirl in the present
are hurled at our presence
but only blow at us
like a whisper.
Taotaomo’na, Chamoru ancestors, begin to wail following the linguistic invocation of “sesonyan.” The past haunts the present of our surviving presence — but do we hear their voices over the hum of the air conditioner? Perez mourns: “We leave Them in Their pain / as we heave / and take, yet / another numbing sip.” At this numbing point, the poem turns linguistically, introducing six lines of Chamoru:
Ai, mohon yanggen siña ta hungok,
yanggen siña ta nginge,
yanggen siña ta li’e
Mohon yanggen siña ta siente
na ti apman esta i ora,
siempre ti man manmatåtåchong hit (18)
Both stanzas are initiated by the word “mohon,” which expresses a desire, hope, or wish. This repetition, followed by the repetition of “yanggen” (if) and “ta” (we), creates a chantlike structure. To translate, the speaker wishes we could hear, smell, see, and feel the signs that colonialism is destroying us. If we could truly feel that our extinction is near, then we wouldn’t be sitting around drinking coffee. The poem ends: “thirsting, / groundless / sitting sipping / churning mixing / tasting / bitter with sweet.” Perez insists that Chamorus must remain connected to our ancestral surroundings and to i taotaomo’na. To do this, we must experience an awakening of our senses to indigenous roots encased within modernity and colonialism.
While “Kafe Mulinu” explores how Chamoru diets and residences have changed over time, the poem “View of Tumon Bay” explores how an entire village was transformed and deformed by tourism:
skew the view,
and as if what we’ve got
the gov. wants
MORE! MORE! MORE!
You talk about
by 2000 …
I don’t feel much like waving,
I DO NOT
Tumon, now the main tourist center, was one of the most prominent villages in precolonial Guam. Now it is thick with hotels, bars, restaurants, duty-free shopping, strip clubs, massage parlors, and gun shops. The “gov” that the speaker refers to is the former Governor of Guam, Carl Gutierrez, who aimed to bring 2 million tourists to the island by the year 2000. The acrostic that ends the quoted passage, “Welcome / All / Visitors / Enthusiastically” (WAVE), was a promotional slogan of the Guam Visitors Bureau encouraging residents to wave at tourists. The poem’s anger and refusal continues:
My hands are
fanning away the stench
of tourist industrial waste
“if there were
so it’s hard
to find a fish
but a hotel dinner plate
these days. (43)
To pave the way for the tourist industry in Tumon, large sections of reef along the shoreline were removed. In addition to mechanized sand sweeping, the use of motorized water recreational vehicles, soil erosion, and sewage runoff destroyed much of the fish population in the area. So the speaker prays for silence — a silence derived from another Visitors’ Bureau ad claiming that there would be a “silence of cash registers” if the tourist industry failed.
Surrounded by the effects of colonialism, modernization, and tourism, Perez feels “lost in a wilderness / not of [her] making,” as she puts it in the poem “Strange Surroundings.” Unlike “Kafe Mulinu,” in which the speaker seeks to hear our ancestors’ voices more clearly, “Strange Surroundings” also invokes Catholicism, another agent of colonialism in Guam:
I seek the one
who walks on water
to pull me from
this brackish water
and cloak me
in the finest wet air
of our deepest hålom tåno,
our deepest jungle,
to find the graces of
the Ones Who Walked Before.
Catholicism, brought to Guam by Spanish missionaries, is now the major religion of the Chamoru people, compacting over the healing powers of our taotaomo’na. Again, Perez signals this movement toward indigeneity through the use of the Chamoru language. I hålom tåno, or deep jungle, is guarded by the taotaomo’na. While Catholicism may guide us toward a spiritual place, the depths of the Chamoru spirit belong to the graces of the “Ones Who Walked Before.” Throughout Signs of Being, Perez compels Chamorus to see and feel and listen to what she calls “the invisible ceremonies” of our language, our land, and our ancestors.
The poem “Sky Cathedral” explores the theme of religion more fully, as it weaves Catholic ritual and Chamoru spiritual beliefs. The poem begins by describing how “Nåna” (mother) lives “in jeweled nights, / stars / like candles / lit / in a sky cathedral.” Blending the natural world with the Catholic world, the poem then weaves into Nåna’s prayerful, Chamoru voice:
Abe, Nånan Yu'os
sen gågås Maria
yan gråsia siha. (61)
Within the echoes of Nåna’s voice, the speaker addresses the reader with the haunting question: “Did you see that shadow pass / and pinch me on the cheek?” While the mother’s spirit wakes her up, the speaker’s voice reaches out to the reader to wake us up. She seeks — and asks the reader to seek — what is compacted beneath concrete, what is buried beneath Catholicism, what is invisible and shadow. In this poem, however, the speaker not only seeks, she finds:
I find [Nåna]
in a field of Latte
to me. (61)
Gualåffon, or full moon, propels the reader deeper towards an indigenized land and mindscape. In the passage, gualåffon reflects the light of the Latte, i hålom tåno, and i taotaomo’na. By invoking a field of Latte, Perez weaves the past and the present; the following stanza powerfully captures this interweaving:
she strokes my hair
with moonbeam fingers
that let my strands
in the wind
of Nåna’s hair,
that drape me
with my past. (61–62)
Hair, especially women’s hair, is an important trope in Chamoru storytelling. In the story explaining the shape of Guam, a giant fish eats the middle part of the island. Even though the men hunted every night to kill the fish, the beast successfully hid from them. One day, a group of young women tied their hair into a net and sang near a spring. The fish swam near to hear their songs; then, the women caught the fish using their net. Hair becomes a symbol of protection; just as Nåna’s hair protects the speaker and drapes her in the past, Perez’s words unfurl in the glistening winds of silence, cascade in our imaginations, and drape us in the Chamoru past.
Like many other poets from the Pacific — we might think of Albert Wendt and Haunani-Kay Trask — Perez believes creative writing can be a tool for decolonization, “a process that comes over time through a development and nurturing of intellectual and sensory acuity.” Contemporary Chamoru poetry, while unique in its own ways, navigates the currents of Pacific literature outlined insightfully by Wendt in Lali: A Pacific Anthology (1980):
The new Pacific literature examines (and laments), often angrily, the effects of colonialism. It argues for the speeding up of decolonisation [sic]; the development of cultural and national and individual identity based firmly on our own ways, values, and visions. The quest is for self-respect and the forging of forms of expression which are our own. But, more importantly, like writers elsewhere our writers are explaining us to ourselves and to one another, and adding details to the faces, organs, hopes, and dreams of each of our cultures. They are helping us to understand who we are, where we are, where we came from, and where we might be going, by singing their own individual songs, by plotting their own paths through the Void.
By reading the literary signs of Chamoru being, we are reminded that in the history of the Marianas, the Chamoru people have survived. How can we be dead if we are sitting here, reading and writing our once invisible stories? Beyond merely surviving, Hagan Ita calls us to see, touch, smell, hear, feel, and remember our ancestors because “their pain is our legacy.” Perez insists: let this pain guide us through the moving and changing islands; let our poems and stories guide us into i hålom tano; let us make the Lattes whole again.
In the introduction to his bibliography, Skinner describes the literature from Micronesia as “stunted” in its “infancy,” especially as compared to the growing corpus of work in English from Melanesia and Polynesia. In the twenty years since Skinner completed his bibliography, Chamoru literature has been flourishing. If the current proliferation of Chamoru writing continues, we might be on the crest of a new wave of Pacific writing.
In this 2007 video, Chamoru poet Cecilia “Lee” Perez reads “As I Turn the Pages” and “Kafe Mulinu” on KUAM News Extra, a feature on one of Guam’s news channels. The video was recorded during Mes Chamorro (Chamorro Month), which occurs every March.
1. See Robert Tenorio Torres, “Colonial and Conquest Lore of the Marianas: A Critical Commentary,” Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences 2.1–2 (2003): 22–30; “Post-Colonial and Modern Literature of the Marianas: A Critical Commentary,” Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences 3.1–2 (2004): 26–44; and “Pre-Contact Marianas Folklore, Legends, and Literature: A Critical Commentary,” Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences 2.1–2 (2003): 3–15.
4. Juan A. Sanchez, History’s Four Dark Days: A Memorial Ode to the Late John Fitzgerald Kennedy (Saipan, CNMI: Trust Territory Printing Office, 1965). For an extended analysis, see Torres, “Post-Colonial and Modern Literature of the Marianas.”