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Jacket 18 — August 2002   |   # 18  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Elegies for a Lost Life

Marjorie Perloff reviews

John Tranter, Heart Print (Cambridge: Salt, 2001)

Paul Hoover, Rehearsal in Black (Cambridge, Salt, 2001)

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— ‘I started writing poetry when I was about eighteen, and it’s always been connected in my mind with leaving the country town I grew up in and all of the values that town had, and moving to another world altogether, which I did at about that time. I think that’s probably the most important thing I’ve ever been through in my life, that fact that I left the town I grew up in and I never went back. It’s as though that whole universe disappeared and was replaced by a totally different universe, where I lead a different kind of life than I would ever have lived had I remained in that town, on that farm, in the bush....
I sometimes think that my poems are elegies for that lost life.’
     — John Tranter, Interview with Ted Slade, Cortland Review (1998).

My grandfather, Paul Emmanuel Hoover, was a farmer with a B.A. who read Latin and Greek. When he died in his 40s of heartstroke while gathering hay, my father put his body on the wagon, drove the team of horses back to the house, and placed the body on the front lawn to await the doctor’s arrival. This being the time of the Great Depression, my family lost the farm.
     — Paul Hoover, ‘What is American about American Poetry?’ Roundtable, Crossroads (Poetry Society of America, 2000).

Neither John Tranter nor Paul Hoover could be kept down on the farm. But perhaps it is their rural backgrounds — New South Wales for Tranter, Harrisonburg, Virginia for Hoover — that give their poetries their particular inflections. For the two have a lot in common.
      Both were born in the shadow of World War II (1943 and 1946 respectively), both are well-established editors, not only of major anthologies (Tranter, the Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry, Hoover the Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry), but of key journals — Jacket (Tranter) and  New American Writing (Hoover, with Maxine Chernoff). Indeed, Jacket #13  is a co-production with the American journal. Both poets have been publishing books with well-known publishers for more than twenty years and have a distinguished record of journal appearances and grants. And, finally, both deserve to be read much more widely than they have been to date — a neglect due, I would guess, to their non-affiliation to any definable group, community, or ethnic minority.
      John Tranter’s fellow Australian poet John  Kinsella, who also spent much of his childhood and early adult years on farms and in country towns — this time in the West, near Perth — and now lives in Cambridge, England, has recently coined the term ‘international regionalism’ to define the new mode of ironic pastoral that has engaged him in recent years. ‘International regionalism’ is quite a good oxymoron to describe Tranter’s Heart Print and Hoover’s Rehearsal in Black. Both books have a strong sense of geography — of place as at once indigenous and yet curiously OTHER. A cool urbanism, enriched by frequent travel, is taken as normative. But the downside of this self-invention is rootlessness — a condition city life tends to exacerbate.

John Tranter cover

Consider Tranter’s superhypermetrical sestina, ‘The Beach.’  This eight-page prose poem, looks, as Tranter himself tells Kate Lilley in a recent interview,  ‘like an article in prose...,’ but ‘it actually follows the rules for the form of a sestina, except for the one fact that the lines are all far too long... It’s hypermetrical because it has more feet in each line that it should have to be metrically correct [though the sestina has no metrical constraints as such], and superhypermetrical because it has thousands more feet than it should have’ (Southerly, April 2001).

      A sestina has six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three-line envoi; its end words abcdef permutate according to the pattern faebdc. How then can a ‘prose’ text divided into paragraphs, ranging from one to twenty-nine lines constitute a sestina? Tranter treats the paragraphs as lines and modulates the six end words ‘air,’ ‘drink,’ ‘fun,’ ‘death,’ ‘beach,’ and ‘Sydney.’ This ‘superhypermetrical’ form serves the poet nicely, seeing that ‘The Beach’ ironically deconstructs the picture postcard image of Sydney Harbour and the fabled beaches beyond it. Tranter’s ‘beach’ is a dank stretch of baking gritty sand where the sewers pipe water ‘out to the Pacific, a spreading stain’ that ‘takes your friends and your enemies alike.’ Indeed, ‘the pollution [at the beach] is heavier than in the centre of town — the sea breeze nudges the smog westwards through the day and into the evening as the lights come on, the evenings of trysts and hamburger smoke and hot cars, the nitrous oxides cooking in the heat and filtering through the lungs of the working classes in the new suburbs on the baking Cumberland Plain stretching toward the outback.’
      Tranter characteristically refuses to pass judgement on this scene, where the ‘smog [is] thick with suspended particles and diesel fumes and deadly gas dumped on the plain right where the people live.’ The ‘inhabitants,’ he notes, are ‘happy to breathe the contaminated air that gives them health as well as sickness.’ The ‘freight of noise and activity, Vietnamese immigrants... an Italian family quarrelling, and a Greek fish shop crowded with revellers in white’: it’s all good fun, and, as the poet contemplates the crowd, ‘The bowl of sand and water [becomes] a kind of memory theatre... when I was a boy in the country I liked to swim, poke at an octopus with a stick and chase poisonous puffer fish through the rippling shallows, then I would wander up the five-mile beach, no one there.’ Whereas ‘Now the beach seems a tedious gritty way to get skin cancer — just as when I was a kid in a country town I longed to live in Australia’s busiest metropolis, Sydney.’
      Which is more desirable? Ironic detachment is all in this carefully crafted circular sestina, in which ‘fun’ — ‘just a perplexed and sometimes tiring kind of fun’ — becomes less and less appealing and ‘death’ (‘How about a shot of death?’) more and more prominent. But because this poet is first and foremost a survivor, a bemused observer of the spoiled landscape of Sydney’s harbours, bays and beaches, he shrugs, ‘Let’s say there’s no more dying, each word we speak holds it at bay for one more minute.’ The pun on ‘bay’ is telling, and the sestina moves toward its envoi:

So quick, drop your book, get a drink, breathe in the air and laugh at death. Under the bright blue canopy it’s time for fun: it’s a summer day in Sydney. And everyone’s going to the beach.

(my italics)

‘Laugh at death’: throughout Heart Print, the poet tries to remind himself that ‘it’s time for fun,’ time to ‘get a drink,’ and enjoy the summer day in Sydney or elsewhere. But death looms large in this, Tranter’s fourteenth collection of poems, in which camped-up verse forms like the sestina, sonnet, and ballad, or generative devices like the subsequent letters of the alphabet that control the twenty-six (well, twenty-seven) poems in ‘The Alphabet Murders,’ cannot quite contain the disorder of living. Not that the poems are gloomy, for the poet enjoys a good laugh at himself as well as at everyone else and he enjoys contemplating ‘that delicate space between what he’d done / and what he’d meant to do,’ without too many regrets. Still, few poets have as few illusions as does John Tranter. ‘I think my tone of voice works in a laconic mode that is peculiarly Australian,’ he tells the interviewer for Cortland Review, ‘If American boys have a bit of John Wayne in them, then Australian boys have a bit of Crocodile Dundee, and perhaps a bit of Dame Edna Everage (a Barry Humphries stage persona), however much they might deny it.’

Heart Print contains many of Tranter’s characteristic surreal narratives — droll and bizarrely disjunctive tales, often based on the pop films he loves so much — but this is the poet’s most elegiac volume to date. A moving poem called ‘Gallery’ begins as follows:

The teachers would hammer us into artists,
recalcitrant base metal beaten into gold,
if they could. To me, joy-rides were art,
and ploughing was a type of inscription —
I hear behind the droning motor someone’s

childhood weathered away and wasted, the boy
in the threadbare snotty jacket hating us
for noticing him thus. . . .

In its deft use of the vernacular and breathless run-on lines, arranged in open-ended stanzas so as to define an ars poetica (‘ploughing was a type of inscription’), ‘Gallery’ recalls such Frank O’Hara poems as ‘There I Could Never Be a Boy.’ But Tranter’s elegy has less buoyancy, a harder edge than O’Hara’s. The remembered ‘world of bush farms’ holds out little promise:

                      Parents were templates,
but I could not plot the father. A spanner
clinked on steel and danced in the ringing shed.
The tractor did its work like any rusty mechanism
and his office was the open air, a church of absence.

He wore old blue things. Does history
have to be past tense? The diary says I’m
older than he ever got to be, can it be true?
In a fragment of dream chatter I
catch my voice from another room and hear

my father’s laugh. Is he here? He’s been dead —
‘I had the shivers — lock the back door.’

The reference here is to the death of Tranter’s father when the boy was only nineteen. But ‘Gallery’ avoids sentimentality by its careful distancing: not ‘my’ but ‘the’ father, not Edenic nature images but ‘The tractor did its work like any rusty mechanism’ in this ‘church of absence.’ Even the father’s clothes are no more than ‘old blue things’ and the dream image of his laugh gives his son ‘the shivers.’ Indeed, neither nostalgia nor specific memory can change the fact that getting away from all that home stands for is recalled as the right choice:

High on killing ethylene, I realised
wrong could be right. They’d punish the boys
to save them. I would not join...

Indeed, even in memory, the poet revels in his oppositional stance. Here is the final stanza:

The old men forbade the barbecue, and now
a thunderstorm begins with pattering drops,
laughter, girls’ dresses bunched under the shelter,
the grey sky stretching so far, impossibly distant,
where I glimpse myself longing to go home.

Not ‘father’ but ‘the old men,’ with the phrase’s implication that the taboo on teen-age fun and barbecues was ubiquitous — a taboo that made the boys’ furtive sex, economically rendered by the line ‘laughter, girls’ dresses bunched under the shelter,’ all the more desirable. In this context, the last line is not, as it first appears to be, an expression of Romantic nostalgia but, on the contrary, a curiously candid admission. Even the most deprived or bleakest youth, the poet posits, becomes, as we grow older, the occasion for ‘fond’ memories for the simple reason that it was one’s own childhood, one’s own remembered past.
      This motif, as Rimbaldian as it is Proustian (think of the ‘Madame’ image in Rimbaud’s great poem ‘Mémoire,’) is prominent in the twenty-eight sonnets that are among the best poems in Heart Print. Some of these, like ‘The Lessons,’ with its discovery that ‘in the pure of heart, / there is something unforgivably obscene,’ have prominent rhyming quatrains; some, like ‘Telescopic Sight’ and ‘The Doll’ fuse material from romance novel and Hollywood film; some like ‘The Bus,’ with its effort to recapture school bus days, are memory poems in the vein of ‘Gallery.’ One of the most ominous is the first, ‘Starlight’:

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

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

This, like so many of Tranter’s anti-pastorals, begins with what would seem to be a striking nature image: dim photographs of grass seen beneath a scrim of shallow water in semi-darkness. But the poet’s subject is culture rather than nature: the sonnet’s focus is on images of bad omen: an ultrasound picture of a fetus? An X-ray indicating a genetic illness? In any case, an ‘invisible childhood’ is ‘damaged by the future,’ a one-time ‘promise’ is dissipated by ‘‘a tiny growth [that] drains all your effort’.’ Here, as so frequently in this collection, the indelible ‘heart print’ is figured as a dimly perceived death threat.

Paul Hoover cover

Like Heart Print, Paul Hoover’s new collection of poems is something of a departure for a poet known for his humour, his high spirits, and sense of the absurd — an heir, so common wisdom would have it, of the New York school from O’Hara to Ron Padgett. A few poems in Rehearsal in Black do fit this bill: the comic travelogue ‘California,’ for instance, which takes the reader from Hollywood to Mt. Tamalpais and beyond, lingering over such images as that of

A postmodern bar just opened down the street.
No dancing, no smoking, no alcohol are allowed.
But you can get a mud bath, scented body wrap,
And whales hysterically singing
Directly into your headphones.

Hoover is very skillful at writing accessible, fun poems like this one, or like ‘Belief in Poetry,’ a parody version of the great James Cain film The Postman Always Rings Twice. Rehearsal in Black also features a dazzling Cento called ‘American Gestures,’ where Hoover cleverly links Edmund Waller to Sylvia Plath:

Tell her that wastes her time and me
Your mouth opens neat as a cat’s

Or Emily Dickinson to Matthew Arnold:

When it comes, the landscape listens
And we are here as on a darkling plain. . . .

Not many poets could keep this up for a hundred lines with Hoover’s wit and aplomb. But the dominant mode in Rehearsal in Black recalls Robert Creeley in its minimalism and marks a distinct turn from Hoover’s earlier work. The preferred stanza is a tiny three-line unit, each line containing three words. Since the lines are invariably enjambed, a nice tension is created between fixity and flux, the tight three-word pattern, and the push from line to line, stanza to stanza. Here, for example, is the first half or so of ‘Re(semblance)’:

Placing ancient birds
in absent skies,
the midst is

endless. To rise
alone is clear,
the sudden plum

of a mountain,
a reckless cabin
inhabited by ghosts,

its weather rainy
with ash and
bones. Sire of

light. Color and
substance joined like
coasts. In earth’s

black dream, objects
take shape as
mind and scum.

The weight of
water pouring on
your head is

one reminder, but
our habit is
confession and the

dirt of history
even in these
photos by Andre

Kertesz of people
reading, the true
light of seeing

in the midst
of squalor, on
balconies and roofs,

even a bug
grazing a page
of Voltaire. A

frocked monk is
reading in a
painting on the

shelf, where a
layer of dust
has fallen on

the pears. How
often nothing happens,
how often it

is shared. . . . .

Not until line 27 does the reader realize that what has preceded is a meditation on the images of the great Hungarian Modernist photographer Andre Kertesz, whose modest and gritty black-and-white images of everyday life are a point of reference from the opening tercet, with its image of blank sky, crossed by the occasional bird, to the monotonous Kertesz rainscapes, in which ‘objects / take shape as / mind and scum,’ to the loving exactitude of the ekphrasis of the ‘layer of dust’ that ‘has fallen on / the pears’ in a painting within one of the photographs. The refusal of sentences to end at line ends creates the peculiar linear grammar of ‘shelf, where a’ or ‘of Voltaire. A,’ the point being that there is no neat ‘Re(semblance)’ to be perceived by the poem’s ‘I.’ On the contrary, Hoover’s emphasis, here and throughout these tercet poems, is on difference. One ‘struggles toward the / door, only to / discover the recent / day is closed.’ The sign, as the last line of the poem would have it, is ‘useless,’ but one is always trying to arrest it. Sometimes one does so by means of rhyme, as in ‘skies’ and ‘rise’ in lines 2 and 4 above. But mostly the water just keeps ‘pouring on /your head,’ and there are no human voices to wake us as we drown.
      In a related tercet poem called ‘Blue Differentials,’ the poet relates the ‘license’ of the snowy garden outside his window to ‘Sonny Bount / play[ing] solo piano / with practiced havoc,’ and asks himself

Against what sound

does the hard
light lean on
fields of the


Hoover’s ‘fields of the / future’ can be regarded as the ironic fulfillment of Tranter’s ‘elegies of a lost life’:

pale moon shines
on a stone’s

full measure on
the rigid grasses
of Spruce Head

Island. The chill
tone of knowing
fleshed with being.

The picture is somber what makes it bracing poetically is fidelity of Hoover’s language to those ‘blue differentials’ of the title — the particular differences that make it possible to accept the ‘chill / tone of knowing.’ In the world of both poets, there are plenty of laughs, plenty of wonderfully droll incidents and narratives, but finally, there is the recognition that

is a place.

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