‘I light a cigarette under the moon / and fling myself onto the grass, inhaling, inhaling’
A poem by John Tranter; introduced by Andrew McCulloch, in the-tls.co.uk, November 12, 2019.
Credited as one of the founders of modernism, and famous for his influence on T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the French poet Jules Laforgue (1860–1887) was perhaps always better known abroad than at home. In the words of his friend Gustave Kahn, he became gradually more determined to free his poetry from “every literary artifice of presentation” so as “to reproduce thought, to catch the heartbeat without ever sacrificing anything to symmetry or verbal redundancy”. This desire, as Laforgue himself put it, to “break everything” is most fully realised in Derniers Vers (Last Poems, published posthumously in 1890), a collection that includes “Solo de Lune”, one of the starting points for the Australian poet John Tranter’s poem “After Laforgue”, first published in the TLS in 2002 and subsequently in Studio Moon (2003).
Looking, perhaps, to the European post-Romantics in order to escape the dead hand of a transplanted and claustrophobic English tradition, Tranter (b.1943) acknowledges a similar “revulsion against the artificiality of poetry” and admires Rimbaud’s injunction to “take rhetoric and wring its neck”. Certainly in “After Laforgue”, Tranter seems not only to capture the way in which Laforgue picks up phrases and drops them just as they threaten to settle into a pattern, but also demonstrates the enduring relevance of his modernist sensibility. Speaking of Laforgue, the American translator William Jay Smith wrote “it is as if a Victorian glass bell had shattered and tumbled its ornate flowers, shells and mementoes on the floor: the Romantic pile is split apart, revealing the sorry framework beneath, the pathetic assembly of the soul”. It is possible to hear, in Tranter’s poem, not only echoes of the separation Laforgue’s speaker describes – “you with your projects / and your files and your expensive little knapsack / and your plans for your singular future” – but also a more collective awakening from the Romantic dream – ‘What was wrong with me, in my previous life? … One day, far into the future, I’ll come to my senses”.
I light a cigarette under the moon
and fling myself onto the grass, inhaling, inhaling:
trees without flowers, flowers without nectar,
nectar without alcohol: I wish you were here
beside me, I’d talk until you were dizzy.
What was wrong with me, in my previous life?
Ardent, steely, mercurial – angry again.
I was in a fit of love, but I couldn’t admit it,
and as for you: bellicose, unreachable,
as self-contained as a wardrobe with its vanity mirror
on the shut side of the door … you with your projects
and your files and your expensive little knapsack
and your plans for your singular future …
up there the stars are as plentiful as all the possible
games of chess, according to the scholarly apparatus,
according to the guard with his cap, lamp and whistle.
Married to my obligations I swim in the harbour,
and if I’m too fussy for happiness to visit
let me bathe in my luck – good or bad –
my wretched luck, if that’s all that’s on offer.
One day, far into the future, I’ll come to my senses:
cruising down the main street of a small town
where the moon, jealous of the abundant lighting,
draws the selvage of a cloud across her brow.
Now I speak in letters of Greek Fire
the better to spark your indifference, to
draw down your scorn – I mean admiration,
O princess of fisticuffs: intricate patterns of vowels,
spells that sparkle and promise to outlast metal –
speak to you, in your boots, in your jacket, in the
steel car you drive through the shell of your future.
JOHN TRANTER (2002)