Three Poems by John Tranter

BOMB 115 Spring 2011
115 20Cover


The opening scene is shot outdoors in bitter cold:
bottle-blue dusk, which she sweeps through
more or less like a swift or a swallow, shaving whispers
off the surface of the road, that is, the ice vault
over her private black glass underworld.
The arena is bordered by rushes and canes
and just over there a shred of plastic.
Now this mise-en-scène is not
a commercial franchise, so no soft drink cans
or teenagers, likewise a lack of maintenance,
no surface grading, brushing, or injury insurance, and
you also have to imagine, if you wish to track
cause and effect, an erratic anti-depressant routine
and a shouting husband in a trailer-park
a decade ago, half-forgotten. A bird swoops by
to draft a reconnaissance whose terms
are kept from us, then dodges away.
The ice is not evenly thick, and the sky
is tending to a twilight deeper than the ice
and so two linguistic fields overlap: gray cloud,
an inscribed surface too mottled to be a mirror,
too dangerous to offer praise, echoing
the other backdrop, her various failed careers
including wife, mother, star of the rink.


The Last Clean Shirt

We have to make do with Third Avenue,
which is a street in an urban environment.
It runs parallel to Second Avenue, naturally,
because parody means parallel discourse.
The spectator is trapped, and we are shown
a “walk” sign. Do they shirk the issues? No,
they just find more elegant ways
to engage ethical issues. Okay, shirk the issues.
Then you have some guilt, and where to put it?
Would you like a weekend in Havana?
Maybe for the music, but the politics?
We could bring some fiction: fiction could at least
be subversive. You won’t be bored
and you won’t be lazy. Elke Sommer
and Loretta Young shine. Can the escape hatch
be found within Frank O’Hara’s subtitles?
“I used his lines against the image,”
the cinematographer said. Does he mean that he,
Alfred Leslie, subverted the subtitles?
Or the image? Can we trust him? He’s
talking about 1964, more or less.

So there is a struggle, hidden from the audience.
Which force takes over? No, they only
stress their differences. They would like to
make something new appear
on the surface of the screen, moving, childish.
Then it seems that many of these subtitles
are direct quotations of poems. Well,
what did you expect? It is a secret anthology,
a mask of Frank O’Hara. He often moved

from one type of writing to another. No,
he never shied away from whetting his language
against other media.

Here’s a strange contradiction: how to display
an excess of sight, and then tact. And although
there are connections with death and dying,
no shirt is ever mentioned.

In the end, we have been taught
not to take things at face value:
we are now free to walk by ourselves,
we have completed our training in skepticism.
Huh. Here are some fantasy bribes,
offered by the manipulators of desire.
They can’t help it if they are well financed.

Maybe you could attach your guilt to Mother,
or perhaps World War Two. Frank
fought in that. I just hope the rain
won’t wash it all away.


Columbo’s Kangaroo

Detective Columbo is questioning a clever murderer
who is a magician in his day job, with his own
television show. Here we are in the back lot,
sun beating down, between the villain’s
trailer and the waiting studio, a script in his hand. “Oh,
just one more thing, sir,” says Columbo, preparing
a subtle query to slip in between the man’s ribs
and drain the blood from his heart—1976—

and we notice, a hundred yards away, between
two hangar-like studio buildings, an actor
in a Roman Centurion costume, smoking
and talking to a friend, and beside him
a kangaroo on a lead looking around
then tentatively sniffing the ground.

John Tranter has published more than 20 poetry collections. His Urban Myths: 210 Poems: New and Selected won a number of prizes. His latest book is Starlight: 150 Poems. He is the founding editor of the free online magazine Jacket (, and he has a homepage at He lives in Sydney, Australia.

This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation and the Thanksgiving Fund.

Additional funding is provided by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, The New York State Council on the Arts, and readers like you.

Studio Visit: Nicholas Cueva by Jeffrey Grunthaner
Nicholas Cueva1

Making and unmaking idols.

Confusing and Accurate and Deadpan: Trevor Shimizu Interviewed by C. Spencer Yeh

The New York-based painter and video artist on the tragicomic nature of wannabes and scenesters.

Screen Interactions: Howardena Pindell’s Video Drawings by Olivia Gauthier
Pindell Review1

Television and its simulations.

Originally published in

BOMB 115, Spring 2011

Featuring interviews with Joe Fyfe, Katharina Grosse, Luis Camnitzer, Jim Shepard, Sebastián Silva, Thomas Pletzinger, Robert Wyatt, and Sibyl Kempson.

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