Stephen Lawrence Reviews Chris Mansell

7 March 2011

Letters by Chris Mansell
Kardoorair Press, 2009

Poet Chris Mansell has been active in publishing and editing since the 1970s. In Sydney, she co-edited and founded magazines of poetry and prose; and she later helped inaugurate Five Islands Press, which continues to produce successful and award-winning volumes of Australian poetry. She has lectured in creative writing, mentors poets for the Australian Society of Authors, and has published over a dozen volumes of her own poetry. Letters is her sixth full-length print collection.

Mansell’s art is often surprising, even shocking. The 2005 collection, Mortification & Lies, disturbed and entranced readers with its voices’ dumb anger, babble and violence: “I want to take up knives & slash… / I want to shell you slash you find flick knife you into livers lippery & you fall down bloodied.” From exploring carnage and showcasing bloodshed through characters’ semi-incoherent rants, her 2006 book, Love poems, explored love and sex. Amongst a litter of angels, mothers and cats, there were sharp insights: “Sex wants / you even more than you want it.”

What, then, does her recent volume, Letters, have in store? In the collection’s first half we have Mansell’s letters from abroad. Amongst these poems are beautiful invocations of the Greek region of the Mediterranean, making familiar travels in the old world attractively, “laughably fresh” (‘after the fates decided’). Cafavy is the main game here. She watches for him everywhere – while imbibing caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, other drugs and jazz. His name appears over and over in the long poem ‘Alexandrines’ – she seems just to like saying his name, even devoting an entire stanza to the word. Mansell even contrives a fantasy meeting: “Cafavy I sit and smoke some old cigarettes / with new friends / coughing – old fags we joke – and talk poems.”

She is always aware of her own role, as a cultural spectator and as a poet, integrating these preoccupations with her journeying. In ‘this morning Djoser looks out from his serdab’ she writes:

I’ll be there soon among

the stone of the after

life with nothing to show

no stepped pyramids no

volley of stones little

poems he says nothing

terrifying in that

Faced with time-frames dauntingly beyond the human scale, as receptive travellers are when they visit such places, Mansell seeks Classical authority for this dilemma. She bypasses the mournful Ozymandias, and wisely goes straight to Arrabius: “‘you will be like me: / enjoy your life’” (‘at Umm Qais’). This allows her to offer the reader a deep and human experience of ancient travel sites and our temporal existence. In ‘Misr’:

everyone is afraid

of time

and time

is afraid

of the pyramids

This tone, and the necessity of friends (and coffee), are key preoccupations with Mansell. Music is also important to her, and jazz vividly peppers the collection; such as Miles Davis’s “brilliant black sheen of trumpet” and Charlie Parker’s “something mellow and something scary” (‘in another country’).

As well as these human things, the notion of deity offers the collection a bass-note. Towards the end of several poems, god unexpectedly appears: god “tumbles out / of high ceilings” in Rome, “frozen gods” sit within marble, god is in every step across Mt Sinai’s stone wilderness, and there is even a goddess implicit in the poet’s cat. However, Mansell overtly rejects the idea of spirituality, saying in an interview: “I don’t consciously strive for a spiritual sort of approach.” This dabbling, then, appears to be one part of her general experimentations with artistic argument, and exemplifies the broad range of literary sources she is able to draw upon, bringing to her poems a satisfyingly variety of forms of reasoning and creative justification. (Thankfully, she does not expend much energy on Sappho before moving on.)

Engagement wanes at times, and this appears to be the overall trajectory of the collection. Not always entirely committed, clothes, cool music and mates seem to offer absorbing distractions. The influential Ken Bolton appears in her poems (as he does in several other Australian poets’ collections), and she is briefly content to give up her style to his: “do I send it to Ken / in thanks for the book?” Being with pals, or alone, seems more tempting than, for example, getting “sick with gold” in Rome.

An uncaring langorousness comes to overwhelm argument, morals and politics: “I am not grieving over the planet’s loss” (‘conversations in winter’). There is a regretful backwards look (‘the Cappadocians’), a couple of animal poems, a settling in “to dull objectivity,” and then arrival in Australia.

The rest of the poems are letters from the interior. Grumpy at times now, the traveller seems glad to get home to lovers and newspapers on the couch in Canberra chill, “erratically / fruiting and sensitive to cold,” finding “a new / landscape courtesy LSD” (‘On reading Let’s Get Lost’).

The whole collection seems to grow slightly out of focus. It’s conversational, but has Mansell lost her ginger? Some of the voices in her previous collections were shocking, entrancing, angry, fucked-up. Now, the experiments can struggle to maintain interest: the final poems in Letters mostly explore the “moans and narrow fidgets of I” (‘the giants are awake in the moonlight’). She acknowledges the inwardness of this investigation – “I am fishing for the self / the one and true selfish” – but it is much more than an obsession with internal states and household comfort. The author seems to be developing an ethic of poetry that will lay bare, in ‘On reading Let’s Get Lost’, “eternal domestic mysteries”:

the many version

of the world

                         the poem sucks

them all in

                         and makes

just

             the

                       one.

Doesn’t it?

This is poetry as a black hole. She muses, “how strange it is / to be alive,” and seeks “absent sleep” as “the longed-for state” of her poetic self. Ultimately, this gives way to death (yet still hinting at right-thinking politics): “leave / my body to science” (‘rest’).

There is also tenderness to be found on the brink of falling into the dark. Although Mansell’s sass appears to be diminished, the reader still witnesses not just her explorations but feels the pain and sense of exposure, “as vulnerable as vulva.” It is an interesting voyage that she is on, and with her new and selected poems Spine Lingo also recently published, we are likely to glean a sense of her developing sensibility over four decades. We await new works with great interest: Chris Mansell is not just an established presence in modern Australian poetry, but an important figure in our evolving aesthetic.

Stephen Lawrence has four poetry collections published and his PhD concerns poetry published in Australia in the last decade.

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