Read some reviews and analysis here:

Louise Wakeling reviews Love Poems below

Patricia Prime's reviews of Love Poems and of Letters in Stylus

Margaret Bradstock's review in Five Bells

Tim Thorne's review in Famous Reporter

Paul Cliff reviews Mortifications & Lies below


Patricia Prime reviews Letters

“One aspect which may interest readers, who might be unfamiliar with this fine poet’s output, is its aural finesse.  Musicality is a prime concern for Mansell and the lines she crafts are consistently beautiful to the ears.

The ‘look’ of a poem on the page also matters to Mansell and, like most poets; her primary aim is with the connotive association of words.  Of course, readers of Mansell’s previous collections will recall the books’ intellectual and emotional content.  The veins of melancholy, toughness and challenges are once again part of her sublime poeticism. ... Of course, I’m hooked by Mansell’s poems, which are humorous, melancholy, absurd, joyful.  I certainly found myself being drawn down unfamiliar roads to share some profound experiences.  Mansell is not afraid of the dark corners of human life and she writes with compassion and humour.  She moves easily between the poems using simple yet powerful language.  Brief quotes do not convey the muscular emotion and depth of the language – the vibrancy, the depth of feeling that Mansell builds line by line.  The power of this collection is definitely in a slow accumulation of feeling poem after poem.”

Stylus issue 36, January 2010

Louise Wakeling reviews Love Poems

Chris Mansell's latest collection, Love Poems, rarely bland or docile, blends the erotic and the elegiac, reminding us of Diane Glancy's view that 'the poet writes as [s]he is written by circumstance and environment', making use of the self 'as a found object' (in Adrienne Rich, What is Found There, 1993). An awareness of that concept is never far away in this collection, especially in erotic poems such as 'Body Surfing', where the persona is 'the sea and it is action/as well as idea and the wild ocean waits/surging and falling, deep and dark/for a lost aircraft/looking for some shore, some island/in the wide pacific'.

Heterosexual love poetry has traditionally been androcentric, with the male poet positioning himself as the central subject and his lady as the desirable or unattainable Other, or else as the dangerous labyrinth. The female love object has been idealized, or cast as the lost symbol of youth and beauty, or does double duty as a symbol of the ambiguities of the creative process itself. Patriarchal culture has both placed the female lover on a pedestal, and inherently devalued anything female or feminine.

Informed by a more contemporary sensibility, Chris Mansell's free-falling verse places no one on a pedestal, neither man nor woman. Instead, she subverts some of the cliches associated with poets and their muses, challenging assumptions about love and gender relations. Writing from an independent speaking position, she explores the complex possibilities of a woman's self-actualisation - and that of a man - through sex and mutual love. The collection is not without its contradictions, for while many of the poems revolve around a speaking subject fashioning a self through discourse, several poems revel in the abandonment of the self in a timeless merging with the lover, animus and anima joining with the collective unconscious. In 'Body Surfing', for instance, the lover comes to her 'like all of the ocean' and she meets him with her own 'pelagic want.' Not the most original image in erotic poetry, perhaps, but these poems still have the power to impact on the reader as complex, highly personal visions of the love-experience.

Central to Mansell's project is the recovery and empowerment of the self despite the death of a partner. If poetry 'recalls us to ourselves', as Adrienne Rich has suggested, how much more so does love poetry, which evokes 'memory, association, forgotten or forbidden languages' (op cit., p.234), and has the power to awaken us to 'our bodily sensual life and our sense of other and different human presences...' (p. 273).

In Love Poems, the lover is an absence around which desire still coheres, a memory of ecstasy 'of which pain/ is a subspecies' ('The Ecstasy of the Lily'). In this poem, both achingly personal and transcendent, Mansell describes how the poet's memory fragments itself into the old familiar voices, obliterating any sense of time as merely linear and chronological: 'yesterday a memory and I/talked about ecstasy/his recollection/ my recollection/it was easy/we remembered different things/there was no argument/life slid on like an ordinary shirt/soft and full of a lover's scent/actually your scent - and you/have been dead for over a year/nearly or forever it could be.' The image of the canna lilies, with 'their throats shrieking and burning' in 'an ecstasy of grace' is a vivid representation of the poet's passionate commitment to being, to things in the world that can be observed ('this is our limit a shirt a canna lily a mirror a judge'), as well as of the awareness that, for a poet, language is 'more fun to do than reflect'.

Some readers might not be drawn to poetry that is part-celebration, part forensic examination and part exhumation of a significant love relationship. For those readers still doggedly susceptible to the contrary pull of emotional, physical and metaphysical tides, however, Mansell's poems work, although not always on a first reading. Poems such as 'How I know' deftly explore love, sexuality and loss not only as an intensely felt experience, but also as a metaphor for whole-hearted engagement with life. Spare, intense meditations like 'Poem for the Living Dead' probe the aloneness of the self, itself a kind of death of the self to the world, which can follow the loss of a partner, a gathering silence where there were once shared words: 'and then/ you discover/something/more terribly new/that you are among/the dying and all the calming/words you gave out won't come/back there is no one left to hold/the line no one in whose mouth/you can leave the story'.

Surprisingly, considering the claim on the back cover that the collection 'charts the history of a great love', these poems are not all concerned with the loss of one's life partner. The lovers/loves evoked here are multiple and varied, and by no means restricted to conventional relationships. 'Vale', for instance, evokes love as unrealized potential, personified by the 'deluded' male poet who, twenty-five years after an epiphanic moment, reverses the flow of time, and re-lives through poetry the 'hefty gifts' of wine and sunshine and appreciation of the persona's physical beauty. This time round, she is perhaps even more in need of such affirmation than that earlier self secretly feeling 'awkward and unlovely'.

In other poems, Mansell offers a sensual, quietly ironic exploration of desire within the heterosexual dynamic, showing us that the female erotic self is not an echo or reverse mirror-image of masculine sexual identity. In 'Caviar', for instance, a woman observed by a man at a party sees, as she raises her glass to her lips, that he has misinterpreted her smile as a come-on. In reality, the smile memorializes the lingering smell of her woman lover: 'coming over/he has the lean/and murky look of a man who thinks/he's in/the smile'. Although she recognizes the synchronicity of the way his self-regarding desire re-fuels her own arousal, the poem closes with an image of the woman sensually ingesting food, re-affirming her connection with her lover: 'and the man arrives/she takes a square/ of pumpernickel/bread black/ with roe and/licks her fingers'.

There are also wry poems like 'The Glory Box', in which Mansell evokes the sterile conventions of another lifetime, the tradition of the trousseau as preparation for the material needs of marriage. The banality of the accoutrements perceived as necessary for a relationship is epitomized in the images of 'a hair curler/a steam and dry/brilliant electrics'. The poet's alternative projection of a more fitting dowry with which to start married life resonates with passion and a tactile imagination: 'My daughter’s dowry/I would like to/think was glass/something that sang/when you rubbed/your finger on it/or an insouciant/tiger she could hold/to herself in the dark'.

'Sex Kitten' is one of those painfully honest poems that acknowledges how 'you invent love because the body/is hungry and your mind wants/feeding'. Mansell explores the contradictions between giving our bodies over in sexual hunger to those reluctant to admit to feeling love, and our desire for a more romantically conceived Love which the various physical transactions of the erotic, however powerful, don’t approximate: '...he loves you and/won't say then you won't stay because/there's love and there is Love and this/isn't it. /You know in your glabrous/ heart this isn't it./It's your hunger/singing to you like a cat'.'This Old Lover' questions the very nature of desire, since with the passing of time, the sight of a previous lover with his 'gizzard neck/ hanging out and his belly/pushing against his shirt' spurs nothing more than the persona's own consciousness of aging. Along the same lines, 'The Casimir Effect' is an oblique look at the superficial connections people tend to make with others in this age of endless simulations. The image of two mirrors looking at each other becomes not so much the embodiment of the Romantic desire for the other as a symbol of the desperate search for a shallow affinity in an artificially induced attraction zone. A simulation of connection based on little more than propinquity, 'mirrors mirror', yes, but here, in the allusion to the Casimir effect - the physical force created by the resonance of energy fields in the small space between separate bodies - desire and death are seen in mechanistic terms as something random, empty: 'but in the absence/of anything else/they attract/draw together/subtle/in a sort of empty/casual affinity/think/singles bar/think/ longing and desire/think/death and life'.

This closeness, not the intimacy usually associated with love, nonetheless gives rise to a powerful attractive force. It is ambiguous, too, being both a way of coming to terms with death, and also a kind of cessation of the self, which gives itself up to the force. In many of these poems, just when we think it is Eros we are talking about, Thanatos intrudes, casting its shadow over every human transaction. Mansell acknowledges, as Freud did, that the instincts toward life and death are closely intertwined, and that love relationships in which attraction and repulsion are contrapuntal can be both destructive and creative.

Sentimentality and over-lush imagery in which all erotic feeling is lost are twin whirlpools awaiting even the best of writers navigating the subject of love, but Mansell generally manages not to get sucked in. Poems such as 'Lady Gedanke tells J.S. Mill her Happiness Theory' remind us, with their intelligence and wry acceptance of what it is to be human and living on a 'frangible and finite' earth, of everything we most stand to lose and gain through an intimate connection with another. They do so in a very accessible, cascading style of verse, in sinuous, sensual shape-poems whose informal expression and pared-back lines often startle. Mansell's interjections of casual prose, her juxtaposition of voices, allusions and motifs, such as the oceanic collective unconscious, and a close and minutely explored affinity between individual consciousness and the natural world, will undoubtedly reward the reader's deeper engagement with the ideas explored in these poems.


The review in Stylus by Patricia Prime begins:

Chris Mansell's importance as a significant voice in Australian poetry in the past few years is well acknowledged, and her recently published volume of poems, Mortifications & Lies, will help confirm her reputation.

Click through to read analysis of some of the techniques used and some reflections by Prime.

What Margaret Bradstock had to say

"Mortifications & Lies is an important book, both stylistically and thematically a ground-breaking book. One emerges from the experience of reading it disturbed and challenged. Its haunting rhythms do not easily let go. It reinforces insights many of us already possess, but reminds us of the need to reject complacency, to become involved.

Many of Mansell's books are already recorded on CD. It is to be hoped Mortifications & Lies will soon follow suit."

Margaret Bradstock, from 'Mortification & Lies' in Five Bells, Volume 12, no 2, Autumn 2005, p48

To read what Tim Thorne said of Mortifications & Lies go to his Review in Famous Reporter.


Big Sky poems - Mansell's Mortifications & Lies - reviewed by Paul Cliff

Mortifications & Lies is Chris Mansell's fifth full-length poetry collection in a varied 30-year creative career as poet, playwright, prose writer, magazine editor, writer in residence, and teacher. The triptych of poems in this collection has been simmering for some time. She forecast the arrival of the Mortification and Lies title and collection in her bio for Day Easy Sunlight Fine published 11 years earlier, and the last poem in that collection, 'On (the) Edge in Toowoomba', uses the talismans of landscape and sky, and the themes of colonisation/invasion and protest, to pre-empt something of the spirit and subject matter of the three poems in this new collection. A note to 'On (the) Edge' declares the poem was written for a Palm Sunday Peace March, just as a note to the present book declares the poem '&' as one protesting the Iraq invasion; and the poem 'Lies' turns on the reverberation of Australia's white invasion. Similarly, there are metaphorical links between the 'Toowoomba' poem's closing image of 'walking towards the edge, towards the tiny slit between earth and sky', and the closing lines of the new poem 'Lies' ('I have seen the night come on kaditja boots/and I am looking for my country'), and the lines in 'Country' ('When I climb the mountain to put my feet/in the place of leaving'.)

Mortifications & Lies looks for principled or respectable ways of living, for grace and honesty, in the physical and spiritual terrain of the world. Recurrently this search is framed metaphorically against the clear/unstained absolute of the Sky - which with this new book can be seen as a prevailing image over Mansell's last three collections. In her immediately previous one, the CD Fickle Brat (2002), the 'search' function picks up the word 'sky' 18 times over 12 different poems. (In 'Thunder Perfect Mind', for instance, the persona 'misses/her big sky'; and at the end of 'An Invitation', the persona escapes the office to 'go to the beach/and impinge on the sky'.) The sky consolidates as something for the individual or the collective social mass to frame her/him/themselves against: to gauge their own essential 'largeness'; to measure, test or judge their own integrity, worth or quality. Another of the Fickle Brat poems, 'Good Poetry', is also a touchpoint for the present collection: 'good poetry' (the term is ironical here, meaning 'well bred/behaved' poetry, in distinction to the realer stuff of 'wild', committed or passionate poetry) is denounced as verse which 'goes/to war & doesn't say what it has seen'. In Mortifications & Lies, the poem titled '&', aligning with this same concept, is very much a 'badly behaved' poem by this classification: one which questions and agitates, turns on social/political engagement, and which criticises the decision-making and processes which take us to war; and weighs the consequences of same. These three new poems, if not underwriting the Shelleyesque construct of 'poet as legislator of the world', certainly at least see the poet as one who has a full (social and creative) responsibility to speak up on matters. Mortifications & Lies is dedicated 'to all those who are brave and know how to live, to the survivors, to the hopeful, to the naive and to the unrealistic', with the poet's wish that they may 'endure and prosper'. As the book's back-cover says, the poems are not intended to be easy; they are set to challenge; they are public, 'not personal' poems, requiring of the reader 'all of your breath; all of your attention'. There is an imperative emanating from the three poems' simple, iconic, blunt, 'no-bullshit' single-word titles - 'country', '&', and 'lies' - and they are each in fair measure impatient, critical, querulous, angry, and determined. The poet wants the reader to struggle with engagement here: an expectation which at some points makes demands on the reader's application, on their sympathy, inclination and goodwill in the enterprise, as the three poems speak to each other, overlap and wash over each other in their joint questioning about essential 'belonging': to humanity, to nation, to the world, and in the need for sometimes defiant stances in facing the problem of honest living in these separate and conjoined spaces. Indeed, there is a sense in which the poems might have transposable titles: 'Lies' is in some considerable measure about 'country'; and '&' is largely about lies.

In sum then, Mortifications & Lies is a pointed and ambitious collection, and can be seen as an organic extension and exploration of some themes and metaphors from the poet's two previous collections - seen here now moving out into the landscape of the longer poem. It is also worth noting as a final preliminary point that the book's design picks up on the 'landscape' (moral and more literal) theme by its landscape format: physically the book is wider than it is tall; and the shorter and longer arrangements of the typography, of the black words on the wide, white page, has something of the painted cipherings of trees and stones in a later Fred Williams landscape.

So, to briefly touch on the poems themselves. The voice in the first piece, 'country' (the shortest, at four-and-a-half pages long) is a single speaking universal 'I', Whitmanesqe in its blending of the sexes ('the woman who watches her place taken/the man also, impotent and angry'). It has the form and resonance of a spoken creed. From its opening lines, 'I am from blood unknown/colour and religion unknown,' it seeks to draw and contain notional opposites into the world of itself; its tilt is humanist, maybe atheist ('if the god who does not exist allows'). The poem's voice clings to the value of its own belief system and sense of integrity, to strive for courage as it is intent to bear witness - driven by its sound, absorbing and seeking to transmute or transcend contrarieties (German/Jew, with its echo of the concentration camp; Irish/English with its echo of the Ulster conflict?). The images are relentlessly herded before this straining 'I'. Stripped back, and abjuring punctuation, the voice is intent on the full urgency of getting there, in its incantatory rhythms, and tripping along on the refrain of its soft letter 'g's: 'I am Jew I am German', 'I will try for courage'. There is topical reference within the poem's spiritual landscape to the refugee camps (to the 'marked and exiled'; the 'illegal immigrant in the desert'): neatly both literal and metaphorical of course, in the particular instance of the Woomera or Port Hedland detention centres. In this first poem of the collection, the Sky is implied in the Mohammed-like ascension image of: 'climb[ing] the mountain to put my feet/in the place of leaving', as the persona finally beseeches the 'poetry/the words' to express, transmute or transcend the sense of 'disgust and shame' in facing and bearing witness to the human world.

The collection's much longer, middle, poem, '&' (its shorthand, ampersandic title again expressing the breathless imperative) ranges across 28 pages. An authorial reading direction at the poem's head asserts that it be read 'out loud, in one breath' (almost mantra-like by implication; to be intimately embraced and understood). Starting off peremptorily; personally, in mid-debate: '& that's another thing listen to me...', the piece 'begin[s] with the sky', the metaphor darkly appropriate here, as the literal place where the dark things, the bombs/missiles/destruction, drop from. The poem attacks complacency in the face of war's destruction, and among other cliques indicts (a continuation of the 'Good Poetry' poem of the Fickle Brat collection) the 'prissy penned poets and their selfness [and] their not worried so what'. As it unfolds, the poem assumes a certain deliberate incoherence, stumbling over itself to express the dimensions and colours of its anger and confusion, attacking further sundry poseurs or cliques: 'those little pansie new agers'; and the 'loyal sisterhood ...' ('talk to me when you understand & not before'). It also deploys some wonderfully surreal and disturbing images ('is that the southern aurora the end of the world/or someone igniting penguins against the dark'); and some mesmerising sound: 'no no no shattered black nothing not nothing ... no plumped up little princes who wear cardigans & pull & mewl at themselves'. The poem's voice is protean, bewilderingly changing its shape and direction, making demanding twists and turns: suggesting the mind thinking out aloud, attempting to structure its thoughts and emotions as it goes. At some points it is quite aggressive, vernacular and direct ('listen mate I don't want anything anything anything you want to allow me give me'; at another its expresses the spirit of war striking out murderously with childlike clenched fists ('I want to take up knives & slash you every time there is nothing in you mouth/I want to slash & slash to make you many mouthed you city you life like thing/I want to shell you slash you find flick knife you into livers lippery & you fall down bloodied.') The Sky image is there as the poem continues to berate the unthinking, and the effete/fashionable, 'so worried about your heart that you drive to gyms to exercise tearing the sky/from its sockets while you dance dance on the walking machine', and thinking 'lurex spandex is intelligent more intelligent than the sky'. And it is there again as the poem attacks some aggressive male prototype/Mars figure which makes 'war on anything that moves ... massacring the oxygen filling the sky with ruins'; then suddenly hauls up and clarifies its intent (p 35) by questioning: 'okay so what are you doing what am I doing about these bullets/zinging through space ... here at the end of the earth/waiting for the big boys to throw the sky down like we've never seen ... blow the shit out of yourselves & me do I care do/I'm just asking for the sky officer'. Yet this dark, thrashing poem can also find quieter, witty moments, as exemplified by the neat lyrical turn in: 'who are you spear holding politicians ... to tell me us what our skies look like/who are you after all who talk circles & leave only yourself standing in them'. And, again demonstrating the stretch of the poem's register, set against its breathless, vernacular opening there is the poem's moving and disturbingly self-incriminatory closure, as it dispenses its final, connecting ampersands: 'take a bullet and leave me to the sky/ take the sacred bullets/scarred by the abrasive hearts they die in/ & understand/ we choose/ to crouch with the prisoners/& lie in the bones'.

'Lies', the collection's final poem, is formed in 11 parts straddling 26 pages. I saw the poet memorably read this poem (winner of a Queensland Premier's Award for Poetry) while holding a stone in her fingers, a little shamanlike, during a 'Poets on Wheels' tour in Armidale about a decade back. Holding it like the keepsake stone mentioned in the poem itself, as a talisman to the poem's voice, leading onward: 'I have the stone still/perhaps it will remember to tell/the truth in its thin misery'. 'Lies' construes white ('gubba') experience of a visit into outback/Aboriginal country, Like '&', it has long lines, but it is more documentary (episodic and scene-like) in structure. Its opening stanzas echo the spirit of the transliterations of the Aboriginal song cycles (perhaps best known being R.M. Berndt's rendition of the Wonguri-Mandjigai People's 'Moon-Bone' song), with their sitting, absorbing and remembering: 'singing singing and hoping to remember the map beats dust unknowing as grass/hoping it remember the voices in the back of the throats of the old women and old men sitting/waiting for the ground to wake up to begin again the real life/hoping to remember what is far way the home hidden in the rocks/like a stone in the palm sweaty and complete closed and singing its own/song its self...' The poem can be wonderfully tactile and euphonic: 'the voice is in the country and it knows you/when you come back like an old dog to the home bone both sniffing each and each/the red soil sticking to the feet the heart the hand the song knowing the country...' Again the sky is a central touchstone to essential understanding, connecting and experiencing of the landscape and the spirit of place: coming to 'country new with sky bigger ... you can't know what strangers to believe what stories to caress what sky to breathe in'. The sky is there too (as a gubba/Aboriginal fusion, perhaps embodying the Aboriginal flag) in the evocation of 'the long files of Paterson's curse filing off/ into the distances going out into the slit of blue red yellow black sky'. Like '&', this poem touches on the phenomenon of the refugee/immigrant (here, Australia's white colonisers, and the displaced Aboriginals themselves): 'We're aliens too bereft to speak too full of lies to travel far/even the stars are spooked into a rough silence an impossible desire..' As 'the kadaitja treads through history trying to cover up the treachery of [the Indigenes'] own forgetting' of their culture, so that 'we gubba [also] have nothing'. The poem closes on the dual image of the Wiradjuri and the gubba/immigrant (viz, the amalgam which is contemporary Australia) both mutually looking for sense, for country, attachment, and self/identity; in the collection's final image of Sky, here a frame on which is stretched the nation's seeking of itself: 'you pay your bills and watch the horizon's edge come over like a stone// I have seen the night come softly on kaditja boots/and I am looking for my country.'

And so we are led back again, to that greater flying standard of the Big Sky.


Discussion by the poet Chris Mansell

For instance when I read (Weinberger, Norman M. 2004, 'Music and the Brain' p93, vol 291, no 5 Scientific American) “For example, the left temporal lobe seems to process briefer stimuli than the right temporal lobe and so would be more involved when the listener is trying to discern rhythm while hearing briefer musical sounds.”

I think poetry. Why? Because I've noticed that, often, people, particularly in workshops, seem to have only little ability to recognise rhythms in poetry. It's shocking. They become confused by the words. They can recognise small rhythmical patterns stripped of words but have difficulty recognising longer patterns. Even children. Notably, those who play music don't seem to have this problem. If this is the case in a workshop, I think, it probably is the case in reading poetry. Especially reading poetry off the page where the sound is at one more remove; where the reader has to use their auditory imagination. Studies have further told us that at least when listening to music, the same brain centres become active as when imagining they're listening to music. I've also learnt that the location of speech and music are close and that the musical patterns in language are innate. But this difference of location for discernment of rhythm according to the length of the stimuli is new to me. I'm not sure where this will take me except what I thought (that rhythm perception is variable over a population of people) is more complicated than I'd originally thought. For my work, I then think - well, maybe I'd better introduce a rhythmically strong pattern early and reinforce this so the left temporal lobe (close to language processing) can kick in early and carry the rhythmical burden of the piece. Will I then not use longer rhythmical patterns? Of course I'll use them, but I'm thinking that these might only be perceived by the very sophisticated (in terms of rhythm) reader and the piece might not have the same resonance for people who aren't so good at it. It's science on the wing but it is consonant with my experience, and helps explain what I've noticed so I take it into account.

Do I then sit down and try to write a piece which plays with this notion? Possibly. It depends on how much time I have available and if I'm interrupted by having to go and earn a living or sleep or eat. To that extent, my work is experimental.

Take the poem [FIVE N TWENTY] (click on the Poems link). Here the game is to use the recognisable rhythmical structures of common poems (some of which are common to particular poets, but that might or might not be picked up and, in any case, it's not germane to the 'experiment'). It's not my 'best' poem (whatever that means), but it does illustrate the point. Even so, I can't resist my favourite thing, and the favourite thing of many many poets: ambiguity.

I love it. Poetry messes with the brain big time and ambiguity is the source of much humour as well as the richness of poetry. So here I'm playing with the rhythm but I'm also playing with expectations and register/tone. It's a joke, not at ha ha ha fall to the floor joke, but a joke about poetry and about expression, at a deeper level it's about what most of my poems are about: trying to puzzle out meaning.

There's minimal punctuation and capitalisation which is an easy way to create grammatical ambiguity - of setting up grammatical expectation and then fulfilling, not fulfilling or subverting that expectation. You can do it lots of ways, the easiest of which is breaking lines where you know the reader will anticipate the next word/grammatical unit. Or by using apparently parallel construction (the fire / red / the movie / credits / beginning...) It's a simple enough device: two syllables / one syllable/ three syllables using the same grammatical form / two syllables using the same grammatical form / [anticipated: two syllables using the same grammatical form and even sense ie probably a colour - eg yellow, or even a one syllable colour: black. Delivered: a three syllable participle.] This relies on our grammatical and syntactical apparatus working well and our rhythmical nous coming in to action. This should work okay: it's not over-complicated. Call me crazy but I actually laugh out loud with pleasure when I see someone else do this sort of thing (manipulation of the expected - lexical, grammatical, logical, in terms of register/tone/word choice etc) well in a poem. Couple it with an intellectual point and I'm impressed, add a deft manipulation of emotion and I'm ringing up the Nobel Prize committee.

This poem has no such pretensions: it plays with ambiguities; it mocks a bit (not much); it comments a bit (not much). Its genesis is play and experiment. It's a simple poem but put through its paces. You could go on: ?? five n twenty ?? isn't it four and twenty [blackbirds]?? So, there's five sections, and you know there's a game going on because it isn't four, but the real reason is to call up the other very famous poetic blackbird - which is further reinforced (for the knowledgeable) by the numbers at the side of the poems. Not 13 ways then, but 19 + 1 per section - which, I hope, also draws attention to the strict formality of the piece. It begins with a little mockery of particular a poet's poems which begin with a nice solid concrete some-Thing which then gets verbing, immediately, doggedly obeying the rules to locate the action in time and place. So well-behaved it becomes ... oh, you know. And the rest of the first poem in the group follows the architecture of such a poem, which is: not too clever, not too smart, just enough technique. There's lots of poems like this. They're fine. They're good, many of them, but it's also good to look at that architecture, to see how it moves, what the devices are, what its mechanism is - so when you write one yourself you can choose to take it on or subvert it. And you could look at the meaning - the meaning explicitly (!) left out of the title 'blackbirds'. Blackbirding also has the meaning of theft Ð and I was aware when writing it that by pointing out the pun in the first poem that I might be accused of using such a culturally sensitive word in a less than respectful setting ... well, of course, my rightful defence is that it's exactly what the poet of that sort of poem would do - try to pull in social significance with such a pun. But, the blackbirds of the title of the bigger poem are not verbs or gerunds, but plain old nouns and they sing when the pie was opened and not before. So, I say, open this pie. See what you've got. (If you do, of course, by the end of the poem you're acknowledged.)

Though this poem took a time to construct, and presented (self-imposed) intellectual and poetic challenges which I enjoyed playing with, it's not a deep and meaningful poem in that it does not speak to the major themes outside poetry (except perhaps to urge a sort of lightness of intellectual touch, which is deeply distrusted I think, so I'll shut up on this point). This worries me. It's a modest poem. It does not claim much. It's a precocious child and amusing enough for that but I worry about the relevance of poetry and have done for years. Most of my life has been bound up with poetry. Not 'career'-making poetry (alas) but poetry because it presented a way of knowing. I'm always a child in the face of poetry. Everything I know and have learnt seems not enough. What an art form! That you can do it, and think about it, and read it for so many years (I decided to be a poet when I was 14) and it still be interesting, that it still present puzzles and avenues which are new to you and that you can still participate in a sort of deep play with all the resources of language, sound, music, image, and technology, offer.

And then there are other times when what you have to say carries so much emotion that you have to strip back the language in different ways. At the moment I'm using conversational structures, tone, word choice etc in my poems. Trying to get them to say big things in that offhand and quotidian way that tragedy or joy happens: someone walks down a street and they either explode or they see a daisy. I'm sending it up a bit here, but only because there is an anxiety about it. This is how precarious I think the world is. It's been the way I've experienced living and I want to convey the casual callousness of it, and sometimes contrast it with our absolute yearning for it to be otherwise. It's a fool's mission, that yearning, but we do it anyway: we want to fall in love and think it will counter and survive everything; we want to believe that Fate is on our side. We know it isn't and have elaborate constructions to defend ourselves from that knowledge (belief systems, gods, pharaohs...). The tristesse that this gives rise to is a pitiable thing. This is behind just about everything I write. I mock things that seem to have as their basis self-delusion, but am overcome by the world, all the same. I grew up in a working class house (nothing wrong with that) so this was called Sensitive. It wasn't a compliment. Poetry, for me, is an assertion of the right to see the world stripped bare, regardless of what the dominant paradigm, or the neighbours, say it should look like. Even if the neighbours are other poets whom I love.

So. Tristesse. This too can be a cave. Better to have the serious casual and the mortal humorous.

Humour, jokes, movement are essential to what I write. Sometimes it goes too far, but I like movement in a line. I like to be able to see more than one meaning coming through, be able to discern that the poet understands that it is game. All of it.




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CHRIS MANSELL

australian poet











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