Chris Mansell’s Spine Lingo

Spine Lingo: New & Selected Poems, Chris MansellKardoorair Press, PO Box 478, Armidale, N.S.W. 2350, Australia. (2010) pp. 232.  ISBN 978-0-908244-83-6.

Reviewed by Patricia Prime

It’s always a pleasure to open a new book of poetry by Chris Mansell, and Spine Lingo is no exception. What a fantastic mind the poet has, and what a wonderful way with words. This is Mansell’s eighth collection, but one senses many of these poems have had a long gestation period, for each is polished, pared-back and honed to perfection.  The poems are presented more or less one poem per page, without punctuation.

Mansell seems always conscious of the disquieting runs of life slipping by.  Her memories are something that contributes and advances presentness.  Knowledge is not a complete thing, but is part of the whole . . . from which love seeks to contrast knowledge with separation, and certainly with the temporal.  For Mansell writing itself – an act that is simultaneously one of forgetting and remembering – is an aid to redefinition of the past.

In Spine Lingo, Mansell further explores her own past and autobiography.  Her poems unfold one on the other, growing in resonance and beauty, filling the reader’s head to overflowing.  Here we have themes on landscapes, geography, history, travel, loss, Lady Gedanke, nature.  Somehow Mansell has managed to capture all these elements and more, in her book.

Human loss is a theme which echoes through the collection.  The elegy “Amelia Earhart flies out from Lae, New Guinea” is dealt with lightly but unflinchingly.  The poet recalls that the pioneer aviator left “my old town,” but now she and her friends wait for her return:

           as we stand on the black sand beach
           imagine your flight
           straight ahead
           over the isthmus Salamaua
           string of sand
           can’t imagine the gun emplacements
           there yet

The natural world – the dark, flowers, the ocean, beach, birds, animals – are featured throughout the book.  “the dry movement / as sand across / contradictory sand,” begins “17 Types of Movement.”  Mansell has a knack of stripping the visual world back to basics.  One example of her fresh use of language can be found in “Santa Maria di Maggiore, Rome”:

and now Santa Maria di Maggiore
suffers a busload of tourists
for the worship of architecture
en masse
the shuffle and gawp
fills its important walls
which do not flinch

A seemingly innocent poem about a visit to the Catholic Basilica by a protestant becomes a remarkable, sensory expression as “this palace of popes / calls out with its five bells” and “gods tumble out / of high ceilings.”

Some of the most startling imagery occurs when the subject is Australia, as in “Christmas in Australia,” where the poet wakes to fires that still burn in Tomerong.  “Cooper’s Creek” is an historical poem about the loss of explorers Burke and Wills, and the later death of their fellow explorer King in 1861:

King, as instructed
left Burke dead
under an open sky
pistol in hand.

The series of poems about Lady Gedanke strip back the visual world to basics; only then does Mansell build human emotion back into the poem.  Here is an excerpt from “Lady Gedanke tells J. S. Mill her Happiness Theory”:

now each glistening season
the earth becomes
more frangible
and finite more
unreliable and particular
each year
is counted out
like coins of light

“the other river” is a poem divided into 12 days, beginning with a description of the river and ending on day 12 with the simple, yet expressive poem that returns us to the river:



Love is a theme throughout the book; glinting through the surface, then disappearing again.  It is dealt with lightly but fearlessly: “How I know,” focuses on the absence of a lover: “and though you’ve gone / I want to go with you / because I am in love with your children,” while “the kiss” is a “poem for your lips” and “Song” relates the loved one to the ocean which “holds me like you do / in the open rhythms the pull and suck / the deep movement . . .”

The lengthy poem “Head, Heart & Stone” is divided into 10 parts.  In this poem Mansell writes so vividly and directly that we feel we are with her in the setting: “There is a handcrafted painting of a wattle or a ti-tree.”  Some of the most beautiful poetic moments occur in these longer poems.  “Ordinary truth” fairly sizzles on the page:

           first it comes like hush
           like blisters you know it’s there
           like a trial coming up a journey
           you can never be prepared for
           like angels in your garden taking time
           like a physicist with theories like angles
           sharp it comes again acute

In the face of relationships, whether failed or fulfilling, Mansell writes from her heart.  Here we have the poems “Daughter”: “My daughter speaks Bingle. / A dog whoop whoops in the night”;  “waiting for my daughter”:  “you have run off into childhood barely / looking back at cold mother absent / father you slip hipped bone agile daughter” and then there’s “the family”: “first there is the mother / the mother has two melon breasts / and stands with legs apart / arms agape like a child’s drawing.”

Mansell finds salvation in the act of writing itself.  Often her work is about artistic endeavour: the desire to write poetry that is going to survive.  In the poem, “Good poetry,” for example, she says,

           Good poetry is
           cocktail poetry – often short & very
           urbane.  Good poetry is slim &
           articulate with impeccable antecedents.
           Sometimes it speaks French, but usually
           it speaks only English.  Good English.

In “Poem in feint ruled purple,” she writes to a friend:

           you gave me some bright pink paper to write rich red poems on
           (poems with the scent of just ripe pomegranates
           poems that melt with touch
           poems that cull up and indulge purple and cerise
           and scarlet women with the fops
           and spangle bright harlots
           with roses on their lips

The act of writing is a conscious effort that helps to change the ways of the world: “blood red poems to make the revolution come.”  Yet the poet is also aware in “Subtext to the poem in feint ruled purple” that she does not “want to write / this poem, or any other. / I want this poem to fly in the face / of my dark horses . . .”

The registering of her poetics is one of Mansell’s strengths, and it is in the treatment of writing itself that her work is at its most quietly moving.  One has no trouble in believing in the poetic truth of what Mansell says in the fine poems, “A hand in the mouth,” “Poem Written in the Key of Mother Tongue” and “The Secret.”  Mansell’s poems are full of “experience,” full of her sense of the world, in both the apprehension and the comprehension of what is implied in the recognition of “the moment” in poetry, as we see in her poem “making the garden safe”:

           he is thinking for a moment
           no more
           and soon he will have the axe
           biting into the tender
           heart of that tree
           through its resilient bark
           through the moist interior
           through the timelines

But Mansell is not simply a passive poet.  She also writes poems in which the search for an axis of living is conducted in very different settings, settings, for example, where

           in the hope that punishment
           would not get worse we agreed
           to our torture and left the children
           at the gate

            (“Passive voice”)

Then there are the extraordinary poems featuring the Australian landscape.  “On (the) edge of Toowoomba”

           there is nothing
           bush and bush
           and mist slung into trees like fruitbats 
           and the millennia set to roll
           anxious as a child’s marble
           rolling with the hum and throb
           of a song linking horizon to horizon
           time rolling down the range

In “The Tree” the fragmented phrases – “we climbed the tree,” “the sunlight fills the sky,” “Shuquin sees the wall / during the Cultural Revolution” and “the wall is filled with her name,” – echo Mansell’s preoccupation with beauty and truth.  The poem concludes inexorably yet gently with the words

           and yet she does not know yet
           that truth imprisons her

“Neda” is a lengthy poem divided into fifteen triplets: a narrative that begins with Neda suckling the infant Zeus and concludes with

           the sound of a casual bullet
           tearing the air to find a girl
           on her way to music class

“Beneath Breathing” is another lengthy poem covering eighteen pages.  This poem is perhaps the most compelling in the book.  It is a narrative about war and provides a richness of detail that almost swamps the reader.  In the first part of the poem we see the persona caught in what appears to be a war zone:

           our shattered building is on top of me
           below around and we have become one thing

           all the hopes and stairs
           carpets and casualness of the day

           have smacked into this hard dead
           end and me with it

The relationship of these elements to the rest of the psychological drama covers a brother returning from war, the dead brother “steeped in earth,” the poet’s rage at war and “the lost language of the gods.”   In the second half of the poem the flow of the work is more disposed.  As though to help the reader, there is the instruction: “(read this out loud, in one breath).”  The implication is that Mansell’s style differs here in mood and flow.  Now it’s the turn of a stunningly projective imaging of the birth of the poem and the reader’s complicity in it.

The final five-page poem, “The Ecstasy of the Lily” is a deep play on the various poetic components: shirt, bombs, lily, death, judge, uranium.  The poem ends:

we are bright in our own starlight
language is more fun to do than to reflect
the orange air with its screaming flowers
spells ecstasy and burns down the house
and I am still inside talking about wearing a shirt
while the bright red canna lily shrieks

In such poems the precision of Mansell’s writing is a recurrent delight.  Mansell’s real but unaffected attentiveness to detail is evidence of both a stilled self-consciousness and a process of self-discovery.  There is an occasionally breath-taking responsiveness to simple beauty in her work, just as there is often an unflinchingly open-eyed registration of human pain.

The poems in Spine Lingo pitch the power and wonder of nature against the frailty and failure of the human, their utter seriousness leavened by a wry, dry and disarming humour.  All of the poems are haunted by the presence and pressure of the world against our own beliefs, and are written with the kind of dreamlike description that has become Mansell’s trademark.  In short, this is an important collection of a poet whose reputation has long been well established.  Spine Lingo is a book of considerable grandeur and sweep by one of the most powerful Australian poet’s working today.



Filed under poetry & publishing

2 responses to “Chris Mansell’s Spine Lingo

  1. stuart

    great review, particia … i’ll be ordering this!

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