Those who were at Launceston's ArtHouse gallery one memorable night in September 1990 were witness to one of the all-time great poetry performances. With brilliant improvised support from musical geniuses Michael Fortescue and Greg Kingston, Chris Mansell presented her long poem, "&". It was one of those performances to which so many things in addition to the text contributed superbly, but as you listened you knew the poem would be excellent on the page as well.
Now, 15 years later, we have the chance to judge the validity of that assumption. "&" is the middle (and longest) one of three long pieces that make up Mansell's Mortifications & Lies, an attempt to delineate poetically the place one occupies as a human being in the physical and social world.
This is an enormously ambitious project, so no wonder it has been so long in the gestation. The first poem, "Country", announces this ambition with a bravado which is quite breathtaking. The reader's first response is something like, "How daring!" or possibly, "How dare she?" There are hints, even in this opening poem, that she will bring it off. The poet's universalising stance, the adoption of the role of "Every(wo)man" is realised through strong imagery which tempers the declamatory tone. "I am the mother who smoothes the sheets" she says, "I will be the irritant / to my own heart" and "I hope, not for courage then, but for poetry".
It is with "&" that the claims staked out in this introduction start to pay. From the opening stage direction, "read this out loud, in one breath" (The poem has more than 200 lines!) and the first line, "that's another thing listen to me I'm going to begin" we are not given the opportunity to relax our guard, to draw breath, to slip into any kind of complacent literary mode. Unlike too much of what is being published these days, this is not the kind of poetry you can dismiss by liking. It grabs you and demands attention, not in a bullying kind of way, but through its relentless energy, its shifts of pace and tone, and the way it guts the easy corpse of the acceptable, letting out the stench of honesty.
Built around a Whitmanesque long line, but with lots of clever and effective variations, the poem is difficult to quote from because of the way each line, each stanza, rolls into the next, so that to stop quoting is to do it an injustice. And injustice is one of the things it is "about": the injustice inherent not only in war and racism, but in the wielding of "private knives". This poem is a plea for engagement, but much more than a plea, it is an assertion of the essential truth of resistance. Towards its end Mansell says, "take the sacred bullets / scarred by the abrasive hearts they die in". The bullets die rather than kill. The hearts live.
The third poem, "Lies", is more specifically about living in this land, the Australia which has been inhabited by poetry and the makers of poetry for 50,000 years. This would have been the hardest of the three poems to bring off, treading as it does on contested territory. Mansell has adopted the strategy of beginning in the ambiguous second person, the "you" which both addresses and includes. This works well, but what really gives this poem its strength is the poet's refusal to limit its scope to the local, the politico-cultural or the aesthetic. To transcend location without abandoning locus is to achieve what poetry should be but so rarely is.
The last line in the book reads "and I am looking for my country". For all those of us who are engaged in the same search, I can think of no better place to start than Mortifications & Lies.