Review of Chris Mann – Rudiments of Grace

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Mail & Guardian, 10 October 2014

There have been seldom more appropriate settings for a book launch: a cool Grahamstown morning during National Arts Festival, in a side room of the Anglican cathedral on the crest of Hill Street, with the sun drifting in through the arched windows – and Chris Mann and David Butler reading and launching the former’s latest book of poems, Rudiments of Grace. Centred around a charmingly metatextual two-man play written for the occasion, Mann and Butler managed to place the collection – in essence a suite of slightly off-centre love poems – in a strong emotional and political context.

Starring Mann as Matthew Robinson – a small town writer and lawyer – alongside Butler, who played US-based neurobiologist Jack Viljoen, the play depicted a chance meeting between two old acquaintances at a school reunion in Cape Town. Less a fully-fledged production than a reimagining of a traditional reading, it nevertheless allowed Mann to poignantly explore and elucidate the collection’s thematic thrusts – of romance, of the neuroscience of love, and of the shades of lives and generations past – from an assured narrative distance.

A good idea, perhaps, given the poems’ intensely autobiographical geneses. In the hands of a less-skilled poet, a dedicated collection of love poems might be an unenticing prospect, but Mann’s uncommon eye and easy juxtaposition of myth, memory and anecdote mitigate against potential mawkishness. And while the themes explored in Rudiments are undoubtedly indulgent, it sidesteps nostalgia and platitude. There is no wish here to relive, only to recall and release, with a tenderness and frankness that left even Justice Edwin Cameron, who chaired the launch, temporarily tongue-tied.

Read in sequence, the poems in Rudiments follow a relationship from its hesitant beginnings to its later communions, in situations as varied as the horrors of tending to a diarrhoeic baby and the drudge of the weekly shop. Moments of profundity spring regularly from Mann’s uncommon renderings of intimacy. And in the collection’s best moments – such as “The Bower of Bliss” and “The Music of Ordinary Things” – Mann’s stories and histories cross from the personal to the political, speaking to sacrifice, compromise and history; a portrait of a love not insular, but one of and entangled with the world.