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Mann, Chris(topher Michael Zithulele)

MANN, Chris(topher Michael Zithulele)


Nationality: South African. Born: Port Elizabeth, 6 April 1948. Education: University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, B.A. 1970; Oxford University (Rhodes scholar; Newdigate prize, 1973)B.A. (honors) 1973; University of London, M.A. 1975. Family: Married Julia G. St. John Skeen in 1980; one daughter and one son.

Career: Teacher, Baring High School, Nhlangano, Swaziland, 1975–76; lecturer, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, 1977–79; director, Valley Trust medical and agricultural project, near Durban, 1980–92; director, Grahamstown Foundation, 1993–98. Since 1998 research associate, Institute for Study of English in Africa. Founder and member, Zabalaza band, 1981–86. Awards: Olive Schreiner prize, 1983. Agent: David Philip Publishers Pty. Ltd., Box 23408, Claremont, Cape Province 7735, South Africa. Address: Institute for Study of English in Africa, Rhodes University, Grahamstown 6140, South Africa.

Publications

Poetry

First Poems. Johannesburg, Bateleur Press, 1977.

New Shades. Cape Town, David Philip, 1982.

Kites and Other Poems. Cape Town, David Philip, 1990.

Mann Alive!: Poems. Cape Town, David Philip, 1992.

South Africans: A Set of Portrait-Poems. Pietermaritzburg, University of Natal Press, 1996.

Plays

The Sand Labyrinth (produced Grahamstown, 1980).

The Magic Toaster, with Doris Hilliard. Halstead, Theatre Scripts, 1990.

Other

Chris Mann and Grammar. N.p., Lingua Press Publishers, 1990.

Editor, with Guy Butler, A New Book of South African Verse in English. Cape Town, Oxford University Press, 1979; Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1980.

*  *  *

Chris Mann's First Poems exhibited many of the faults common to a debut volume: mawkish naïveté ("Kneeling in moonlight, /with all your kissable crinkles," from a poem titled "Darkness, Ivory, and Clay"); uncertainty of touch and tone, particularly evident in tackedon and contrived conclusions to poems that deserved better, as in "Summer Evening at the Kowie," with its bizarrely irrelevant close ("as the foam begins to gleam, /paddle between the devil /and the deep, receptive sea"); and self-conscious poeticisms and unconscious echoes ("the well-doved day"; "halfway to heaven on a reapripe day"; "Two women on a beach at evening, /who murmur of this and that"). Yet despite its uneven quality, there is much of interest in Mann's first collection, not least its exuberant variety of styles and modes, ranging from ballad stanzas adapted to a South African voice and setting ("Bennie and Anna," based on Hood's "Ben Battle") to social satire, in which the targets are disappointingly predictable, and from the alliterative "View from the Edge," an exercise in the style of Swinburne, to the formal lyricism of "Words of the Overseas Missionary." There are the promising "Poems of Place," and Mann is clearly interested in the oral potential of verse, with one section comprising "Poems to Be Said Aloud." Few of the "Love Poems" are altogether successful, a notable exception being the brief but finely realized "A Few Initial Words":

What is there
to say
when the girl
who walks ahead of you
turns,
and knee-deep
in a sea of green barley
opens out her arms?

New Shades, Mann's second volume, is a much more assured and rounded achievement. Themes and modes attempted in the preceding volume recur but are more sparingly indulged and more subtly developed, as in the ballad rhythms of "To Lucky with His Guitar":

So here's Lucky, Coolhand Lucky the Tall;
Sunday afternoon, easing into town;
hasn't a word (drifting over New Street);
nothing to tell us (tapping the pavement);
but Coolhand riffs; zig-zag bass; stringshine chords.

Evocations of persons and places in this volume are more thoughtful in tone, more substantial in content. Examples include "Nightscapes" and "The Pupil and Teacher's Reunion," in which the self-conscious awkwardness experienced on such occasions is sympathetically explored rather than cleverly hit off:

We grope onwards (retired Matrons, famous
tries and expulsions, nicknames and googlies)
trudging upstream like anxious sangomas
for bonds, for kinships which eddy and shift
like shapes in the water but will not show.

The use of "sangomas" (from the Zulu word for a diviner) in the stanza points to Mann's increasing use of words and phrases from indigenous languages, beside the more pointed South Africanisms of his colloquial poems.

New Shades is also characterized by a larger proportion of poems for performance, which may be more effective in presentation or with musical accompaniment than they appear to be in print. Although Mann on occasion lapses into pseudoprofundities (as in "Bush and Sky") and mere imitation (the Laurentian note is unmistakable in "Napes"), his second volume is a distinct advance on the first.

—Ernest Pereira

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