Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary

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EPIPHANIES by Chris Mann
Reviewed by Paul Walters, Rhodes University

Chris Mann’s choice of title, Epiphanies, may be a little obscure to many readers – even to those within Christian circles, who may limit it by too specific a reference to the Feast of the Epiphany observed on 6 January each year. M H Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms (80) is helpful: Abrams highlights the general meaning of Epiphany as “a manifestation”, or “showing forth” – for Christians a manifestation of God’s presence within the created world – but, thanks to the Irish writer, James Joyce (1882-1941), it was given the wider, more secular meaning of a “sudden sense of radiance and revelation that one may feel while perceiving a commonplace object.” And so, Abrams says, “’Epiphany’ has become the standard term for the description… of the sudden flare into revelation of an ordinary object or scene”. One might think of Moses and the burning bush, but one also needs to understand that “any old bush will do” as a modern theologian expressed it. And so it is in this collection where moments of beauty experienced, moments of emotional intensity, are caught in words and reflected upon so that they yield layers of inner and spiritual meaning.

Epiphanies was launched as part of Spiritfest 2017 – the Christian community’s annual contribution to the National Festival of the Arts – and Chris Mann and his wife, Julia Skeen-Mann, have played a variety of deeply supportive and creative roles in the maintenance and extension of Spiritfest over many years – not least the launches (usually in the Cathedral itself) of earlier collections of Mann’s poetry coupled with Skeen-Mann’s images in a variety of media. Indeed, some of the works included in Epiphanies have appeared in earlier collections, though none feels out of place in this new context. Some of these – if my memory serves –  which were formerly set out as verse are now set out in shapes more closely resembling prose, while retaining their rhythmical and rhyming patterns.

Mann was for many years Honorary Professor of Poetry at Rhodes and is now Emeritus Professor of Poetry. As such, he has always been aware of the marginalised place of poetry in current literary culture, and has for much of his life dedicated his considerable gifts to carving out a bigger space, a wider audience, for poetry in English. One of his strategies is, together with his wife, to take live performances of his poetry “on the road” to schools and churches both in South Africa and in the United Kingdom. One cannot help wondering whether the predominant artistic strategy in Epiphanies of favouring a prosaic-looking paragraph form is not also a way of luring in the skittish reader who might flee at the sight of a stanza – let alone the mention of God!

It is worth asking who Mann sees as his potential readership. The first and most obvious readers would be those with some kind of religious allegiance or interest. As George Eliot noted “we all walk about well-wadded with stupidity” – even those who think they “see” –  and one of the most important functions of art of any kind is to open our eyes to new ways of seeing. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, this quality is called “mindfulness” or simply “paying attention”. An “epiphany” (or “light-bulb” moment) is the term we give to those events or perceptions which help us to see the everyday in a new light – which for believers often means the light of the Divine illuminating the quotidian – and each of the 52 poems in Epiphanies has this single over-arching aim, whether it has a specifically religious title and theme or is drawn from the speaker’s personal experience.

“A verse may find him/Who a sermon flies” wrote George Herbert, one of the greatest religious poets in English, nearly four hundred years ago: now it seems readers flee both sermons and “verse”. Mann’s predominant strategy of using a prosaic-looking stanza to depict a single significant “moment” in each epiphany must surely be to lure skittish secular readers with no particular religious affiliations or interest by way of our common fascination with the lives of others into considering whether there might not be a deeper current running through their own. This is a risky undertaking – as John Keats noted in an early letter – because “we hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us… poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul….” and some readers will no doubt react as Keats did. If, however, as some of the greatest mystics of all cultures have asserted, it is true that we “come from Love, we live in Love, and our destiny is Love”, then surely it is the duty of a poet who believes this to use all his talent to encourage others to share this insight?

As a Christian myself, I have to say that almost all the poems in Epiphanies work for me in this way, while in the odd one I think I sense a little too much of the “palpable design” for it to be wholly successful. It is the kind of collection in which everyone will have their “favourite favourites” and there is little point in my burdening the reader with my own. I tend to agree with the estimate (on the back cover) of our Anglican Dean, Andrew Hunter, that these are indeed poems “to be read, re-read, savoured, and prayed”, but I would challenge  secular readers to read this work right through without feeling that somehow, somewhere they too had been enlightened and uplifted.

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