Mansfield and Me: A graphic Memoir by Sarah Laing.
Wellington: VUP (2016).
The Collected Poems of Katherine Mansfield edited by Gerri Kimber and Claire Davison.
Dunedin: OUP (2016).
RRP $35. Hb, 238pp. ISBN 7981877578816
Reviewed by Olivia Macassey.
Visiting author Sarah Laing’s website in order to fact-check whilst writing this review, I was initially a little disconcerted by a short comic strip in which Laing depicts herself feeling angst over reading reviews before demanding with a frown, “But when are they going to call me a genius?” This is the kind of self-aware, flippant, self-mocking wit which would have been appreciated by Katherine Mansfield, the subject of Laing’s new book, Mansfield and Me: A Graphic Memoir. Although now an internationally well-known writer, and New Zealand’s most famous literary export, Mansfield too was no stranger to artistic struggle or ambition. A new collection, The Collected Poems of Katherine Mansfield, sheds new light on this perennially fascinating figure.
Edited by Gerri Kimber and Claire Davison, the handsome, comprehensive Collected Poems of Katherine Mansfield is the first ever full, stand-alone collection of Mansfield’s poetry. Collecting juvenilia and mature work, it includes 26 newly discovered poems which have been, until recently, unknown. These were found by Kimber during archival research in the Newberry Library in Chicago in 2015, and comprise most of a 1910 cycle titled The Earth Child (of the 36 poems in the cycle, only nine had been previously published). Despite her fame as a writer, collections of Mansfield’s poetry are surprisingly rare; after her death, husband John Middleton Murry published a small selection in two editions, and another was published in 1988 (Oxford University Press). While poetic fragments are scattered through her published letters, the sheer number of poems in this collection attest to the fact that in addition to the prose for which she is famous, poetry was also an ongoing part of Mansfield’s creative practice.
The book has 217 poems in total, generally organized in chronological order. The first is dated 1903, when their author was 14 year old schoolgirl Kathleen Beauchamp, and the last – a moving poem entitled “The Wounded Bird” – was written in the year of her death, 1922. Within the wider oeuvre are three collections, which the editors have preserved intact: the juvenile Little Fronds, A Children’s Book of Verse, and The Earth Child. Otago University Press have published this volume in conjunction with Edinburgh University Press, for whom Kimber and Davison have produced several volumes on Mansfield as part of the Collected Works.[i] The introduction and extensive and carefully written scholarly notes which accompany this text are invaluable in enabling even a casual reader to appreciate the poems’ contexts and references.
Many of Mansfield’s earlier poems combine two Victorian styles: sentimental children’s verse and more playful “cautionary tales”, as in “Autumn Song”, which begins by sounding rather like Robert Louis Stevenson but shifts to a rhyme strongly reminiscent of Hilaire Belloc.
Now’s the time when children’s noses
All become as red as roses
And the colour of their faces
Makes me think of orchard places.
Where the juicy apples grow
And tomatoes – in a row.
And today – the hardened sinner
Never could be late for dinner
But will jump up to the table
Just as soon as he is able. (p 74).
As the poet matures, her poetry expands to encompass more adult themes – love, loss, social relationships – and more sophisticated, modernist forms. But the theme of childhood with its enchanted fairy tales and strong connection to the natural world (particularly the sea) remains as a kind of generative touchstone through the later poems, which often inhabit a sort of storied, animistic universe. There are witty pastiches and amusements for friends, too, but the striking persistence of these fey “child” motifs contributes to a sense that the blend of satire and sentiment incipient in her early work continued throughout her life.
Surprisingly, the thematic thread of illness and death, which quite naturally appears in her later poems, is echoed in work produced long before Mansfield became ill (with gonorrhoea and later tuberculosis). At 14 she writes of loneliness and illness: ‘All the world seems dull and still/ And my friends have all forgot me/ Since I’ve been ill’ (p 34). It is possible to see, too, a reflection of the development of Mansfield’s prose style in some of the poems she wrote as a young adult, particularly in the free verse poems “Winter Fire” and “The Trio”, in which ‘The man is like a seedy, draggled bird/ He frowns upon the women, savagely …/ Opposite them a warehouse, huge and grey/ And ugly, in the ghostly light of fog’ (p 97).
A woman who inhabited many personae, Mansfield used distancing techniques, publishing poems under pen names such as “Elizabeth Stanley”, or claiming they were translations of the work of a fictional Russian poet, “Boris Petrovsky”. But at their core, they often aspire to the authentic self-expression which its author particularly valued in poetry. Mansfield’s prose drew heavily on personal experience and observation, and this is probably even more the case here: many of these poems seem to me to be much centred on her as a person. The speaker in this passage from “Limbo” is observant yet vulnerable:
The clock ticks on. The rhythmic hammer noise beats
Beats on. The pipe smoke writhes on overhead
Terribly still. The piercing children’s voice
Stabs on relentless. Living, I am dead. (p 132).
Though the editors of this book have made a case for better recognition of Mansfield’s poetry – and quite rightly argue that she may have been better known as a poet had The Earth Child been published in her lifetime – I have to admit that for me, much of her poetic oeuvre does not have the same strength as her prose writing. At their worst, these poems can be self-conscious and overly portentous (not unlike some of D. H. Lawrence’s poems on romantic relationships) and the mannered references to things like talking snails, which are not confined to her juvenilia, can become a little twee. For example, the fifth of the Earth Child poems begins with the lines “In an opal dream cave I found a fairy/ Her wings were frailer than flower petals” (p 111) But at their best, there is a kind of lovely, wild tenderness in Mansfield’s poems, as in “To K.M.”, which exemplifies a recurring self-portrait of the writer as a bird:
She is a bird.
Green is her body and her wings are tawny.
She is the strange sport of her wild sea mother
Who fell in love with a bit of bracken
Wind-wrenched – and flung into her bosom. (p 130).
Or in the first of the Earth Child poems:
Do you remember the time when you shook your blossom
Into the living air … laughing and trembling?
The grey bird does not forget: She holds your secret
And sings in her little wild heart to your mournful swaying. (p 109).
This hardback volume is attractive, appropriately ornamented by a gorgeous pansy painting by Stanisław Wyspiański, the Polish modernist (hailed as a “magnificent warrior” in Mansfield’s poem to him).[ii] This local edition is very well-priced, and as it is at once of interest to casual readers, an indispensable resource for Mansfield scholars, and a treat for Mansfield fans, it’s no wonder that it has made so many appearances on the weekly bestsellers lists.
Mansfield and Me: A Graphic Memoir is Sarah Laing’s latest offering, following three successful books (a collection of short stories and two novels, which contained her own illustrations). While this is her first full-length graphic novel, Laing is also a regular in the New Zealand comic scene, co-edited the timely 3 Words: an Anthology of Aotearoa NZ Women’s Comics (Beatnik, 2016), and has an ongoing web comic, the autobiographical Let Me Be Frank.[iii]
Mansfield and Me is an episodic memoir which alternates between a largely chronological account of the writer’s life and times, from childhood to the publication of her first two books in her mid-thirties, and the parallel story of the life and work of Katherine Mansfield. The Mansfield segments draw on biographies, letters, and essays – though much of the character dialogue is written by Laing – and largely cover scenes from Mansfield’s childhood in Wellington to her early death at Fontainebleau. They also depict moments from a few of her short stories, such as The Garden Party and The Doll’s House. The book is divided into thirteen sections, and in each, colour episodes or vignettes from the author’s life are interspersed with monochromatic Mansfield segments with which they are thematically connected. Gradually, the character of Katherine Mansfield herself is unconfined from the latter panels and makes appearances in Laing’s own world.
With its forthright approach to both physical and psychological experience – sexual intercourse, sexuality, social awkwardness, the desire for fame – and mild, self-deprecating humour, Mansfield and Me to some extent follows the well-worn path of confessional graphic memoir, of which the most well-known practitioner is perhaps Alison Bechdel. But while it discusses serious issues, this book is not heavy going; Laing’s memoiristic voice is more akin to that of writers like, say, Craig Thompson or Gabrielle Bell than to Bechdel or Phoebe Gloeckner.
Visually, it uses conventional sequential narrative techniques and a loose, almost vernacular drawing style. Laing’s use of watercolour is clear and fresh, and particularly strong when depicting the lush garden scenery that is a recurrent motif in the lives and work of both women.
The novel draws thematic and plot parallels through a series of juxtapositions. For example Katherine’s sojourn in the country with D.H. Lawrence, who treats Murry to a naked wrestling match, is interspersed with Sarah’s experience of living in a country flat listening to The Pixies with her boyfriend and a reclusive guy who favours internet porn. Katherine’s experiences trying to meet a lover in war-torn Europe are connected to Sarah’s experience of New York in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. A traumatic experience as a teen is linked to a short story:
The wider thematic concerns of both main characters include a tension between New Zealand as a locus of identity and as a limiting creative milieu, questions of social and sexual identity, and the forces which propel, hinder, and shape creative expression. One example of the latter is Katherine’s discussion with A.R Orage:
Another central concern, one which motivates the overall trajectory of Laing’s own story and surfaces multiple times, though less explicitly, in her telling of Mansfield’s, is the question of literary success and fame. This graphic novel is, to borrow Audre Lorde’s term, a biomythography. However, Mansfield and Me is not particularly reflexive about the literary act of self-construction inherent in the text: even as Katherine’s dialogue on subjects such as having “hundreds of selves” (p 266) highlights this act, Sarah’s seemingly frank revelations about her own desire for fame and growth as a writer are treated as unproblematically transparent.
In contemporary Western graphic memoir, the line between generous, enriching candour and claustrophobic, introspective navel-gazing can be a fine one, but Laing navigates it very well. The scope of the drama gives Mansfield and Me plenty of space and variety – geographical, temporal, visual, and thematic – which makes it immensely readable and engaging. Without sacrificing complexity, Laing has made her Mansfield a highly sympathetic, likeable, appealing character, which, in the face of the difficult, loved-yet-hated woman painted by her biographers, is no mean feat. The Katherine of this novel emerges as a friend and mentor to Sarah; and to the reader, an accessible, relatable, very human figure – as does that of Laing herself. This book will find an enduring place on bookshelves next to Mansfield biographies and New Zealand graphic novels alike.
Indeed, The Collected Poems of Katherine Mansfield and Mansfield and Me make good shelf-fellows. Apart from the common subject matter, both are intelligent, literary texts by women interested in exploring relationships between interiority and social context, and both share a fondness for a faux naivety underpinned by sophistication and control. From different eras, and written in two very different modes, each of these books offers the reader an interesting, satisfyingly comprehensive world in which to become immersed.
[i] Kimber’s biography Katherine Mansfield: The Early Years was also released in 2016 by Edinburgh University Press.
[ii] Mansfield was introduced to Wyspiański’s work by her lover Floryan Sobieniowski, probably around the period the Earth Child poems were written.
[iii] Let Me Be Frank is located at http://sarahelaing.com
Olivia Macassey’s poetry has appeared in various publications including Poetry NZ, Landfall, and Brief. Her second poetry collection, The Burnt Hotel (Titus Books, 2015) was reviewed in takahē 86. Olivia also writes on cinema and history, and holds a PhD in Film, Television, and Media Studies from the University of Auckland.