Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
The Crumbling Mansion
By Charles Freyberg
Paperback, ISBN: 9781761091728, Sept 29 2021, 168 Pages
I grew up a long way from Sydney, but Kings Cross filtered through to me like my own history: its red lights at night, the newspaper reports of violence, homelessness, drugs but also excitement, tolerance, and freedom. Freyberg’s Cross is true to history, but also intimate, like a place you’ve always known. His poetry is shot through with the nostalgia of a place both deeply present and already dissipated into memory. Like Freyberg’s first poetry book, Dining at the Edge, The Crumbling Mansion is set primarily within, and around Kings Cross, though there are brief sojourns to the Central Coast, the Blue Mountains, and even to Spain and Poland. It is Sydney though which always seems to be present, even when it’s a contrast to a more bucolic scene like the heart of a forest, the sudden appearance of an echidna, a giant tree wrapped in moss, or a whitened ash on Bells Line of Road after the bushfires.The city exists throughout this book as a baseline, an inherent part of the self, a benign character, a unifying force, or occasionally, a malevolence. The city has its own gravity:
Streetlights shed blue,
Flickers of ruby and emerald.
Traffic limps then zooms.
I hear the slap of my footsteps
I jump over a puddle,
Spilled chips oozing with mud. (“Focus”)
The perspective in many of these poems is that of flaneur, a silent observer from the future walking through a landscape that is charged with desire, dancing at nightclubs, pulling beers in bars that “pulse with needfulness”, or slumped on a park bench after a wild night: “All is quiet now but not still”. Though there are day poems, much of The Crumbling Mansion feels like a night book, slightly surreal, and immersed in the world of lights, excitement pitched at the edge of danger, sex, and theatre. Costumes and makeup glitter under the lights, where creativity finds its truest form in performance:
You are my clown,
I smear lipstick on my mouth
I shadow my eyes with purple,
My body relaxes
Lounging on the couch.
All the broken pieces
Are gathering into a story. (“My Clown”)
The book includes a series set in 1973 titled “Victoria Street: A Kings Cross Fantasia” which features five characters of different ages. This section presents as a kind of play with five characters who have interwoven arcs that pivot around Victoria Street:
I spin and she laughs
then I stop and stare at her again
trying to stand with a bit of her grand – what is it?
I take her cigarette, and smoke with her easy flourish,
she touches the bruise on my cheek
so gently I want to cry…(“Vanessa”)
Helen, Vanessa, Louise, Michael (possibly a nod to poet Michael Dransfield, who died in 1973 and whose voice appears through this section) and Tony as they look out windows, talk, smoke, earn a living the hard way, perform, and walk around the city: Victoria Street, Darlinghurst Road, Taylor Street, a cafe on Roslyn street, The Purple Onion, The Venus Room—iconic spaces and places with blue drinks and jazz, flashing lights, grabby men, and an ever present hunger that perhaps represent the crumbling mansion of the past:
‘I have. House, a crumbling mansion
In a lively tree-lined street.
And a room full of dresses…”
There is beauty and danger throughout the book. Freyberg’s work is sensual and tactile as he explores the the redemptive power of art, and the way it flows through the cracks in our lives lifting our failings:
We stitch on purple ruffles
A glow of diamantés,
fishnets from my Tilly days,
earrings from a Paris weekend,
a pillage of my life,
play of fabrics sampled and discarded,
open scissors, spools of thread (“Strength in Beauty”)
There are many ghosts that populate this work, from Victor Sheehan, who created the striking image on the cover, and whose words are used in several of the poems in this collection:
Your voice is tangled in mine
Enliven my own work
Waiting on the desk. (“To Victor”)
Juanita Nielsen was an activist and journalist who was murdered in 1975. Her voice is preserved in the prose poem “Sydney Tribute, 12 October 1973, Save the Terraces on Victoria Street! By Louise Healey” which takes the form of a newspaper article:
Victoria Street is a vibrant place where people come to discover themselves and change. That energy is gone if you evict them and scatter them. A strand of the city’s creativity will be smashed.
One of the most moving poems is the last poem, a tribute to Candy Royalle, who died of Ovarian Cancer at the age of 37:
Or that monstrous grin
in a speckled sky – death.
the audience are a single breath.
in silence as you pause
gathering to a cheer, a roar
something has shifted…(“To Candy Royalle”)
Some of the poems in The Crumbling Mansion are reprinted from Dining at the Edge, but in this new context the work picks up on the theme, highlighting the entropy that is always undoing: mansions crumble, trees fall, makeup runs, love dissolves, animals become extinct, and great poets and playwrights die, leaving us bereft and struggling for meaning. What The Crumbling Mansion shows is is how beautiful the struggle is.