Wednesday 10 January 2024

Review by Rennie Parker of "Eleanor Among the Saints" by Rachel Mann

Rachel Mann writes the kind of poetry which says: 'don't be lazy, think about this and check up the references you don't understand.' At the same time, she pitches us headlong into all the big questions about identity as she examines and acknowledges the pain and terror of being between lives. 

The Eleanor of her title is Eleanor Rykener, a transwoman from the Middle Ages who (in Mann's expert rendition) becomes a vehicle for other lives and women-divines, rather like an alternative Magdalene. However, the focus is on the journey and the difficulty, at times luridly so, like a vision from Hieronymous Bosch. If you like your poetry strong and without sweeteners, this book is for you.

Her lines are densely-written, often omitting 'a' and 'the' to give each phrase more otherness; and there is a deliberate sound and formatting which recalls Anglo-Saxon riddle poetry. Echoes of Hopkins are also evident, particularly in the piled-up race to embody experience; I can hear a hybrid Geoffrey Hill / T.S. Eliot at times, but that's no bad thing and probably my fault as a reviewer, reading through other poet-Anglican texts.

What's most impressive is the passion behind the lines. Mann is a poet of conviction (rather than the traditional 'faith and doubt') meaning that her world becomes our world as we swim further into the state of all those Eleanors. Her excursions into the present day are no less forceful, even alarmingly so; 'Eleanor as a sixteen year old murdered trans girl' appears to reference the recent case of Brianna Ghey, yet the typical book production schedule would surely place its composition before the case appeared in the media.

I heartily recommend this rich collection to anyone, not only for its fabulous wrangling of character, medieval history and lived experience, but as a reminder of how we too should step up to the plate with the same courage as the poet. The self as transformed into female is nearly always a metaphor for suffering, but the end result is also victory, like the resurrection of Christ. It's okay, Rachel / Eleanor, I want to say. We believe you. 

About the reviewer
Rennie Parker is a poet living in the East Midlands, published by Shoestring Press. She studied for a PhD at Birmingham University and currently works in FE. Blogs at; also on Twitter @rennieparker. You can read about her latest collection, Balloons and Stripey Trousers, on Creative Writing at Leicester here

No comments:

Post a Comment