What the 'Rules' Are

Rachel Mann, A Kingdom of Love

Carcanet Press, 72pp, £9.99, ISBN 978 1 784108 57 1

reviewed by Liam Bishop

A Kingdom of Love is Rachel Mann’s first collection of poetry. Mann is an Anglican priest and whilst we might expect religious symbols and icons to work their way into her poetry, there’s another level to this devotion that extends beyond the symbolic. Initially, we’re taken on a quest to understand how we might engage with sublime forces beyond our existence, but then this turns into a more complicated examination of the imperceptible rules that structure the language we use every day.

Mann’s enquiry is directed through language and even when she, notably, starts with a poem examining divine communication, her subject is the communicative element of this dynamic. Although I was reminded of St. Augustine’s question in the Confessions — ‘Lord my God is there any room in me which can contain you?’ — when Mann writes in the final two lines of her opening poem, ‘I sing the versicles for Evensong, O Lord, / My larynx trembles with mucus and awe’, the question remained: How can this earthly body have the capacity to communicate with a potentially non-corporal being?

Essentially, the larynx is inferior to its desire to communicate. Like Augustine’s room ‘inside him’ the structure of whatever is doing the communicating must somehow transcend its parameters. Structures therefore, become the fascination for Mann. In ‘Fides Quarens’ she writes: ‘Mystery is laid in the syllables, syntax, / Miracle a kind of grammar, / Milk to train the tongue[.]’ For Mann, either structural or contained within the structure, lies the enigma. And wasn’t that ‘trembling larynx’ lubricated with mucus similar to the ‘milk’ of the tongue? An ‘engine’ is probably a metaphor too harsh here: if we remember, however, Wittgenstein’s epitaph for the opening section — ‘A poet’s words can pierce us’ — we might see why Mann equates miracles with grammar. If miracles do need rules, like the invisible language ‘rules’ Wittgenstein said exist in our everyday discourse, the rules might be the real source of mystery.

With all this talk of miracles, is this a collection purely for the religious reader? Of course not. The dialectical power of Mann’s equation between holy communication and human language was typified when she wrote on Carcanet’s blog God ‘is a problem of and for language’. If God is a problem of and for language, language is a problem for us all, believers or not. Read the opening stanzas to ‘A Brief History of Anglicanism’ on the back of this:

‘Suppose. Suppose prayer
Is a spark thrown

On a wall, a shadow;
Suppose it’s fire,

Though flame is surely
Spent metaphor[. . .]’

‘Suppose’, by way of that bold, opening single-line sentence is, here, the most interesting subject. We might assume ‘suppose’ operates as a verb: look how it sustains and reinstalls the iambic meter when the second and third lines open with comparatively gentle anapaests. That initial ‘suppose’ is a noun. As we read the rest of the poem ‘supposing’ seems to be the only option when abstruse elements surround the poet: ‘No more than arrangements / Of rumour, misapprehension / For spectacle’s sake; / As if the absence of His body[. . .]’ reads a stanza in the second section where we realise the poet isn’t so much as doubting their faith, but seeing it as a platform for speculation. Whether Mann intentionally named the title of the poem after Stephen Hawking’s famous book or not, she almost appears to be boastful that speculation and uncertainty is a space permitted in the religious mind.

Mann finishes the poem by quoting from that great parable of speculation, the ‘Book of Job.’ Significantly, it’s a book in which the ‘rules’ are questioned by Job as God inflicts misery on him without apparent justification:

‘Oh, that my words were now written!
Oh, that they were printed in a book!
That they were graven with an iron pen
And lead, for ever in the rock!’

Directly extrapolated from the Bible (19: 23-25), Job’s declaration, in this context not only probes the mysterious rules of evil, but the mysterious rules that surround our daily exchanges. If God is a problem for language as Mann said, the rules are not just a problem for Job; they are a problem for the reader, stuck trying to understand that which cannot be made visible.

We’re not discussing the explicable rules of grammar that dictate writing, but the complicated ‘language games’ we’ve identified through Wittgenstein. Let’s assume that the rules of the game were ‘visible’, or that we were discussing forms with ‘bodies’ and figures that we can see, hold and manipulate. Augustine recognised that his error in searching for God was that he was looking for a ‘body’, so when Mann asks, ‘Who is this “I”. . . of whom poets speak’ this ‘I’ sound s like the problem we’ve identified that is both Godly and linguistic. In ‘Nomenclature’ we see a person being canonised:

‘Word, Name, wait for me,
Wait, till I am sealed, in Cell, or Room,
My room, my own white room,

My body robed for dreams.
Wait till inner life is enough,
Till my skin — lined, creased — retreats.’

In the same way we couldn’t classify ‘suppose’ in ‘A Brief History. . .’ there do not appear to be any explicit ‘rules’ for what constitutes proper or common nouns here. Why, for instance, is ‘room’ capitalised in the second line, but then ‘my own white room’ remains in lower case? Could the ‘white room’ be a place for the ‘inner life’? The valiance and power of Mann’s verse comes from the notion that, simply, we’re no closer to understanding what the ‘rules’ are. When God said to Job, ‘where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding’ we’re reminded we don’t and we can’t know all the rules by which we’re dictated, religious or not.
Liam Bishop is a writer from Leeds. He writes criticism, fiction and essays, and also interviews authors on the podcast he hosts, the Rippling Pages.