‘An Eye For An Eye For An Eye’, by Ellen Renton

An Eye For An Eye For An Eye is the debut pamphlet from Ellen Renton and in just a few short pages, it reveals an excellent poet with a profound breadth and depth of lyrical touch.

Many of the poems are short, such as the opening poem ‘How Far Can You See?’, which covers only seventeen lines. However, what is carefully folded and left in those seventeen lines is incredible. Starting with a scientific, almost mundane beginning that attempts to describe the poet’s visual impairment to a reader without said impairment, the short staccato lines reveal much about how impossible it is to describe to someone something they cannot experience. However, the second half of the poem becomes a rushing river of a single sentence, stretching across eight lines of text full of evocative and both comforting and disquieting revelations about how sight works for the poet. 

A pamphlet doesn’t always provide enough pages to showcase a new talent properly, but Renton comes out swinging from page one. While there is naturally much in the pamphlet that in some way connects and correlates to the visual impairment of the poet (there is a triptych of ‘How Far Can You See’ poems, which slowly explore different attitudes and issues faced by those with visual impairments attempting to navigate a world that does not accommodate them), equally much of these poems cover other concerns and bring a strong political voice to the fore. 

While there are several poems with a jovial heart, Ellen is not afraid to turn her words into searing indictments of abuses of power. Take ‘Junkit’, a searing response to a non-albino actor who chose to be painted into albinism, where Ellen pours the empty words that actors often use in these scenarios into a mix that reveals them as nothing less than the acts of violence they are until the last lines, which bite back with an incredible power:

it’s a good story
it’s a privilege
i try to forget

What makes this pamphlet feel as crafted and detailed as a full-length collection is the sheer breadth of talent on display is incredible, moving as Ellen does from poems about visual impairment, to expositions on Catholic schooling and then slipping in the bright lyric ‘On Arriving Early’, which deals with that least obvious poetical subject – the toilet seat:

I know Glasgow by its toilets I have wasted
time in       all the lids that taught my back
the inhumanity of plastic…

In the poem ‘Cycle’, Renton posits about the complex interrelations present in the modern world between menstruation, pregnancy and child-rearing. In a densely imagined poem, that starts when:

once a month my stomach bloats
and on the least likely day
I play pregnant     wear something
shapeless over the bump

And leaves us two short stanzas later with a focus on modern parenting unheard of elsewhere:

There are so many people on TV
who let each other down and I wonder
how babies keep being born,
why isn’t everyone scared
to love something that much

The core of the pamphlet is undoubtedly the poem ‘What Athena Saw When Tiresias Looked’, a retelling of the Tiresias myth. Touching as it does on the topics of vision, privilege, women’s bodies under patriarchy, these two complimentary poems do a huge amount to showcase the poet’s talent and provide some of the richest and most interesting imagery of the whole pamphlet:

And when she stole
the colour from his eyes
she nearly smiled

but she tested guilt
in her hands
and liked its weight
a sore and
honest thing

This pamphlet bristles with poems of great force and skill and it’s a testament to the talent of Ellen Renton that this pamphlet feels so much like a full-length collection. Definitely one to keep an eye out for in the future. 

An Eye For An Eye For An Eye is published by Stewed Rhubarb Press.

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