Tuesday 29 October 2019

Review by Jayne Stanton of "The Anatomical Venus" by Helen Ivory

The Anatomical Venus is an eighteenth century waxwork model – life-sized, anatomically correct, ‘breathing’ and dissectible – of an idealised female form. With human hair, string of pearls and posed, she is morbid and macabre; her seven layers of body parts open secrets to the men who once handled and studied her.  

‘The Little Venus’ is ‘presented voluptuously’; she is beautiful even in death:

          Yet how charming the rope of pearls at the throat –
          the throat itself a repository for kisses.

The voice in the poem is distasteful; it is that of a tout encouraging ‘gentlemen’ to examine the exhibit, hands-on. 

Six years after her previous collection, Waiting for Bluebeard, which chronicles the stages of a woman’s disappearing, Ivory’s latest collection seems a natural progression. The Anatomical Venus explores how women have been (and still are) portrayed (and treated) as ‘other.’ The reader encounters witches, hysterics, psychotics, asylum inmates, objects of curiosity, corpses and AI dolls. 

These women are portrayed through the eyes and voices of men: the witch-finders, physicians, employers, and husbands. They are rarely named. Instead they are known only as the wives or daughters of working men (Labourer’s/Boatman’s/Farmer’s wife), or by their own occupations – shockingly so in ‘Female Casebook 6,’ a list poem of asylum inmates’ occupations or status, ending:

          Wife of Boatman

This anonymity is, in itself, a kind of disappearing.

The ‘Wunderkammer’ poems in the collection portray women as objects of curiosity. They, like the waxwork Venus, and Read Doll X in ‘Pygmalion,’ are perfectly posed. Like the corseted wife in ‘The Fainting Room,’ and the hysterical and psychotic housewives of other poems, they are confined, contained. 

That is not to say that the women in these pages are not given a voice. ‘Hellish Nell’ puts forward her own case as a medium for the ‘ectoplasm’ of grieving mothers’ sons. A woman hanged for witchcraft questions the cleric responsible for Malleus Maleficarum. The wife of an unfaithful husband in ‘Stripped’ vows she’ll tear out a rib and return it, owing him nothing. ‘Anger in Ladies &c’ harnesses the power of women’s anger in a rant against the James Dunton, author of The Ladies Dictionary (1684):

          Now they will lecture you
          on how to wear your hair, Mr Dunton –
          how to cover your shame. 
          They are sharpening their bread knives.

The call to arms of this, the penultimate poem in the collection, is akin to that of the title poem of Tishani Doshi’s Girls are Coming Out Of the Woods (2017). 

Women as vessels is an overarching theme in the collection. The ‘she’ in the closing poem ‘wakes inside her body.’ Unlike Real Doll X, she arranges her own limbs and, free at last, ‘she leaves her body / at the mouth of the door.’ 

About the reviewer
Jayne Stanton’s poems have appeared in numerous print and online magazines, and anthologies. She has written commissions for a county museum, the Centre for New Writing, University of Leicester's Poems for International Women’s Day 2018, and a city residency. A pamphlet, Beyond the Tune, is published by Soundswrite Press (2014).  

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