Helen Ivory’s The Anatomical Venus reviewed by Neil Fulwood
The Anatomical Venus by Helen Ivory. £9.95. Bloodaxe. ISBN 978-1-78017-469-7 #6
There has always been a cinematic quality to Helen Ivory’s work. Her 2010 collection The Breakfast Machine was identified by publishers Bloodaxe as sitting “more comfortably alongside the animations of Jan Svankmajer than any English poetic tradition”, while the dark drama of Waiting for Bluebeard (2013) achieved a Lynchian intensity anchored by a Mike Leigh sense of social realism. Within the space of its first four poems, her latest Bloodaxe collection, The Anatomical Venus, put me in mind of Robert Eggers’ haunting and hallucinatory film The Witch:
For her womb is a wandering beast;
for she is husbandless, and at candle time
brazenly trades with the Devil.
(‘Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Sorceress to Live’)
A scabrous dog
kiss cold as clay
springs from the lap
of its fostering bedlam
to dance and dance
the black dance of itself
(‘All the Suckling Imps’)
He had witnessed Sarah transmute
from flesh to fire, heard the spirits
scream out of her …
(‘The Kept House’)
The goddess bled into the earth
and babies formed
congealed and glorious
like fleshy fruit.
Sparking with poems as succinct, imagistic and effortlessly creepy as anything in Ivory’s canon, there’s a lot going on in The Anatomical Venus. The title is probably a good place to start unpacking it all. The anatomical venus was conceived by the Italian sculptor Clemente Susini in the 1780s as a means of teaching anatomy without having to resort to grave-robbing. It (she? I’m not sure how pronouns work with wax sculptures) was modelled as a woman – lifesize, nubile, generally attractive – with the sternum peeled back, in a sort of 3D equivalent of a cut-away diagram, to reveal the internal organs. Why Susini didn’t sculpt this teaching aid as a man (an anatomical Mars?) is a question for a different article. Still, the title is apposite: these poems are a revealing of things, if not necessarily in a logical or scientific manner. Susini’s venuses may have been born of medical study, but they are still the stuff of nightmare; and Ivory’s poems likewise offer up their revelations as spectral, unanswerable, even demonic.
In keeping with the scientific impetus, however, several poems present themselves as case studies of female archetypes (or rather archetypes of women treated as chattel): for instance, the labourer’s wife, the farmer’s wife, the boatman’s wife. The former’s hearth is spoiled by her husband’s muddy boots; as she sweeps and sweeps “at this dark dispensation”, she sings “a back-slider’s hymn”:
The devils waiting me around,
xxxxxxxxxTo make my soul a prey;
xxxxxxI wait to hear the dreadful sound,
xxxxxxxxxTake, take the wretch away.
Ivory crafts a short story here in five quatrains, the sting of its pay-off as brutal as anything a horror novelist could have fashioned. The farmer’s wife’s tale is distilled into just twelve lines and echoes in the mind like a funereal chord on an old piano. The boatman’s wife is driven to a chilling finale by a wind “prying / into her barest rooms / and her shadow-self / with the insinuating voice / of a glass armonica”. Ivory’s gift here, as in so much of her work, is to load short and ostensibly terse lines with weighty images and subject matter, without ever sacrificing lyricism.
Other characters emerge in these ‘case study’ pieces: Hannah Ward, Anne Newham, Alice Utting, Harriet Blyth (all ‘residents’ of St Andrews Asylum); and Victoria Helen McCrae Duncan, the last person to be imprisoned, in 1944, under the British Witchcraft Act 1735 (albeit for only two of the seven charges on which she was arraigned and with the supreme irony that her trial was for false witchcraft). Ivory’s poem ‘Hellish Nell’ is four stanzas long and ends with its anti-heroine promising her accusers: “Stand back! I might regurgitate all hell / into your choking auditorium.” It prompted me to spend almost an entire evening on the internet, reading up on the fascinating story of Duncan’s life and incarceration. This is what successful art does: it shows you something you didn’t know before, or were only dimly aware of, or adjusts the lenses of your perception so that your understanding is realigned and things come into a different focus.
And if these ‘case study’ poems, raw in their visceral power and capable of depth-charging the imagination, were all that The Anatomical Venus had to offer, they would vouchsafe a collection of the highest order. But Ivory takes things to a higher level. Two other loosely structured sequences run through the book, intertwining with each other and with the case studies, striking sparks as they engender an on-going dialogue. One set is the ‘wunderkammer’ poems. The word translates as ‘cabinet of curiosities’, and anyone familiar with Ivory’s work as a visual artist will understand immediately the appeal to her of this subject. Here’s one of them in full:
It must have whispered itself through a snick in her attention,
the moth, for now it hovers like a visitant near her crown.
Coffee is the drug of the watchful and she must allow no further lapses –
there is a regiment of living things out there, vying for her time.
To the watchers in the street, this is just another insomniac
another lit window cutting neat little squares in the black.
(‘Wunderkammer with Black Coffee and Ghost Moth’)
Few of the ‘wunderkammer’ poems are any longer than this, and most use shorter, starker lines. Most carry a little jolt of pain or provocation. Take the seamstress in ‘Wunderkammer with Needle Girl and Tool Kit’:
When she has exhausted the bolt of cotton
and the whole room is draped
with the story she’s been stitching,
she pushes the crewel deep into her fingertip.
The vulnerability of the body is emphasised in the third interconnected set of poems: those which take us back to the collection’s title and demonstrate that the male gaze is no less creepy for having graduated from med school. To utilise again the approach to textual reference taken at the start of this review – a group of juxtaposed excerpts unencumbered by any analytical witterings from yours truly – consider these:
When they laced me tight this morning
my body split asunder.
Clouds heaved themselves across my eyes.
Nobody heard the crack of rib
or witnessed the small moth of my soul
slip from my mouth.
(‘The Fainting Room’)
The heart was her undoing – observe the walls:
too slight to sustain her through her twentieth year.
Yet how charming the rope of pearls at the throat –
the throat itself a repository for kisses.
(‘The Little Venus’)
The dead girl holds up a copper mirror
to this tableau, and with her left hand
pulls back the drapery of her flesh
till the blinding light of heaven
falls to his grubby little room.
If Waiting for Bluebeard was the collection that not only delivered on the promise of Ivory’s earlier titles but announced itself as a defiant treatise on what it means to be a survivor, then The Anatomical Venus – populated by women who refuse to be tamed, instructed or fit neatly into categories – is a clarion call for the fight back.
Neil Fulwood is the author of two Shoestring Press collections, No Avoiding It and Can’t Take Me Anywhere. He lives and works in Nottingham.
Diana Hendry’s The Watching Stair reviwed by James Roderick Burns
The Watching Stair by Diana Hendry. £10.00. Worple Press. ISBN: 978-1-905208-41-8
While ‘The Watching Stair’ starts quietly, with a number of low-key poems in and around childhood, adolescence and early adulthood – perhaps signalling a chronological progression through the book – it soon shrugs off this traditional approach to move into unexpected, and subtly thrilling, territory. Soon we encounter ‘The Greenhouse’. Hendry specialises in small, unobtrusive titles which explode with meaning, and this poem typifies that style. It is short and extraordinary and bears quoting in full:
Before my father gave her away,
On cold sunny days
My sister shut herself in there
With a bag of apples
And her library book –
An historical romance wrapped
In cellophane sticky as semen.
It was a sun trap in winter.
On the slatted bench
Big terracotta pots of tomatoes
Gave off their particular musty stink,
Fattened and turned from green to red.
Save for semen, there is nothing overt in the whole poem, but it is redolent of sex, possibility (albeit unrealised) and the ineluctable fecundity of life. The poet’s sister, wrapping herself up in published romance, away from her father’s possession, ripens like the tomatoes; the poet, allowing one small but startling image to burst through, enrobes all this sensuality in the calmness of print. The poem essentially performs its own meaning, underscoring the theme without need for drama. This note of understated skill marks the rest of the book.
A couple of pages later, we learn of an early job “in a seedy solicitor’s office”, dealing with “even seedier divorces, the details of which/I touch type on a clangy old Remington, suffering/a mix of horror and awful pornographic fascination/at the terrible endings of love” (‘Cousins I’). The writing itself is the opposite of pornographic. In ‘The Winter Pilgrim’, we feel Chekhov’s tender, lonely devotion in conducting “a census of every convict, hearing them/clanking the streets in their fetters”; in ‘Absent Friends’, the echoing sadness of persisting in the face of absence: “Every day/I feed you gold-fish flakes/of memory”. Hendry’s work is controlled, its surface calm and measured, but its depths turbulent, disturbing, dogged in probing what goes on beneath. “The thin monotonous knife/of persistence” (‘Gwen Boyt’) is its keynote.
This is not to say that ‘The Watching Stair’ is po-faced, or overly concerned with matters of gravity. There are moments of great fun and humour. ‘Leonard’, for instance, a sort of cat-sitting/allergy epic, winds up in both pathos and affectionate laughter:
He’s out to woo. I shut my bedroom door, barricade
The stairs. Unoffended he leaps the makeshift moat,
Is there waiting, top of the stairs, top of the morning
All purr and hope. Oh Leonard, oh fat ginger moggy,
Oh asthma attack on four legs. I’d love you if I could.
There are also moments of challenge, puzzlement and delight, making the collection overall both consistent and diverse. A poem such as ‘Abduction’ is hard to categorise, as are ‘Treasure’ and ‘Beyond’ (though none is difficult to read, and all rewarding). The first is an intricate piece of work comprising seven tercets and a final couplet, with an intricate rhyme scheme – another signal note: the poet can work in formal ways, as well as crystalline free verse – which belies its exploration of the mad impulses we all have, from time to time, in a range of situations. Here it’s an abduction-that-never-was, from the point of view of the abductor, entranced by temporary custody of an angelic child while its mother swims. Oddly, for so disturbing a theme, there is no sense of malice – the challenge comes from the poem striking a chord of recognition in the reader. Being human merely seems calm on the outside.
The second, short as ‘The Greenhouse’ and extraordinary in its own way, again bears reproducing in full:
Just a whisper
covetousness hissing in the ear
possession possession possession
the dragon curled on its hoard.
Let me not find it. The pirate stuff,
the heavy box lifted from under the sea,
the terrible weight of jewels,
Let me not find it.
Let me not get to the end of the rainbow.
Let it elude me.
At first like a fable, then increasingly a prayer (counterpointing the moving ‘Kaddish’ earlier in the book), the poem picks up the ongoing thread of persistence, revealing not obsession or mulishness but the deeply human need for longing and pursuit. Treasure found, after all, is game up – and what does lie at the end of the rainbow? Similarly, ‘Beyond’ puts flesh on the most skeletal of abstractions: the lovely “hoot/of a distant train”; “seascapes stretching out that didn’t stop at sky”; “the why/of flight … the gift of grace”.
Overall, ‘The Watching Stair’ perhaps does tease the reader a little, at the beginning – aha, a book of life unrolling from childhood to the end! – but instead goes on to deliver great riches of feeling, unexpected depths and meanings, and a jolt to the senses in every tightly-controlled poem. Its surfaces repay the reader’s touch, yielding to surprise and delight without ever breaking the poem’s calm skin. By collection’s end we are satisfied, and settling down to wait ourselves.
James Roderick Burns is the author of three short-form collections, most recently The Worksongs of the Worms (2018). His work has appeared in The Guardian, The North and The Scotsman. He lives in Edinburgh and serves as Deputy Registrar General for Scotland.
Ben Ray’s What I Heard on the Last Cassette Player in the World reviewed by Emma Lee
What I heard on the Last Cassette Player in the World by Ben Ray. £8.99. Indigo Dreams Publishing. ISBN 978-1-912876-09-9
Ben Ray loves words, sounds and a wry sense of humour. He is also concerned with transitions; people or objects that transgress boundaries, if only to explore how the boundary came to be there in the first place. Around 1970, the UK moved to a new decimal currency, in ‘The day they decimalised the words,’ Ben Ray plays with the idea of words being renewed as if old coins being replaced by new:
everyone waiting to exchange their old, jaded letters
for fresh syllables, crisp and hot off the dictionary.
I remember how they tasted of newness and possibility
as I tucked them neatly into the back of my throat.
The older generation, they didn’t understand –
they cried when they opened their mouths
and their old, familiar sounds wouldn’t work.
Old words still exist but are unearthed during clear outs or found on notes tucked into old books where the finder might:
see how those now-strange symbols danced
and feel a nagging, empty sadness
for everything that had been left unsaid.
Old coins or words are collected and preserved but it takes individual love to keep them rather than a collective institutional curation.
Some of Ben Ray’s boundaries are literal, in ‘The Landsker Line, ‘the distinct linguistic and cultural boundary between the Welsh-speaking areas of northern Pembrokeshire and the English-speaking areas of southern Pembrokeshire, an area known as Little England beyond Wales:
This is war on a geographical scale. Watch-tower words
crouch in map folds, consonants drawn –
and underneath, language forces earth together
in a border crossing of flint-filled, igneous Cymraeg
pushed up against English’s softer sedimentary curves.
Put the dictionary down, there is no escape.
In Newgale the frontier carves a village in half,
Brandy Brook an anglicised battle line
the next beach north a fighting statement: Pen-y-Cwm.
To trace it you will need a phrasebook
and the voice of your grandfather – time clots
and cloys in the breaths between sentences.
It explores how language can divide families and homes, not just drive up illogical barriers. Interspersed amongst the longer poems are a series of knee plays, which were very short comic performances done with minimal props to keep the audience entertained whilst scenery was changed behind the main curtain in a theatre, e.g. ‘Sc. II: Reasons to embrace the rising sea levels’:
Eventually, ITV screened ‘Quick, Build My Ark!’,
beating the BBC to the prime-time evening slot.
I guess the world really is coming to an end.
It was hosted by Ben Fogle, pulling a serious face
whilst telling a bland family from Doncaster
how to beat the ever-rising sea levels
with just these Ten Simple Steps.
It makes you want to walk into the sea, you say.
No need, I reply, letting the remote fall from the sofa
into the water.’
Even in fun there are barriers, divisions and battles. Climate change is referenced elsewhere too, in “And now we are inside the mind of Nicolae Ceaușescu” set in 2018 after the UN climate change talks:
the slight tremble in the hands we shake. No: it is for the
that after autumn, there will be a winter
that our worldview need not be worldwide
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx4.xxxxx without knowing
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxabout the jagged
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxbreathing of a world
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxlarger than we are
and our fears only have to be human
rebellious students, struggling economy
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx3.xxxxxto not have to think
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxabout the sea levels
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwhich rise to meet us
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xx2.xxxthat when we wake up
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxtomorrow there may be
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx1.xxxxxxxxxxno birds to sing.
It manages to be a poem that explores the narrow worldview of dictators and their inability to see that their own actions contribute to the destruction of the world they are so eager to conquer. Meanwhile those they seek to control are all too aware of the destructive nature of dictatorships but have no power to overthrow them.
The final, and title, poem harks back to the inital poem with its sense of things being archived and unearthed again. Here the last player is ‘a bird in a world that had no sky to spare/ mouth open for a dead language:,
it began to sing.
It sangxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxof Maorisxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxof engines thrumming
cockle-pickersxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxout on empty sandsxxxxxxxxxxxxxxI don’t understand
what arexxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxfish in the crackedxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx colour-seeped deep
sandpaper rustxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxvoices long gonexxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxhear this
men in shallowxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxgraves buildingsxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxso tall the sky is
pierced the skyxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxis too brightxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwhat so many gone
so manyxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwe did not thinkxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx here fingers on skin
clawingxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx holding knowingxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxlisten
The curator and I exchanged glances.
and I collected up the strands of tape …
With due reverence the cassette tape is reburied. The quote doesn’t go as far as the ending, but the poem ends without a full stop. There’s always a chance the tape will be recovered and listened to again.
What I hear on the last Cassette Player in the World is an exploration of boundaries between neighbourhoods, countries, people and the current day and past. With lashings of humour, it still makes serious points, allowing the reader to decide whether to read for fun or re-read and absorb the poems’ messages. Ben Ray demonstrates a love of words and desire to play with language, not to exclude readers but to communicate and engage.
Emma Lee’s most recent collection is Ghosts in the Desert (IDP, UK 2015), she co-edited Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge, (Five Leaves, UK, 2015), reviews for The Blue Nib, The High Window, The Journal, London Grip and Sabotage Reviews. She blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com. Her latest collection is The Significance of a Dress published by Arachne Press.