The Anatomical Venus by Helen Ivory

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Helen Ivory’s fifth collection from Bloodaxe, ‘The Anatomical Venus’ is a stark and possessing exhibition of female abuse throughout history. In these poems we witness women as ‘other’, she or her who is alienated for her body’s ability to birth and bleed, and objectified for her gender aesthetics. We find here the Venus, the doll, the poppet, the prisoner, laid out and on display museum-style. Ivory draws on medical notes, asylum records, unnecessary medical procedures through to actual tools of torture, including a scold’s bridle and corset. Reader is cunningly tri-positioned as voyeur, accomplice and witness who gaze in on Ivory’s cabinets of torturous curiosity, her gory wunderkammer, which reveal a female treatment so gristly we want to look away but feel morally compelled to see it through. These are poems steeped with all the stereotypical tannin of fairytales and folklore: the witch, the hag, the whore, the mistress, the mother, the hysterical, their damned faces peering out darkly from the windows of Ivory’s uncanny doll’s house.

Structurally, each poem explores a different type of female harm from witch hunting to incarceration through to torture and purging. Ivory employs an extensive variety of artefacts, her evidence, if you like, which accumulates atrocities in a slow white burn to catalogue the many cruel and ludicrous ways men have treated women. Historical it may well be but this collection’s contemporary relevance is searing. Potency lies in Ivory’s ability to draw brilliant lines of light between so many constellations of female harm with an intolerable clarity which maps out how history has shaped the feminine trope and the representation of women today. As the collection builds, it emerges how patriarchal feminine ideals concerned with reducing the size and space women accommodate, both bodily and corporeally, are inextricably twined with female self-harm and fragile self-esteem.

The book takes its title from the 18th century Venus: a life sized, dissectible wax woman designed for her internal study. These models, whilst arguably for anatomical purposes, became pay-per-view spectacles for men to rummage inside, pulling out breast and womb with foetus-still-intact in a macabre unveiling of all the female’s unseen parts which make her ‘other.’  ‘The Little Venus’ is based on the collection’s title and features a doll designed to male specification: ‘She has been cast for your instruction – see, her organs are dislocated layer by layer’, here, readers become witness to a woman designed for dismemberment for male gratification. An intimate authorial voice is at play which errs on the cusp of subservience and mockery, a voice which addresses men collectively but only ever refers to the third-person ‘she’ or ‘her’ in refusal of any named identification. Women are literally reduced to the sum of her parts. We are reminded that even at the point of death, ‘…how charming the rope of pearls at the throat – the throat itself a repository for kisses’ that woman must be seen to be aesthetically pleasing – and, worse still, eroticised in a dark voyeurism which straddles the boundaries of objectification and fetishism.  The closing line, though, delivers its spear with a pointed switch in power politics where female charge is potent enough even to transcend death. Man is urged to play at being mother, to take out her womb and hold the foetus to him: ‘Cradle it so you might feel a waxen effigy of life’ Despite her undoing, Venus gets the last laugh for man is drawn to her for her alien capacity to gestate but he can only imagine how it might feel to sustain a life inside him.

‘Housewife Psychosis’ reconstructs the dreams of Katherine Bauer from her own first person perspective rather than Freud’s third person psychoanalysis. This technique parallels with Helene Cixous’, ‘Portrait of Dora’ in which female hysteria is perceived to be a mode of resistance to patriarchal systems and power is redistributed. Ivory frames space as sought after ‘but the will of the window is stronger’ Despite Bauer’s confinement in the domestic space, she harbours power in her domestic duties: ‘A mound of ashes / in a morning room corner / puts on my father’s coat’ and she sweeps away his ashes until her hands are ‘blistered raw’ in a cleansing act of erasure.  Bauer seeks freedom and alternative lifestyles in her household chores – spoons she polishes become school children’s faces and she pretends to be a barista wiping cutlery in Venetian coffeehouses. Despite her domestic incarceration, her mind transcends physical domain. The concluding line ‘I saw my outline sketched/ by a careless hand’ sees Bauer challenge Freud’s psychoanalytic profiling of her. Readers, she says, he got me wrong.

One might assume that when confronted with such atrocities, a poet might lose her sense of humour. Not so, here. Ivory has a sense of play that is both restorative and beguiling, and darkly laced throughout. These women may be the under dogs, the poppets, the puppets but they won’t sit still for their master. In Stripped, a woman gets vengeance on her cheating husband by taking herself apart and handing him over her bones: ‘I’ll tear out a rib, return it on an oval plate.’ In ‘Dissecting Venus’, the recently deceased venus ‘pulls back the drapery of her flesh’ in a macabre skinning of self that passes the knife back to the female.

Eating disorders and the space women occupy is a predominant theme weaved throughout. We find women in the confines of corsets who cannot eat a bite, women hospitalised and growing thinner, women being purged to cleanse them of evil – practices not only concerned with the restriction of food but whose outcomes ensure women are diminished so much so that they physically occupy less social space. ‘Poppet’ explores the beauty industry’s rituals of self-harm which influence women to starve and sculpt themselves in a bid to achieve the socially perpetuated feminine ideal still so pervasive today.

Ivory’s use of archaic language is dynamic. Not only does she transport reader to Victorian past where there are sculleries and grimalkin, goosefeathers and leeches, cheesecloth and pantries, but hers is imagery that comes fat and full in arrangements which make the abstract concrete. In All The Suckling Imps, a woman goes to bed with her ‘body a roost of convulsions.’ There is  ‘a smother of crows’ ‘a scabrous dog cold as clay’ and ‘a palaver of mice’, word groups with enough sibilance to make one salivate.

This collection is a stunningly curated linguistic exhibition on the historical abuse of women. Enticing and yet flinching, this disquieting house of dolls makes abuse seen and urges us to revaluate why women are where they are now, and it does so with an eerie and unforgettable beauty.

The Anatomical Venus is published by Bloodaxe Books and is available here.

Helen Ivory

Helen Ivory is a poet and visual artist. She edits the webzine Ink Sweat and Tears, and is a lecturer for the UEA/National Centre for Writing online creative writing programme. She has published five collections with Bloodaxe Books: The Double Life of Clocks (2002), The Dog in the Sky (2006), The Breakfast Machine (2010), Waiting for Bluebeard (2013) and The Anatomical Venus (2019) . Fool’s World, a collaborative Tarot with artist Tom de Freston (Gatehouse Press), won the 2016 Saboteur Best Collaborative Work award. A book of collage/ mixed media poems, Hear What the Moon Told Me, was published KFS in 2017, and a chapbook, Maps of the Abandoned City, by SurVision in 2019. The Anatomical Venus (Bloodaxe Books, 2019) was shortlisted for the poetry category of the East Anglian Book Awards 2019.  The cover of The Anatomical Venus, which features her own artwork, won the East Anglian Writers Book by the Cover Award (East Anglian Book Awards 2019). She lives in Norwich.

Her website is www.helenivory.co.uk.

Reviewed by Rachael Smart

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