The Anatomical Venus–Helen Ivory

The Anatomical Venus by Helen Ivory. Bloodaxe Books, 2019. 64 pages. $9.95, paperback.

Gentlemen, the Venerina is a dissectible young woman

            presented voluptuously in her final moments.

               from The Little Venus

In the forty-eight poems that comprise Helen Ivory’s latest collection, she herself dissects society’s attitudes to women over the past 500-odd years, from the dark days of puritans and witches to our own (supposedly) enlightened era of AI and ex machina porn. The Anatomical Venus literally refers to an 18th Century wax effigy of an idealised woman, to be examined and deconstructed by (typically male) medical students, but also provides a neat metaphor for every doll, real or figurative, that has ever found itself marginalized, manipulated and misunderstood – or else confined to the eponymous house, in which

            A woman lies so tidily

            below the belly of her cooking range,

but

            A child presses fingers to a pattern of blood

            on the candy-stripe wallpaper,

            traces the outline of the pink blanket

            draped over the edge of the cot

            while her mother explains

            that something bad has happened

            in the dolls’ house.

               from The Dolls’ House Mysteries

          Helen Ivory is a feminist, an intellectual, an historian and (very nearly) a scientist, and yet above all she is an artist, not a polemicist, a poet, not a politician, and subject matter that might, in clumsier hands, have become mere manifesto is transformed into gorgeous riffs on a multifaceted theme where

            The rattle of clockwork

 fell about her feet

            as faces blazed down

            from every high place they’d been hiding.

            And the vesper, that evening star, rang out.

               from Chair

In The Anatomical Venus you will find wit and compassion, intelligence and research, realism and surrealism, allusion and illusion, history and myth. But most importantly, you will gain access to a carefully constructed work of poetry that quite simply needs to be read –

  In the third dream

  I am shining the silver

  of every smoke-tainted

  coffeehouse in Vienna.

  Spoons queue up –

  clever schoolboys

  on the first day of term –

  I polish their faces.

  All of the girl-children

  are folded lace parasols

  packed up in a casket

  at the back of the nursery.

     from Housewife Psychosis

In short, this is a wonderful (in the original sense of the word) collection, a literary wunderkammer, a work of serious intent and deft achievement that deserves an essay, not a review. The essays, I am sure, will be forthcoming. In the meantime, let this review suffice.

—Michael Paul Hogan

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