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,
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.
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 –
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
Describe your creative space. Do you work at home, in public spaces, etc.?
I work at home. I share an office with my husband, also a writer as well as a visual artist and drummer. I sometimes wander off to other places to spread things out and get away from the interruptions of email. I sometimes write when I take a walk or when I travel. This is the time when I journal and jot down ideas and lines. I always keep a small notebook in my purse for ideas and a notepad by my bed. I like to mix things up a bit, but the revision stage always takes place at home.
What kind of materials do you use? Do you write by hand or type? What is your favorite writing utensil?
I do both. I usually start off writing in my journal. Once a rough draft emerges, I like to see and feel how it works typed, the way it ends up. I’ll tinker at the computer and then run off a copy to work on by hand again where I try to fine tune for style, sound, and detail. Then back to the computer, and this can go on many times before I’m done.
What is your routine for writing?
I try to write some every day whether it’s brainstorming something new, working on a rough draft, revising, or compiling a book. I also read every day and do research to be sure my details are right. As an editor myself, I realize how important it is to read the magazines before I submit because so much depends on editorial taste. I think many writers feel unnecessary rejection because they don’t do this first.
How long have you been writing? When did you start writing?
I have been writing all of my life. As a child I started writing very bad poems. My mother also wrote little poems for fun, so that’s probably what started me off, and then I found that I couldn’t stop. I took creative writing classes to learn the craft, and my MA focused in creative writing poetry. I still experiment with varying styles and keep finding new writers to read, so that I don’t always sound like the same song.
Who is your intended, or ideal, audience? Who do you write for?
I try to write for a universal audience. I want readers to be able to find themselves or relate to what I write about. Of course, the hope of most poets is that we move the reader. I always hope the reader will be moved in some way or think about what the lines mean beyond the literal. My poetry is usually layered with meaning, but the reader does not have to understand every layer to understand the poem.
What inspires you to write? If you are blocked, what do you do?
When I am blocked, I read my favorite writers—new material by them, and their work will often inspire me. I read on subjects I’d like to turn into poems. I take walks every morning on a trail with my dogs, and that’s reflective, good time to think and observe. Sometimes I try an exercise to get me to put something on paper or journal on a topic for a few minutes. I’ve taught workshops on Writers Block and have a variety of possible things the writer can do to help get going again. Sometimes, though, it’s a matter of going out and living a little more so that you have new material.
What other things do you do besides writing? Do you dance or play golf, etc.?
Two other loves in my life are dogs and dancing. I spend time with my dogs every day. I also dance most days, but it’s no more than turning on some music and moving. I also love and connect with nature. If I hadn’t been an English major, I think I might have become a naturalist. I have a number of nature poems. I collage. It’s also a good way to get my creative spirit going. I have two journals full of collages. Collaging is the opposite of writing poetry—I let the subconscious take over and don’t impose anything on the project. I assemble jewelry to give as gifts. I cook. I feel as creative in a kitchen as I do at writing. I view recipes as starts and think about ways to make the food taste better. I also love to invent without any recipes. I walk every day with my dogs, and I read. I also co-edit I-70 Review and volunteer at The Writers Place, where I serve as the chair of the programming committee. I teach writing workshops at all levels and ages, and I mentor writers and teachers. I worked as a full-time teacher at both the high school and college level as well.
What is your favorite part of the creative process?
The period where a rough draft starts shaping up into a better poem through revisions. Watching it turn into something is exciting.
What is your advice to aspiring writers?
Read the best writers. Decide who your favorites are and read their work. Study what they do. Read the magazines you aspire to publish in. See what they publish. Find a mentor or another writer who writes as well or better than you do and share your work. Even better, find two or three of them. When each is saying the same thing, you’ll know the problem of your work. Take a good creative writing class or two at a university if you haven’t already. Learn the craft. Workshops here and there may give you support, useful information, and help you network, but they don’t necessarily make you a better writer because the time you get to spend is so limited. A university class will force you to embrace writing for a long period of time on a daily basis. That is very helpful. I don’t think most writing groups work very well unless they are small and the members can stretch each other to better writing. A random group of people results in conflicting feedback–although this can be useful in other ways too. You always want someone to help you grow, help you rethink how you see. I also think that is true throughout a writer’s entire career. We always need valued writers we trust who can help us grow and tell us the truth about a poem.
The issue was published January 16, 2019. The sample is available here as a PDF to download.
The full PDF issue is available here from PayPal for $2, to help with funding contributor copies and mailing costs.
The optional theme is Lost and Found.
Contributors: Sudeep Adhikari, Charles Joseph Albert, Rey Armenteros, Jan Ball, Gary Beck, Susan P. Blevins, Michael K. Brantley, Judith Alexander Brice, Alexandra Brinkman, Frank De Canio, Aidan Coleman, Daniel de Culla, Lydia A. Cyrus, Nathan Dennis, Deborah H. Doolittle, Steven Goff, Dave Gregory, John Grey, Jack D. Harvey, Kevin Haslam, Michael Paul Hogan, Erica Michaels Hollander, Mark Hudson, Heikki Huotari, Nancy Byrne Iannucci, Jayant Kashyap, Wade McCullough, Don McLellan, Todd Mercer, Daniel Edward Moore, Donají Olmedo, Simon Perchik, Zachary A. Philips, Mari Posa, Eric Rasmussen, David Anthony Sam, J.B. Santillan, Marygrace Schumann, Sydnee Smailes, Ruben E. Smith, William L. Spencer, Penn Stewart, Lisa Stice, Ash Strange, Lee Triplett, Mitchell Waldman, Thomas Wattie, Richard Weaver, Theresa Williams, and Bill Wolak.
Reviews: Blunt Force by Gary Beck, The Remission of Order by Gary Beck, Overhead from Longing by Judith Alexander Brice, Bombing the Thinker by Darren C. Demaree, Lady, You Shot Me by Darren C. Demaree, Never One for Promises by Sarah A. Etlinger, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green, Mark the Dwarf by Jack D. Harvey, The Frayed Edge of Memory by James Croal Jackson, Mishigamaa by Robert Krantz, Firefly: Big Damn Hero by James Lovegrove, I Exist. Therefore I Am by Shirani Rajapakse, Final Inventory by David Anthony Sam, and Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running With My Dog Brought Me Back From the Brink by Nita Sweeney.