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