Catching up: Helen Ivory’s “The Anatomical Venus”

I can’t keep up. Here’s a book published in 2019, and I’m only just getting round to it. In the poetry world that churns out collections and pamphlets and chapbooks by the thousand, 2019 might as well be the remote past. It’s like when I used to subscribe to Q magazine, and attempted to keep up with reviews of hundreds of new albums a month, all of which were the next Big Thing. And then they weren’t. It was pointless. I stopped trying.

With poetry I more and more rely on word of mouth, which sort of dries up when there are no readings to go to, no courses where people say, “have you read…?”. Everyone loses out.

And what if you’ve just published something. Imagine, you struggle, and work, and rework, and submit, and go to open mics, and one day someone offers to publish your first pamphlet/chapbook/whatever. There’s no feeling quite like it. But it happens in the middle of a pandemic, so you can’t go to readings and open mics and get the chance to sell your book (most of my sales have been on the back of readings), and you can’t charge your batteries on that energy, and gradually you see the wave’s subsided under you, and you’re floating in dead water. And you have books you can’t shift.

Now, imagine that poetry is your business, your profession. You rely on readings, on running courses, on tutoring…and on the back of that you go on writing, and hopefully selling your work. That’s how it is. Your job. Lockdown leaves you in dead water just as surely as if being published was a hobby. A nice one. But a sideline. Meanwhile, The Anatomical Venus should be flying off the shelves and hoovering up the accolades and starring at festivals. If you’ve bought it already you’ll need no telling. And if you haven’t, I hope the next few minutes will persuade you your life is incomplete till you do.

Sometimes a poem, a book, a voice speaks to you, makes you sit up. The Anatomical Venus does that for me, to me, no question. It’s full of what Clive James calls ‘the moments that draw you in’, when you recognise a poem as a poem, when it says that this is what it is. Something that memorises itself as you speak it, something that hooks you and reels you in. Sometimes it’s the sheer zestfulness of the thing, the unabashed love of language, its quirks and textures that are the stuff of en-chantment and incantation. So, yes, that. But also precision, the accurate control of the medium, a sure ear and eye, all that, and passion too. I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that Helen Ivory has all of that.

When I first read The Anatomical Venus I’d taken it with me to hospital . A session of chemotherapy is, counterintuitively, a good place to read poetry in. Quiet and peaceful as a Quaker meeting. It does mean you can’t read aloud, but this collection has a voice you can hear in your head. I highlighted hook after hook after hook…like these:

These should give you a taste for the language of the collection. A feast of crafted imagery, which may be visual , like the mendicant dark, or auditory, like the whispering moth (I love that ‘snick’), true and witty, like the spoons, textured (shockingly) like the ransacked eel…what a word, ransacked .., epic and spacious, like the sail of seraphs, and so on. There’s an accurate ear for consonants, and a precise understanding of verbs and what they can do. And then, of course, there’s the black irony of her demolition of the Puritan husband who has his wife burned as a witch

he had witnessed Sarah transmute/ from flesh into fire/heard the spirits/scream out of her

He can disguise the barbarity of the deed in the language of his religion and law, but the nightmares ride him and ride him though she is dead, and she will not be exorcised

What else? This is a passionately felt collection that quietly seethes with righteous anger and pity, at the world of women who have too often found their only protest in hurting themselves; the ones who resisted, burned or drowned as witches, force-fed as suffragettes, or diagnosed as mad, and treated accordingly. By men. One way and another , this raises an issue that chronically bothers me. From time to time I try to write about it on the cobweb, this notion that women experience the world differently from me, from men. I sometimes use a quotation from one of my favourite novelists to shine a light on what I mean. She’s writing about the human condition; I narrow the focus for the sake of argument:

I wrote about this, not too coherently, 6 or 7 years ago. (here’s a link if you’re interested https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2014/12/28/the-other-side-of-silence/). It’s something I go on trying to tease out. I often say I was brought up by women, and in the company of women. When I was small, by the time my dad came home from work, I was in bed. I could wander into the houses of neighbours and eavesdrop uncomprehending on ‘women’s talk’ as I sat under a table. I went to my mother’s embroidery classes in a school library, where I sat on the floor and pretended to read. Or I’d be taken to visit a great aunt in a segregated old folk’s home, full of old ladies in various stages of sparkiness and confusion. All my Primary school teachers were women. A boys’ grammar school and an all male college made no real dent on the impact of my growing up. When I became a teacher, it was women teachers who gave me books like Dale Spender’s Man Made language, and Elaine Morgan’s The descent of woman; it was Miss lamb who gave me Melanie Klein’s Mathematics and Western Culture.

This is what I wrote in that earlier blog post.

“It’s not an accident that some of the poems that have moved me most of late are written by women. It’s not an accident, either, that I’ve been absorbed in stories of metamorphosis, particularly in retellings of Ovid. What has been consistent in this is the feeling that women have access to knowledge that men can’t have. The feeling that women are metamorphic and tidal, that they go through changes that a man can’t imagine, and that this makes them capable of different modes of imagining. It doesn’t mean that all of them can articulate it, or are necessarily consciously aware of it. But when they are the results are powerful and unnerving. When I re-read Ted Hughes’ retellings of Ovid, and even Robin Robertson [in ‘Swithering’] what I think is that these are external. Powerful, but externally dramatised. I’m struggling to articulate it. What I find in, say, Fiona Benson, is a kind of emotional fluidity and in Hughes and Robertson a sort of epic stiffness, like some grandiose Renaissance paintings.”

I’ll leave it there. I’m struggling. But it lies behind there immediacy of the way I respond to Helen Ivory’s The Anatomical Venus.. And it’s about time I cracked on and shared it with you. Indeed, if you don’t already know her, I’d better introduce her.

“Helen is a poet and visual artist. She edits the webzine Ink Sweat and Tears and is tutor and Course Director for the UEA/National Centre for Writing online creative writing programme.

She has won an Eric Gregory Award and her fifth Bloodaxe Books collection, The Anatomical Venus was short-listed for the East Anglian Book Awards (2019) and won the East Anglian Writers ‘By the Cover’ Award (EABA 2019). The Anatomical Venus examines how women have been portrayed as ‘other’; as witches; as hysterics with wandering wombs and as beautiful corpses cast in wax, or on mortuary slabs in TV box sets, is available here: www.bloodaxebooks.com

Fool’s World a collaborative Tarot with the  artist Tom de Freston (Gatehouse Press) won the 2016 Saboteur Award for Best Collaborative Work.  Hear What the Moon Told Me, a book of collage/ mixed media/ acrylic painted poems was published in 2016 by Knives Forks and Spoons Press, and a chapbook Maps of the Abandoned City was published in January 2019 by SurVision. She lives in Norwich with her husband, the poet Martin Figura.”

And she makes poppets. I can’t resist this. Goody Ivory makes poppets. She’s quite shameless about it. She said in an interview with Abigail Morley earlier this year: ..

The poppets I make have red felt hearts, they are for me, representations of love, light and hope – the spirit of Spring.

Now, as a teenage boy, I was fascinated by the film and fiction of witchcraft. By the shameless plagiarist, Dennis Wheatley and by the fraudulent faux-priest Montague Summers who wrote a tin-foil hat History of witchcraft and demonology in 1928, with the following introduction:

In the following pages I have endeavoured to show the witch as she really was – an evil liver: a social pest and parasite: the devotee of a loathly and obscene creed: an adept at poisoning, blackmail, and other creeping crimes: a member of a powerful secret organisation inimical to Church and State: a blasphemer in word and deed, swaying the villagers by terror and superstition: a charlatan and a quack sometimes: a bawd: an abortionist: the dark counsellor of lewd court ladies and adulterous gallants: a minister to vice and inconceivable corruption, battening upon the filth and foulest passions of the age.

1928! It’s as though Matthew Hopkins the Witchfinder (who also features in The Anatomical Venus) is alive and well when my father’s already in his 20’s, and Freud’s accounts of female ‘hysteria’ are by now deep rooted. Summers also happens to be the author of the first English translation of the 16thC Malleus Maleficorum, a witch-finders’ hand book. One of its authors, the Rev Heinrich Kramer, is addressed by one of his victims in another poem in the collection which ruthlessly exposes and denounces the ways in which women are suppressed over the centuries, by patriarchal religions and by ‘medicine’. They are witches or they are insane. Either way they have to be silenced.

Mark Connors wrote this in a review for Northern Soul (March 2020)

….The Anatomical Venus is an often disturbing journey of how women have been treated by men through the ages. It is historical reportage. It is controlled and focused anger without sentiment. It is subjugation and oppression laid bare in subtle and often mesmerising ways. It is Angela Carter’s eye meets Elaine Showalter’s brain. It is dark, upsetting and erotic. And it’s laced with magic from the first page until the last. It’s the suffering of women, and women fighting back in delicious and unusual ways. It says as much, if not more, about men throughout history as it does about women.

The phrase I especially like is ‘historical reportage’. It’s hard to do justice to the sheer amount of research that went into this collection, and to the ease with which it carries its acquired knowledge. Set this alongside the imaginative engagement with her characters, the shapeshifting monologues, the dexterity of the writing, its richness and variety of rhythms, and you have a collection you’ll keep re-reading, and which will reveal new treasures every time.

Helen has lately been posting poems from it on her Facebook page. Lots of them. I’ve chosen four to illustrate the qualities of The Anatomical Venus . The first one is the poems I’ve returned to most often

.

If I ever have a tattoo, it will be a quotation from Tony Harrison. “The tongueless man gets his land took”. Or “articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting” . It was Tony Harrison who coined that phrase ‘the branks of condescension’…..the condescension, say, of his English teacher who derided his Beeston accent, and tried to silence it with the muffling blanket of RP.. A branks is another name for the scold’s bridle that might be used to publicly humiliate a ‘nagging woman’.

I like everything about this poem. I’m a sucker for the well-made dramatic monologue, and this is exceptionally well-made. I like the defiance of it that struggles past the iron restrain of the pricking gag. I like the way the shape enacts the struggle . I like the sheer surprise of that verb ‘fell’, and the way ‘anchoress’ brings me up short to haver between anchorite and anchor. Here’s a sybil who won’t be silenced though her tongue bleeds. The last line is a martyr’s banner. Stunning.

The next poem is a deceptively simple telling of what could be a myth as old as the universe. At the same time, it’s entirely contemporary in its perspective. It’s entirely matter of fact in its account of a fall from grace, and a fall from heaven (or Olympus) into the glaring antiseptic light of of what may be a psychiatric ward, where the goddess (Demeter? Gaia?) fruitful and full of grace, is grown thin as a whistle and slices her belly with a shiv she’s made from the moon. A thin sickle blade. How beautifully exact this image is, how cold.

..

Curse

The goddess bled into the earth

and babies formed 

congealed and glorious 

like fleshy fruit.

.

And life went on like this

with beads and lunar counting

until the wild dogs hit

with their beastly appetites.

.

Hence, girls were strung up in cages 

when they waxed unclean,

lest milk turn to vinegar

or sea lay siege to fishermen.

.

And now the goddess,

thin as a whistle

hugs the hospital blanket

to her waning self.

.

Each glaring day on the ward

she makes a shiv from the moon

and cuts a tidy red line

into the narrow rise of her belly. 

My third choice is a tad self-indulgent. Someone bought me a copy of Old Peter’s Russian tales when I was eight, and introduced me to Baba Yaga and her iron teeth. And also to the feisty heroine who outsmarts her through kindness. And, quite simply, this poem both puzzles and entertains me. The title is the hook. The where and the when are flexible, but it feels very like a synthesis of Blair Witch project, accounts of backwoods survivalists, Chechen forests and Scandi Noir newsrooms. The narrator’s voice keep the reader slightly off-balance with the combination of the casual contemporary ( Word is…) the slightly archaic (her eyebrows/ foster a dire and savage air), the patterning and texture (the talking dolls; the lantern skulls; /an oven chocked with teeth), the unexpected switching of verbs for adjectives and vice versa (tender/babble) It’s quirky and gleeful, and should be read aloud. Try to find the right voice. It’s harder than you think. If not impossible.

.

Baba Yaga No Longer Reads the News

Since decommissioned 

she’s a dug-out in the woods.

Word is, she’s quit electrolysis 

so her stubbled legs resemble chicken flesh

and likewise her eyebrows

foster a dire and savage air. 

.

She creeps through the spinney

zealous as ground frost 

scouring for morsels to tender her pot. 

She is a fallow vessel

who deigned to grey,

a babble word.

.

Now a rumour of an intern eaten whole;

young reporters always hustling for a story:

the talking dolls; the lantern skulls; 

an oven chocked with teeth;

and how she is protected 

by the devil’s spitting geese.

.

.

My final choice, is Anger in Ladies &c. A battle cry for the monstrous regiments . It speaks for itself, with a swagger, with a fist clenched. The last line made me laugh out loud , and then realise that maybe the revolution will make no distinction between me and Mr Dunton, and indeed, why should it, me and my mansplaining.

.

.

So…thank you Helen Ivory for being our guest and sharing these poems with us. It’s taken me far too long to finally write this, and there’s a great deal more to be said. Fortunately, a lot of that is available via interviews Helen’s given since the book was published. And here are the links.

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https://thehighwindowpress.com/2019/05/16/wunderkammer-with-black-coffee-helen-ivory-interviewed-by-william-bedford/

https://poetrynonstop.com/2020/11/05/episode-28-helen-ivory-the-anatomical-venus/

https://www.shantiarts.co/SPAQ/SPAQ36/files/hogan.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2Uus56mdpKG0cPqrFWHMOAtD4jyHe_pVjKmm1_-5Bntl99fYvPqmrG5jI

Finally. If you don’t yet own a copy of The Anatomical Venus, then it’s high time you did. Buy from Bloodaxe, direct. Or Amazon, if you must. Or why not message Helen via Facebook. She’ll probably sign a copy for you.

2 thoughts on “Catching up: Helen Ivory’s “The Anatomical Venus”

  1. Thanks for reminding us of the splendour of Helen’s poetry. I heard her read at Wordspace in Horsforth (Leeds) in the heady days you’ve written about and was blown away then.

    Like

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