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 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:

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.



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.


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.

Poetry venues, and poetic gems revisited: Anthony Costello


I keep meaning to write about small poetry venues…like the one I do the compereing for. I sort of found myself as an organiser of the Puzzle Hall Poets Live after being a happy customer for some time. In doing so, me and Bob Horne, who does all the bookings, more or less inherited a happy situation…a long established poetry club with well established regular guests and open-mic.ers like the lovely Genevieve Walsh (who also runs her own Spoken Weird club in Halifax). We inherited traditions like the Puzzle banner which has been signed by scores of guests…Andy MacMillan, Kim Moore, Helen Mort, Steve Ely among them. A banner made by the mum of Gaia Holmes who used to organise everything with Sean Bamfoth, and Freda Davies (who is still its presiding genius),before me and Bob took it on.

We didn’t have to do any ground work. It was all there for us. Neither of us knows what it takes to actually start a poetry club/venue from scratch. Here’s a promise; I’ll actually research a post that sets out to record the experience of a number of folk who did just that. Tell you what; I’ll do another about the business of starting a small poetry press from scratch. There. I can’t back out now. Hold me to it, won’t you.


Which brings me neatly to today’s returning guest poet, Anthony Costello, who has not only set up his own poetry event and kept it going for three years, but also launched an on-line poetry journal, The High Window now looking to its fourth issue. What has always struck me about both these ventures is their ambition. The Kultura evenings at the Kava (best coffee for leagues) include a Poetry Lecture. Anthony has each lecture transcribed and printed in a small pamphlet format…and he sells the pamphlet at the reading. I have to say (as the first guest lecturer) that I thought it wouldn’t work.  But it does. It might even end up as a book, which would be wonderful. The thing is, Kultura has its own distinct identity. And so does  The High Window about which Anthony wrote when the third issue appeared this year:

“We have been delighted with what appears to be a positive response to our quarterly journal. Judging by the reach of our occasional posts and the ‘likes’ on our webpage our readership is wide and growing fast. This issue contains part 2 of our feature on Italian poetry in translation, a specially commissioned feature on troubadour poetry, an essay celebrating the poetic impact made by the work of Ken Smith, six book reviews that shed light on six poets including Vona Groarke and Victoria Kennefick, and a feature exploring the work of the American poet, Philip Fried. Philip is one of four poets featuring in the High Window Press’s autumn publication, an anthology called Four American Poets. See the Press page for more details and a review of this book by the esteemed American poet, Thomas Lux.”

the link, if you’re interested, is 

“We have been impressed with the quality of work submitted.  We have been unable to publish good poems because of the constraints of space, but we found in the (often) cultured poems appearing here great poetic awareness, erudition and subject matter ranging from Gustave Mahler, elephants and salt. The natural world features in many poems but often nature in the form of spirit or animism. Undoubtedly there are searching and questioning poems in this issue, but the collective mood is one of earnestness, resolve and, perhaps, resolution…summed up in these lines:

to build some better notion of this life
of what it means and aims towards… [Maitreyabandhu]”

See what I mean about ambition? It’s a handsome journal, and you could do a lot worsse than check it out.

When Anthony was last a guest on the cobweb, in January 2015, I realised I needed to sort out my headlines for some of my posts. I wrote this:

It’s a roundabout way I’ve come to introduce tonight’s guest poet, Anthony Costello, and to introduce the cobweb’s new category of ‘the polished gem’. I’ve been caught out by calling some of my poets ‘undiscovered gems’ only to find out they are pretty well known. From now on, I’ll be more careful. The polished gem will be a cobweb category for poets who are reasonably well-known around my neck of the woods, but not necessarily in other parts of the country. They will be recent discoveries for me that I want to share.

Anthony was my first ‘Polished gem’ who had recently had his collection, The Mask, published. He’s added another title to it since: Angles and visions.


I wrote this about him at the time:

I met Anthony at the world-famous Puzzle Hall Poets when he signed up on the open mic., whose book launch I read a jazz poem at, and who invited me to guest at his own poetry venture at the Kava in Todmorden.

Three things struck me on that first meeting. The first was the silence that followed his poem ‘Feeling blue nr. Russell Square’). The second was that Anthony didn’t read the poem. He didn’t recite it. He said it, almost as if it was extempore, improvised, an entirely natural way of speaking. I’ve seen/heard him do this several times since. It never fails to set me back on my heels; it’s impressive, without any intention of seeming so. The third was the conversation we had afterwards. But here’s the poem first. Anthony apologised in advance in case we would find it sentimental, and explained it was for someone he loved who had died.

Feeling blue nr. Russell Square

for an Essex girl

A good place to feel blue, Bloomsbury

all those bookshops, all those cafes,

I imagine a life

of the could have been a writer kind

with coffee breaks to be a kind soul

talking with a tourist about jazz

transporting America’s luggage

along a charming London Road,

the trail of blue plaques – Lenin,

Roger Fry, Jerome K Jerome,


I’d travelled by Tube to the weald

to sprinkle ‘Country Meadow’ on the grave

I sat under pines and sweet chestnuts,

the trees friends and the morning sun

the dappled seeds’ friend.

I spoke to the grave in the present tense.

I put a name to love.

What caught me when I heard it was the voice. What catches me now when I read it is the memory of the quietness that settled around that poem when Anthony said it, and the deceptiveness of what looks simple. You don’t notice the repetition of ‘kind’ in the time it takes to say the poem, nor the shift of meaning that happens. You don’t notice the odd syntax that disturbs the even surface like barely suppressed grief. Anthony quotes Fiona Sampson’s editorial in Poem where she writes about the way mediocre poems may be improved by being read aloud. Now, I think some accents, some voices, can make anything sound good, but I don’t think this poem is mediocre, and I think it grows with being seen on the page. He thinks this poem is sentimental. I don’t.

I also wrote in that post about the eclecticism and intellectual range of Anthony’s writing. It’s very ambitious. I like that. I like the risks it involves, in much the same way as the idea of a poetry lecture on a Thursday night in Todmorden is risky. So let me share something of that range and its risks, with clips from Angles and Visions. I’ll let Anthony introduce them:

“It was a chance meeting with the poet Carola Luther that prompted my second collection Angles & Visions. Carola pointed out that some of the poems she had heard me read at poetry venues in the Calder Valley were about the cinema or used film references. I looked at my earlier poems contained inside three dusty memory sticks and noted that I had thirty poems that referenced films or inhabited personae relating to actors or were related to the movies in one way or another. In this sense, the poems in A&V were collated from the cutting room floor of previous attempts at formulating poetry pamphlets and collections. I then set about writing ten more poems with cinema as a theme, including The Battle of the Sexes and The Age Gap. There is no tour de force of a cinema poem in A&V that you can see in, say, a poem like Sean O’ Brien’s ‘Cahiers du Cinema’ (November), and the style of writing in A&V isn’t cinematic in the way Jorie Graham’s poems are said to be cinematic (i.e., constructed and framed like a director might present a film). My poems are portmanteau pieces, more Pret a Porter than My Darling Clementine (which is a classic film I love, by the way). Perhaps The Age Gap is a very short film? What do poetry and cinema have in common? A not inexhaustible list could include: images, the Unconscious, narrative, symbol, light that sometimes fails, language, sound, four edges to the frame…”

The age gap

Dressed in flannel & holding a boater
to his chest – a leading man entreating
a leading lady – he kisses her gloved hand
& cuts to the chase in a white convertible,
follows the script to a fork in the road
and a location scouted earlier, scene:
a picnic in meadowgrass, a crane shot,
the ‘moral code’ broken by a nineteen-
fifty something making hay.

The battle of the sexes

A strange treatment on love, with echoes
of Sirk and Rosselini: anachronistic sex
in a cable car above some alpine state,
a pencil-skirted, platinum blonde … American?
A dark-haired man in suit and tie … Italian?
She considers their fleeting romance ‘platonic’
but, empathetic to his character and need,
hands the gentleman a handkerchief.
She turns her back and he turns his,
as- cut to mise en scène – he masturbates.

As an act of kindness, it seems
enlightened, unlike the attempted rape
of Athena, the shot load of Hephaestus,
her foster-son, on her virgin’s thigh.
Wiped off and dropped to earth
on a scrap of wool, a boy germinates,
who is reared by Gaia and placed,
on Athena’s orders, into the box where
he grows to the length of a serpent:
frightening to death the women who lift
the lid and look inside, the kind of half-man
half-snake that curls around your neck.

Carola Luther wrote a review of Angles and visions which youll find on the Press page of The High Window website (link above). It’s accurate and generous, and I don’t really need to add to it…so there you are: homework. Now, what since then, apart from The High Window ?  Anthony reminds me that he’s a co-translator of Alain-Fournier:Poems due to be published by Carcanet in December, and also since the first polished gem article he’s written six book reviews for Sabotage Reviews, written essays, and lectured at the Bradford Literature Festival. He’s recently commmissioned and edited an anthology of contemporary American poetry – Four American Poets – which is receiving good reviews. He also posts a monthly blog on his

When he sent me the update on the last 20 months he added:

I haven’t written any new poems for nearly two years,  except ‘Election’ which I wrote a couple of weeks ago and which I am not sure about.

Well, I’m surprised he’s had time to write any poems at all. But I’m sure enough about this to say, thank you, Anthony. And then let it speak for itself.


May — and dandelion clocks
gather on the streets
like an ageing population,
celandine yield to buttercups
and a woodpecker appears
as if on cue, and pokes its beak
in the birdbox hole — fear grips
the household, the chicks
are circumscribed, will they heed
the routine song outside,
that blue call to fly?

What now? Well, I’m off to the Isle of Skye next Sunday. I’ve not been for two years, and it’s hard to describe how much I miss it. There’s no wifi where I’m going. No phone signal. unless you drive some distance up a big hill. So, no cobweb posts for two weeks. I shall miss you all when I remember. Otherwise, I’ll be looking at wind and weather and water and mountains, and I shall be inordinately happy. See you again in November xx