In The Anatomical Venus, Helen Ivory investigates how women have been treated and portrayed throughout history, from witches and parlour maids to the murdered and mutilated on our TV and cinema screens. It’s a history involving dolls and waxwork dummies, Victorian curiosities and women abandoned in asylums to be diagnosed with conditions which have their roots in the shackles that bind them.
In the first of a series of poems on the theme of the ‘wunderkammer’ (translated from German as a room of wonder), a woman in her own home is transformed into a curiosity to those on the outside vying for her attention 24/7. However, even though the woman of the poem is at home and on display to the outside world, she is reduced to ‘just another insomniac’. This poem skilfully focuses on the women in the windows on the streets of Amsterdam as well as those available via pay-per-view online peepshows without mentioning them. But it’s the men on the outside looking in who are jostling for attention which makes this poem even more powerful.
In Stripped, the messy kitchen of one wife becomes the unlikely venue for a burlesque show where a winged angel performs for her husband who has returned to her from ‘that girl’. But this seemingly weak woman, who has prepared a meal for her cheating other half, delivers a surprise ending to her performance: ‘Here’s your ring back, those asinine mix-tapes.’ It’s a poignant twist in the tale where an ostensibly subservient and knowing wife performs for her husband, only to land a symbolic knockout punch to put an end to their sham of a marriage.
Meanwhile, in Female Casebook 6 (St Andrew’s Asylum, 1898), a list poem is rendered quietly devastating as Ivory reveals a range of occupations once held by the asylum’s residents.
Wife of Carpenter
Wife of Labour’
And later in the list:
In The Parlour Maid, the ‘I’ of the poem is evidently a gentleman of means reporting on the strange behaviour of a domestic servant. There’s an echo of Charlotte Brontë’s madwoman in the attic, only the parlour maid in question is a mad woman of the kitchen, unravelling in each stanza as she goes about her daily chores.
at the time of her menses;
the very breed of lunacy
that can affect a household detrimentally.’
Towards the end of the poem, the maid cuts her hair and dresses in her master’s clothes. The poem concludes with her peeling ‘away her skin, like bark’. Ivory’s treatment of domestic subjugation is even more effective when observed via this persona poem. Written in the voice of a bewildered oppressor, clearly unaware that his treatment of his maid is the reason for her unravelling rather than her ‘menses’.
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.
Read this book. Then read it again. And again. With each reading, The Anatomical Venus will reveal something new, like all great books do.
By Mark Connors, Poetry Correspondent
The Anatomical Venus by Helen Ivory is published by Bloodaxe Books.