Bev Braune reviews Melissa Ashley

13 May 2004

the hospital for dolls by Melissa Ashley
Post Pressed, 2003

Melissa Ashley brings us a collection of stories considering realities, mythology and personal experience. While a veneer of the strange wraps her images, the translucence of their reality is distinctly prominent. This is a book about definition, about who defines what and how. The poems in Ashley's first volume of poetry are seriously concerned with corporeal actualities and female self-definition. Readers are called on to understand that the happenings referred to are relevant and real. We are asked to see, feel, talk-about and (perhaps) understand. She takes a Lacanian approach–comprehending experience is a slippery rhetorical matter.

While Ashley excavates the skeletons of misinformation, perversion, deception, delusion, she appears to be having a lot of fun breaking these down to their barest bones. The collection is appropriately divided into two sections–‘under the skin' and ‘the shape-changing muse'.

Ashley sets out to dissect defining moments–of death, language, methods of communication, intercourse as letters of demand. She attempts to delve into questions about where borders are a given but neighbouring territory is vague. She asks us to consider what poetry offers us as a language with regard to the articulation of thought, to how we speak of what we imagine ourselves to be. How do we make use of this ability in order to clarify how we speak about the world(s) we have created for ourselves?

All substantiations are set in this template of action. In the end, who owns the action? The observed? The self-appointed curators of the recorded action? All who remember it?

Definition is explored as lists or (language) options, summaries of differing cultural view-lists or alternate (/) slashes and [bracketted] notes. The use of metaphors and similes is only rarely uneven but nevertheless noticeable. For example, the eye metaphor and simile in ‘Backwards Poem', jackhammers' iron tusks in ‘Getting to Work', and the fist that opens ‘Anatomy of My Hysterical Womb' seem to be trying to work a little too hard.

It is not clear if readers should (or would want to) take her references in parenthesis further than the flash-card status. Some readers might find the brackets infuriating–they could be seen as an easy way to appear to consider matters in-depth when the door to them has only been rapped on, not opened. However, it is well taken that she could also be making the point that often the cursory relationship between ideological influence and its referential existence is used as a substitute for knowing the significance of that influence at the basic level of skin-and-bone.

The book paints rather grim pictures to explain how women ‘occur' in and outside of language. Among them are a ‘living' kumari, a mummifying grandmother, an anorexia-high teenager, a placenta lunch after a home birth, Medieval ‘hysterical' wombs, silicone breast implants, many-breasted goddesses (de-nippled busts or testicles?), language and force-feeding. What is sustained successfully is the use of fables and etymological extensions.

Maatrih maatah maatur maatrikah (Sanskrit) meter (Greek) mater matrix (Latin) mama mamma (Russian Lithuanian Hungarian Indonesian Hawaiian Chinook) matka matinka (Czech)…mama mzazi (Swahili)

‘The Origins of the Milky Way'

Philomela Knight's
favourite part of the week
is Wednesday morning –
just before her Dialectics
Tutorial meets. [Gk. dialektike:
Plato: art of formulating ideas.
Ln. dialectica: primary defn.:
Art of discussion & debate.]

‘Philomela Knight's Favourite Part of the Week'

How we speak of imagined and ideological worlds appears to have strong bearing on how we understand and how we speak about the ‘real' world. It all comes down to recognising, and putting to use, the phenomenon of reading imaginatively especially as this might enlighten the viewer's ability to read corridors of power. I liked Ashley's exploration of these ideas in ‘the imaginary-real', ‘this is not a poem about a woman turning into a flower', ‘kumari' and these:

States the Qur'an for example, human life is created out of a small quantity of sperm that has been poured out. Which can be read as half the world's oldest (Aristotle, Upanishads) and most arrogant error.

‘Anatomy of My Hysterical Womb'

The first time I saw Artemis of Ephesus she was topless. She had a skirt on (a diaphanous little number) and the twenty-eight boobs springing from her upper torso seemed flatter than a bowl of unwhipped eggwhites. We met between the pages of a book on archaeology. I didn't give her much thought (well maybe a bit, considering she had three rows of mammaries) until some years later when I encountered her again in a museum….

I squinted at the tiny white information card pinned on the wall, level with her outstretched arms. ‘Artemis of Ephesus. Ionic marble. 23cm. Circa 125-175AD. Sculptor unknown. The goddess, flanked by two dogs, is notable for the strings of bulls' testicles garlanding her upper body.'

‘Breast Diptych'

The significance of what might be understood by ‘sensible' (form) and ‘in-sensible' (ideational) space and time is often paramount to our sense of knowledge. Ashley's poems are as propositions considering what it might mean to focus on the body when it is just about crystal clear. In doing so I think she means to agree with Merleau-Ponty's perception phenomenology describing the body as the most ambiguous object within the realm of experience. What she appears to be saying is that it doesn't take much searching to find that the definition of (women's) bodies is given ambiguity even when clarity is sought. There is an attempt to make the combination of startling images into a scheme that may begin to hold up to the light the idea of what defines what and who we are.

She raises pointers to considerations of Aristotle's notions of form, truth and lie. ('that tree has cancer suggests Ginsberg' ('Ariel's Song')). Is truth in art a copy of indescribable ‘ideal truths' and art as fiction less true than a mundane record or document written by perceived power brokers? But, it won't be missed, too, that Ashley is doing some power-brokering herself. Alexander the Great is Alexander the Macedonian wanker ('Breast Diptych'). But there are some clearly provocative windows opened. Take, for instance, her white-stone skinned sculpture of Ah Xian's thinking monk existing in the same perceptual [poem] field as Freud's ego ('Integument').

Ashley concludes her collection by paying homage to her contemporaries while containing the likes of Aristotle and Freud to contexts of contemplation-in-error. Working through the arbitrariness of defining sign-formations, her explorations are grounded in grim pain. This saves the collection from being taken over by the lists and flashcards. This is largely so because she points us to a basic truth about a fundamental definition of bodies.

We often find ourselves saying we don't want to remember painful events. We issue refusals to define them. We do not readily recall a painful memory, not so much because we are afraid of bringing it from the past; we are afraid of putting it ahead of us–into the future. In this sense–that the book re-considers the pain of how women have viewed themselves in the past–Ashley essentially looks forward.

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Bev Braune

About Bev Braune


Dr Bev Braune is interested in practice-led research in poetry and theories of literature. She completed a Doctorate in Creative Arts (UOW, 1999) in the areas of Epic Poetry and Old Norse Poetry, its history, criticism and translations into English, with the first part of her poem Skulváði Úlfr. Her related areas of interest are reader theory and aesthetics. She brought out a book poems on the search for beauty entitled Camouflage. Excerpts of her thesis appeared in Cordite and other journals, such as Sulfur 44: Anglophone Poetry & Poetics Outside the US and UK and Salt 15: An ABC of Theory & Praxis.

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