Vivisection of a Woman

It Takes Guts to Put Your Own on Display

This review was originally published March, 2019 for Vocal.Media. It may have been subject to some editing changes.

Affiliate links may be present in this review, meaning, at no additional cost to you, Berry’s Poetry Book Reviews receives a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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Christine E. Ray‘s first full poetry collection Composition of a Woman, published in 2018 by Sudden Denouement Publishing, is a fine addition to the universe of feminist poetry. It also must be said that Ray’s cover, designed by Mitch Green, is seducing with its outlines of supple flesh upon the deep, matte black canvas, the brilliant white of a solid female skeleton, which is topped by a vibrant, genteel flower. This makes the interior work, which reads as if a vivisection has been performed upon the speaker, all the more shocking to the reader beholding it. While the bones of this collection are indeed hardy, they are not all quite as elegant as the body depicted on the cover.

Ray’s poems are all fairly uniform and while a few are a bit pedestrian, they are all accessible. That is a highly commendable and appreciated feature of this text. Stark, the pieces are stripped down on the page, but by no means does the lack of punctuation or stylistic variety imply that these poems are devoid of any attitude or strong emotion. While punctuation throughout the work is essentially non-existent, the readability of the poems on display is still kept intact. Poetry is a weird and fluctuating world; such texts which allow newcomers to the craft to feel welcome are to be valued and enjoyed.

Composition of a Woman focuses not only on Ray’s study of the physical self, but also the politics of the female body. In “I Am” and “Lilith,” the speaker rejects the thought of living with the pull of the patriarchy’s gravity as it weighs down not only on the speaker’s body, but soul as well. Ray uses her poetry to act as her rebellion from those outdated laws of societal physics. Readers will study the creation of a new set of laws for the universe as the speaker states in “Smart Mouth,” “we do not wash / mouths out with soap/ in this house/ words of power/ are allowed.”

As one can imagine, a self inflicted vivisection can be a messy ordeal. While the work as a whole is a success there are bits of scar tissue, roughage on the page. The lines “she was complex, messy, containing/ multiple truths, not a singular one” could also refer to much of the text itself. Complex as the speaker, there is a myriad of poems tumbling together in this collection. It is difficult to read the book straight through as some of the pieces are stronger than others. One such poem which separates itself from the rest is, “Memorial.” In it, the speaker is brimming with pain when she cries, “I find my native tongue/ Inadequate to speak/ the true language of loss.” These touching lines cannot help but reach out to the reader. But with a turn of the page it is lost amidst the sinew and tissue; the readers must then search for more delectable moments such as “my unraveling /my disintegration/ rapid/ terrifying.”

Composition of a Woman is a unique creation unto itself, just as all human bodies are. Ray does not break her collection down into typical movements branded with roman numerals but as body parts beginning with Nerve, moving on to Brain, Breast, then Rib, until at last closing with Blood. Readers are invited to travel through the speaker’s body and in this way study her soul. Since this is an extensive journey, some readers may find it easier to skip about through the poems, flicking to pages that catch their eyes at the right time; however, it is strongly advised that readers spend time with “The Body Politic,” “My Right Foot,” “Smart Mouth,” and “Memorial.”

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