Little Venus by Carla Drysdale
“I’m going to give you three things to remember
for the rest of your life: rage, shame, and guilt”
--“St. Vincent’s Psychological Quiz” from Little Venus
Carla Drysdale has written Little Venus, a book of poetry that is tough to read. The book opens with a ten-year-old narrator, Little Venus, dreading her ride home. She is watching the lines in the road blip by as the horizon breaks under an orange sky. We feel dirtied by the ride, so Drysdale has done her job. A narrative confessional, the book is truly that -- the story of a young girl who endured incestuous advances and violations from her stepfather, Ray, throughout her childhood, and he is mentioned throughout most of the first two-thirds of the book with a livid rage that begs to pour onto the pages, until he no longer poses any threat to her -- until he is as harmless to her as colorless water. Her mother’s lack of awareness, her amnesia, makes her almost invisible in the book, a limp and powerless figure from the beginning, whose meatloaf is made by her daughter, Little Venus. Even beets ‘seethe’ at this dinner table.
feed on Mom’s meatloaf, daughter-made.
Beets seethe on a plate made to carry
his severed head.
and this line from the same poem:
Under her stepfather’s gaze
her feet burns shapes in the amber carpet
wherever she walks.
-- “Revenge Fantasy #1: Oh, To Chop With A Guillotine”
Then the next pages weave the reader back and forth between various ages of Little Venus, the injustices she incurs -- the beating she got on her “bare ass” by her stepfather while her mother watched at age four; the acting out by the little girl stealing her mother’s makeup and using it. Learning about sex from her stepfather, learning about her own power as a very young teen, when she tells him to go away and he does. All the things she is able to get away with -- things that should have been normal and innocent, but in fact, every single nuance in the book is informed and infused with sex, or something resembling sex. This poem is simple but powerful. Its message is inescapable, and life as a sexual object, or using implications of sex has been a way of life for the narrator.
I sat on the floor
knees tucked up,
sucking and chewing
that stolen candy bar. You
found me there,
mocking, one hip cocked.
Macho man, Stetson,
Leather belt, You
stood there winking,
the amber end of your
You caught me
it was okay this time,
my lips, my pout--
You even winked
at your little girl.
Little Venus did not understand her rage:
what made her steal her mother’s
blush. Then blue-eyed, I don’t know when
mother asked where her rouge had gone.
L.V. learned how to deceive her own
face in the mirror. Her Eyes.
Mother, do you see me?
Readers follow the fantasy of Little Venus, involving a teacher. In this poem, Little Venus uses the word “Lolita.” She wants to have sex with the teacher. She knows how to entice him. She has grown up with this knowledge, and the only power she’s had is the power of her body. The poem below is where the entire book turns, and the monster that is her stepfather turns into a pathetic and impotent man who follows the orders of a furious child. He could be blown away by her mere breath.
I breathe myself invisible in my queen-sized bed. Lilacs,
green vines climb the walls in the dark like marauding paper witnesses.
Beneath the comforter, without my consent, pink buds grow
on my chest like slow-rising sourdough buns I bake at 4-H Club.
The door’s hinges swivel. My eyelids slit open as he sits beside me
in his blue Wonder Bread shirt, Ray embroidered on the patch.
Then something I don’t understand happens: “Go away,” I whisper.
the struck beast of my stepfather leaves me. He goes, just like that,
-- “Lying Down, I Stand Up”
How do you review a book of poetry like this? Very gently and kindly. The voice in the beginning is told from the perspective of a little girl. The poetry matches the simplicity of that viewpoint; it is not sophisticated and I find that appropriate. It’s raw, it’s horrific -- it’s meant to be. It’s important to write that this book would make anyone, even the most outspoken feminist, cringe. It is real; this happens all the time. Carla Drysdale should be commended for such brutal and painful honestly. If we read it, we will flinch for her. It took an act of courage to publish her poetry.
There are a few poems that are not poems at all, but word-play, like a form she’s created to describe her feelings. Part Three gives way to her adult life, new, sexual, and rolls over to other concerns, her mother’s uterine cancer, he grandmother’s death, her grandfather’s aging. The poems are vague and a bit hard to follow, except for poems about her mother. This is very interesting. Suddenly, her mother is clear and real to the reader. Cancer survivor, and though this is good news, these small details within such a book, with such a title seems the wrong place for a book that suddenly drops the subject of incest and abuse and focuses instead on the rocking chair her grandfather sits in, the china her mother has. And this is not to say that it’s not a great subject for another book. I’d love to see this poet develop the sound and the music within her poetry, sharpen and hone it. She has the act of writing, of recording, and of witnessing down extremely well. I’d like to see her poetry mature and dazzle us with the same intensity that her rage has plowed into our psyche with this book. I look forward to that.
Reviewed by Kerri Buckley.
Poets’ Quarterly | October 2009.