Rachael Matthews reviews The Illustrated Woman by Helen Mort (Chatto & Windus, 2022)
There’s a hint of Helen Mort’s synaesthetic ambitions in the epigraph to this, her Forward Prize shortlisted third collection. “I touch her with the eyes of my skin” is a Natalie Diaz line and it sets up an expectation of sensuality and gaze. Mort wants us to look. Hard. Not far under the surface is its emotional lifeblood: beauty, identity, access, and control. We’ll be asked to imagine the tattooed body, the maternal body, and the sexual body – separately and together.
The book opens with a beckoning to come closer. The narrator wants to share something “half-intimate”, letting us know that what’s to come will be ordinary (cigarettes, lager, docks) and risky (cancer, fire, intensive care), and full of uncertainty about what is real or fake, worthless or valuable (“it might be pearl / […] it might be polished tin”).
There’s justified anger in this book. Mort has spoken publicly about her traumatic discovery of deepfake porn made with holiday photos stolen from her social media – some taken while pregnant – and morphed into violent, abusive images. Mort says the perpetrators even photoshopped some of her tattoos onto another’s woman’s body. “You might say she designed herself” says the title poem of its inked protagonist. It reads like a personal wish.
Just like human skin, the book has three parts: skin, skinless, and skinned. In the first, Mort sets out her iterative themes interwoven with a subjective history of tattoos, and a feminist history of (Western) tattooing. Mort is an accomplished researcher, and she’s mined the archives. There are real and imagined Victorian curiosities, all written about movingly in Mort’s benign third person. ’The Illustrated Woman’ of the title was found by a coroner to be entirely covered in tattoos: ears, labia, teeth, “It is as if // she wanted to leave no room / for anything to touch her.”
Just like human skin, the book has three parts: skin, skinless, and skinned. In the first, Mort sets out her iterative themes interwoven with a subjective history of tattoos, and a feminist history of (Western) tattooing
This first section ends with a delicate, almost free-associative defence of body art. The narrator of ‘On Permanence’ doesn’t want her body to be a “blank expression”. I love this. It’s a hope for embodied communication bearing the spectre of the still, unresponsive maternal face, heartbreakingly fearful to babies, and a characteristic of the overwhelmed, fearful new mother. A toddler then enters the poem and he’s a body artist too: “Each night, in the bath, / my two-year-old tries to colour me with his pastel crayons, / finishing mummy’s pictures.” Beautiful.
The next grouping is Sharon Olds-ian in its intimacy. There’s even an almost-ode to the poet’s breasts. Olds, now 80, is still tackling the same themes Mort is drawn to here, with recognition now of her privilege and the planet’s fragile state. Mort writes the body-story of her young child from the point of conception, through pregnancy, birth and onto speech. It’s an unboundaried, intensely vulnerable time which Mort nails: “the morning unambiguously bright, / as if the sun peeled off its rind.” What gets to us when we’re skinless? Everything: “[…] I wept like a child awake / past bedtime, willing the morning close.” All so tender but I wish, just sometimes, Mort would be less polite. Which is also to say I can’t to see where she goes in her next book.
There are some overused images in this collection, such as a cave of a mouth, the tracing of a shoulder. At least it wasn’t a clavicle – phew. There’s a classic my love for you is like … poem complete with sunset, reflections, graffiti, and more canals until Morrissey’s arch anti-romance drifted, unwanted, into my mind, “You have never been in love until you’ve seen the stars reflect in the reservoirs”. Her more playful moments with form tend to have mixed results poetically. She has cut up a Psychology Today article on what men unconsciously think about women with tattoos. Then there’s a found poem on the same subject called ‘Search’, using … umm … Google search results – all a bit too easy, and a little yesterday. Both strike me as call and response poems though, where Mort brackets or italicizes her rejoinders to the dominant (male) text. It’s payback time often in this collection, and I’m right there on her side.
Mort writes the body-story of her young child from the point of conception, through pregnancy, birth and onto speech. It’s an unboundaried, intensely vulnerable time which Mort nails
If the skin is – as French Psychoanalyst, Didier Anzieu theorized – our so-called psychic envelope, then the pornography Mort discovered online (image attached to image) seems to me to have been a dual assault. Beyond privacy breach it’s a symbolic attack on a primal demarcation: the boundary between self and other. Dual assault also because image theft runs counter to the creative act of tattooing which can involve powerful feelings of self-determination, and of restoring the body from something or someone. Mort uses the envelope metaphor in her poem ‘Rain Twice’, a delicate love song of sorts with a gorgeous fade-out of an almost-ending half way through, “too beautiful / to look straight at / so I look at you // the way rain / touches the roof / a thousand times / lightly”.
The third section of the book takes an existential turn towards close, but before that Mort hits us with her bravest, most upfront responses to digital manipulation. ’Deepfake: a pornographic ekphrastic’ contains the triumphant lines: “This is me using you hard in a poem / where I decided what’s shown”. Then comes ’This is wild’ – a stunning prose poem over seven pages separated into little sections by forward slashes that barely caused me pause through the second person narrative, spiked with with the shock of the faked images and efforts to process them. I’m loath to pick out any lines. It has to be experienced all together and all at once.
The collection ends with ‘Dear Body’, a slow trickle of couplets about a mother and her adult daughter in the shower together, one being washed and one tending while remembering “those fifteen years // when hating my body / meant fearing hers”. Mort in her own motherhood now, naturally looks for herself in her matrilineage, engaged in our Sisyphean task of trying to parse out what’s theirs and what’s ours, and what’s inevitably shared for good or ill. She sees “the scar I left on her stomach”, “the jut of her new hip” – this is an altered body too, but the cuts are consensual, and on the side of life.
This book is a painstaking and thorough ethnographic-like exploration. It’s a necessary over-writing of patriarchal scripts, but its deep-dug viscerality is also an antidote to the often worryingly blurred boundaries of the virtual
This book is a painstaking and thorough ethnographic-like exploration. It’s a necessary over-writing of patriarchal scripts, but its deep-dug viscerality is also an antidote to the often worryingly blurred boundaries of the virtual. Mort puts on show her shame, her pleasure, and the very fabric of her being. Of course, there’s healing and tending involved in having a tattoo – each poem is little act of reclamation and celebration: “let me be decorated” she declares in ‘On Permanence’.
Her next collection seems just under the surface of this one if she wants or needs to go there. Mort’s previous one, ‘No Map Could Show Them’, is about mark-making too, but uses the pathways of the landscape to explore the body. In it, women run, climb and find their way out of stereotypes, but it’s Mort who’s rescuing them (and, we might safely assume, herself).
Rachael Matthews’ debut poetry pamphlet do not be lulled by the dainty starlike blossom was published by The Emma Press in 2021. Her ancestors were circus performers and steel workers, and her poems explore working class family life and queer family-making. She’s a psychoanalytic psychotherapist with a PhD focusing on trauma and creativity, having begun her working life as a BBC radio journalist in London. She currently lives near Brighton with her wife and their baby daughter.