The Venus Papers (launch at Attenborough Arts Centre, Leicester, 29 Sept 2015)

-Reviewed by Sally Jack

Poems by Lydia Towsey
Paintings by Scott Bridgwood
Music by David Dhonau
Event also part of Everybody’s Reading festival

To quote Led Zeppelin, there was a whole lotta love in the performance space of Attenborough Arts Centre for the launch of Leicester-based writer Lydia Towsey’s first collection The Venus Papers (Burning Eye Books); love, not only because of the subject matter – Venus, Roman goddess of love, sex, fertility and femininity – but also the warmth generated by Lydia herself, always a generous and supportive writer.

Venus was ‘born of sea foam’ and (re)immortalised by Botticelli in the late 15th century as the classic nude as she arrives aboard a shell at a Cypriot beach in ‘The Birth of Venus’. The Venus Papers includes a 21 poem sequence (also ‘The Venus Papers’) which considers what might happen to our Roman goddess should she wash up on a UK beach in the 21st century: how would she be treated, where would she go, what might she wear?

VP Cover 2015 Burning EyeAn original concept, further enhanced by an exhibition of the same name by prize-winning figurative artist Scott Bridgwood (and Lydia’s partner). In a kind of reverse-ekphrasis, Scott has painted a series of reactions to Lydia’s poems; all absorbing studies of the female form.

Lydia is a skilled and experienced performance poet, immediately put to the test when Ruby Rose (her two month old baby), awoke and announced her presence during her mother’s first poem. Mother-in-law to the rescue, the evening continued.

Framed stage left by a magnificent Botticelli-style shell and accompanied stage right by cello and guitar maestro David Dhonau, Lydia shared journeys in time, language and experience – both personal and with a more global perspective.

The collection, described by David Belbin as “rhythmically tight”, is not only accessible on the page but equally good to hear with Lydia’s relaxed and charismatic delivery.

Reading first from the wider collection, ’The Don’t Look Dance’ covers a lot of ground: growing up in the ‘80s, mother and daughter relationships as well as poking at politics:

“and in the evenings
the way she’d stand
in front of the screen

like a lunar eclipse
a disturbing dream.

And behind her skirt
was Michael Buerk
in 1984 in Ethiopia.”

Turning to ‘The Venus Papers’ sequence, this was the main focus of the launch with Dhonau adding further layers to an already richly painted canvas. Bridgwood’s stunning artwork is displayed upstairs at the venue but was out of sight during the readings. This is perhaps due to logistical reasons, however, one of the paintings displayed on stage would have been a further enhancement to this already sensual journey.

That said, the combination of Lydia’s lyricism with Dhonau’s lilting music was certainly a satisfying sensory experience, particularly moving during ‘Incanto’ and here in ‘Love Poem to Botticelli’:

“Lying here beneath a sheet,
behind an open chink of sea –

a clearing – by a shaded tree,
mad with rum and darkened fields.

My spine’s rolled inside your ghost.
You’re the water. I’m the coast.”

With the ‘chilled’ guitar and merging of words and music I felt warm sun, lapping waves. Magic.

But Venus is an immigrant; who does she think she is, washing up on our shores without clothes, a job, a home? This is a clever re-imagining for our times as Venus experiences almost the full gamut of contemporary Britain as a new arrival: an interview with a Customs Officer, her treatment in the tabloids, shopping at Primark, diets, education. And she needs a job:

“The photographer adjusts a light,
lines a curve, peels a thigh,
tries to lift her breasts up high,

then passes her the card
of his favourite surgeon.”

(from ‘Venus Gets a Job as a Glamour Model’)

Post-readings we took wine and nibbles and viewed the paintings, some scored with fragments of their poem’s text but all working with or without the poems.

The whole evening and collections are very much about looking and ‘the gaze’, challenging how we look at women, at people and the world. This is a collection of clever, thought-provoking poetry which in turn, inspired a distinctive collection of art; all media to be seen, read, heard, felt; this was an evening of heightened sensuality.