Aperture by Anna Leahy
Review by Deborah Hauser
Aperture by Anna Leahy aims to refocus the lens of history on “virgins and harlots” and demands that these women be seen. Five tightly structured sections and a coda shine a spotlight on the lives of women as diverse as the mothers left behind in the Wizard of Oz, Mary Todd Lincoln, Lizzie Siddal (photographer’s model), and Katherine Johnson (NASA mathematician).
In the first section, The Absent Mothers of the Wizard of Oz Speak Out, Leahy uses a variety of forms for each mother to tell the story of her missing child: interviews, letters, press statements, a sonnet, and even graffiti. In “Mrs. Gale’s Posthumous Television Interview” (9), Dorothy’s mother fills in the missing details of Dorothy’s childhood. Mrs. Gale died shortly after childbirth; Dorothy’s father remarried and started a new family. When asked “What do you think has become of your daughter?” her answer subverts Dorothy’s desire to return home to Kansas:
I hope she is traveling. That’s something I was never able
to do. I see no good reason why she should ever return
“After Assassination” is a seamlessly executed crown of sonnets in which Mary Todd Lincoln describes grief, “migraines and melancholy,” (14) and her struggle to resume managing her “own affairs.” (15) A well-placed epigraph from Joan Didion reminds the reader that the tragedy the nation suffered was highly personal for the widowed Mrs. Lincoln whose physical and emotional pain is recorded so intimately it almost feels like a violation of her privacy to read these poems.
The poems in the section titled “Lizzie Siddal Looks Back on Posing” tell the story of Siddal, a model best known for posing as Ophelia. Also a painter herself, Siddal asserts her agency as an artist in “On Sketching Pippa Passing the Loose Women (1855)”: (22) “I rendered the human form well, too.” and continues to parse the word “render”:
“to create a version
to give something in return
. . .
Rend: to slit, to split apart.”
Leahy dazzles the reader with wordplay that explores how we construct meaning when words mean more than one thing and demonstrates how multiple narratives exist simultaneously. “Laudanum” comments on Siddal’s death and the fine line between accidental overdose and suicide: (23)
. . . the difference between
intransitive and transitive,
between drop: slump, decline, fall, plunge
and drop: let go of, release.
Leahy presents various female saints with a modern twist in the section titled “Among Virgins and Harlots.” On first read, I wondered if all the epigraphs were necessary. Upon closer reading, I realized how skillfully Leahy uses them to place the characters in conversation each other and with contemporary women. In “Peep Show: Saint Agatha” (47), Agatha is connected with feminist Roxanne Gay. Gay’s assertion that the body not be legislated is juxtaposed with an erotic retelling of the torture of Saint Agatha whose breasts were excised:
her hands so full of herself
chiming this is all you have.
And the next, a man’s hands caress
each swollen areola. You are whole, Agatha.
The “Awash” section is unified by form and subject matter. Each poem is structured in indented tercets. Mermaids, Marie Curie, and a lighthouse keeper come together in these poems. “The Waves” (70) speaks not only for Virginia Woolf who longs “to make sense of herself,” but for all the women gathered here. “My Mother’s Mermaid” (71) connects the narrator’s mother to Esther Williams, (competitive swimmer and actress) a modern Aphrodite, who rises:
as if passion were technicolor myth,
as if the sea were the means
for the story I tell
instead of the story itself,
the thing that tells me.