Anatomize by Natasha Dennerstein

(Norfolk Press, 2015)

Review by Helen Vivienne Fletcher

Anatomize marries anatomy and personal narrative in this intelligent collection of poetry. In a moment of synchronicity, I began reading this collection in a hospital waiting room, without having realised how appropriate the content would be.

Across six sections, Natasha Dennerstein takes us beneath human skin, both metaphorically and literally. Each section focuses on a different area of the human body — skull & bones, internal organs, blood, skin, sense & sex, hair, and hair, teeth & nails. Each begins with a quote — from Shakespeare to bluegrass song lyrics, to New Zealand poetry. Dennerstein’s eclectic tastes and influences shine through here, informing the rest of the collection.

Initially, I found the themed nature of the poems distracting, with my attention diverted from the imagery and narrative of the pieces, landing instead on each new mention of bone or skull. I noticed this less as I read further into the collection, perhaps either because linking the poems to their themes became broader, less literal, in later sections, or simply because I had become more engaged in the work, letting go of the mechanics of how each poem was written.

Within the overall themes, Dennerstein introduces a range of subjects and voices. Most pieces offer a first person perspective and, one assumes, from Dennerstein’s own personal narrative. We also see the poet at various points in her life. For example, in “my year of trichotillomania”, we encounter a child version of Dennerstein. Through simple language and repetition, a convincing childlike voice is created.

twisting hair round and round
till I twist it right out
I don’t often go out
mommy doesn’t like me going out
cause of mommy’s secret cancer that
dares not mention its secret name
so I stay in my room with my secret
(“my year of trichotillomania”)

This continues throughout the piece, with each line taking a word from the previous one, creating a spiralling feeling that mimics confused thought patterns. Dennerstein shows a masterful attention to detail throughout the collection, especially in her use of repetition in sounds, lines, and single words.

Dennerstein also explores a range of poetic styles, from villanelles to prose poetry. This variation makes for a lively and engaging read, offering funny and thoughtful moments in turn, sometimes both within the same piece.

The personal, scientific, and fantastic often intermingle. For example, one might interpret the prose piece, “Read During the Donation”, as a straight recording of procedural instructions for blood donation, but only for the first three lines. The piece then changes tack with the statement: ‘As a general rule of thumb, most vampires seem to need at least four litres of fresh, high-quality blood per month…’. This quirky sense of humour makes the scientific aspects of the poem accessible, and the medical details are amusing, rather than a source of fear.

A word of warning: bodies — both functioning and malfunctioning — are explored in depth here. While there is nothing gruesome, those who feel queasy at the mention of blood and viscera may wish to avoid this one. For those with stronger stomachs, this is a clever, engaging book well worth reading. I think this is a collection that will have special appeal to those with their own malfunctioning bodies, and enjoyed by those lucky few whose corporeal vessels work as planned.