Natalie Eilbert's "The Death and Life of the Venus City," First Runner-Up 2012

Today we're celebrating Natalie Eilbert's manuscript, The Death and Life of the Venus City, selected by judge Brian Teare as the first runner-up of our inaugural feminist chapbook contest. Natalie's manuscript begins with these powerful lines from the title poem:

"I am sick of drawing this connection: there is no document of civilization that isn’t also its ruins. Ask for rapture, get a god. Ask for Venus, private stones winter underground. Today I am vain enough in my commute to peak my face in the train window, overhear a man say you can tell the pretty ones from the ugly under subway fluorescence and am here to tell you I will never be this man’s wife, understand. A woman’s age is hidden in her hands, I am again told."

Brian Teare said of the manuscript:

Are certain forms of solitude, disappointment, frustration, anxiety and melancholy inherently gendered? The Life and Death of the Venus City argues for an explicitly feminist engagement with negative affect and emotion, revisiting lyric subjectivity in order to ask difficult questions about the experience of being a woman in the United States of late capitalism. Using the Venus of Willendorf as a kind of talisman, the poems conjure a narrative of women’s suffering across histories and cultures: “Her purpose/was her mimesis of riches, the fat breasts like our towers…The sick glint of empire.” And yet what makes these poems successful is that their contemporaneity resists and at times critiques the gender essentialisms they venture, showing how any narrative we might make of the Venus is always already doomed: “There is no document/of civilization that isn’t also its ruins.” The black sun that shines over the devastations of these richly allusive poems might make us wince and squint, but their ferocious address to the Venus remains remarkable: “If I am angry/it is because I miss no one the way I miss being monstrous/and small and mindless like you.” Craft as adamant, intelligent and as committed as this guarantees a reader leaves these poems, sees how the towers of the Venus City rise around her, and again feels what it means to know a civilization “can be both the animal and what kills it."

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In an artist's statement about the manuscript, Natalie explained the combination of ancient, modern, and urban influences that informed the poems, including the focus on "Venus" herself:

Ancient artifacts are special when they can also serve as evidence for human development. When archeologists began to find a certain family of figurines sprawling Europe and Asia, there was a pattern: all the figurines depicted women and mostly, they were discovered in fragments. They were dubbed the “Venus” figurines, a wishful Western branding not to be lost in lyric examination. I became obsessed with the “Venus” of Willendorf, one of the only figurines from this series found whole, a figurine that was all exaggerated woman from the pronounced hips, heavy belly and breasts, and lest we move our eyes away too quickly, the incised vaginal region. We see this figurine and begin—immediately—to wonder the ideals of beauty, an outrageous assumption only bolstered by its male-given name “Venus.”

For the purposes of my ideas as a woman in America struggling through so many expectations and of those ideas vis-à-vis poetry, I thought it was necessary to explore the very process that gave wind to my obsessions in the first place. The titular poem in the chapbook, "The Death and Life of the Venus City," is a fat, seven-page poem that attempts to swirl together all the anxieties as well as the literature pored over that went into this particular ekphrastic. I wanted to think of the “Venus” of Willendorf in terms of our modern cities, as one cannot divorce the figurines from their associations with civilizations. I dialogued with Jane Jacobs’ excellent book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which lent to the name of the chapbook. For the larger poem and subsequent poems, Jacobs’ work on municipal development had a metonymic effect on how I engaged with the lyric. What she says about old, possibly abandoned buildings, I can certainly relate it to poetry, especially poetry communicating to an ancient world: “It has been put to a use that might otherwise be unborn."

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We remain great fans of Natalie's work. Visit her here, and make sure to check out her new lit mag, the Atlas Review.

Natalie Eilbert received her MFA from Columbia University, where she was awarded the Linda Corrente Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Tin House, Guernica, Colorado Review, Spinning Jenny, Bat City Review, The Paris-American,The Rumpus, DIAGRAM, La Petite Zine, and elsewhere. She is a founding editor of The Atlas Review and is working on her first poetry collection.

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