Conversations With the Stone Wife, the new chapbook from Natalie Eilbert, is a dizzying collection of poems that muse on art, history, and the body. After reading it, I was curious to know more, and reached out via email; what follows is our conversation about the chapbook’s themes and origins. (It’s also worth mentioning that Eilbert is Editor-in-Chief of the excellent journal The Atlas Review, and (along with Dolan Morgan) talked with Almost Live at Mellow Pages about that earlier this year.) Read on for a wide-ranging discussion on art (and human) history, methods of seeing, thoughts on marriage and language, and much more.
Given the centrality of the Venus of Willendorf to these poems, I’m curious: what was your first exposure to the figure in question?
The “Venus” of Willendorf is so Intro to Art History. I’ve always been mindful of its ur-location in World Art, especially with regard to its lack of appeal, especially still when put into the frameworks of she. The figurine’s ugliness tends to be disregarded, shrugged off. Marble realism is how we’d like to contextualize our Western origins, frozen in glossy musculature, outlines of wisdom choking the faces of our predecessors. I’d always been exposed to Venus in slideshows, and I always felt that even the teacher wouldn’t linger on the figure for how it articulated grotesque female nudity. Always I would look to my own thighs and grimace. That was my first exposure.
When my father and brother helped clean out my grandmother’s house, there was a tremendous amount of junk there. She and my grandfather were college professors of science—she, anatomy and physiology; he, child psychology. My grandmother never threw away any documents in that whole time, be it marginalia, textbooks, syllabi, doodles. As professors of science in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, you can imagine these textbooks hold some obsolete and biased information in their pages. A whole literature of mistakes. I wanted to go through these old textbooks because some were precious, and some ‘facts’ resonated now with poetic certitudes. In the rigid layers of text, I was hoping to find language; instead, I found the Venus of Willendorf.
So I was doing my own mining when I found the figurine anew. At the time, I was really, really miserable, and when I’m miserable, food does not enter me. Everything had gone to shit and I was losing a grasp on how to limit my intake without killing myself. I wasn’t sure I didn’t want to kill myself. But I was focused extremely on the body. I was so thin that to sit down on plastic seats bruised me. I was very alone and in the house where I grew up. I think that being in your childhood home distinguishes aloneness to such a sharp degree that the pain of being alive gets magnified by the pressure of origins.
My grandfather, whom I never met, had an old World Arts anthology, and I noticed it was dogeared early on to the section on the “Venus” Figurines. Whether this was due to him simply dogearing it because he got distracted early on in leafing through the textbook is moot. I saw the Venus. Its brown lumpy body. Its prelude to portraiture. It occurred to me in that moment that when someone discovers a buried history, that person inadvertently becomes its sole creator. It is only due to excavation that we are delivered to that exact consciousness. I wanted to learn everything about the figurine, from its theorized beginnings to the phenomena of early hominid art. I read that she is one of hundreds of figurines of women, termed the “Venus” Figurines, found all over Europe and Asia in and around the Ice Age. Either it was one nomadic tribe carving out stone into little amulets and gifts before discarding them; or it was a collective consciousness, and the desire to create the female body, specifically, is as common as it is beguiling. But now look at how much I’ve gone on. Her existence is very important to me.
From the chapbook’s title to the repeated use of “Epithalamium” to title poems, marriage looms large in much of the work here. Was that a subject that you’d always planned to interact with in your writing, or was it something that came to mind as you pondered the Venus of Willendorf?
This is an extremely good question, and one that somehow no one has asked me. I’ve been thinking about this question for days, in fact. I have never wanted to be someone’s wife. There is an inherent violence in being property, and I don’t think our society is beyond misprison here. When you google image search wife, the most popular images are scantily-clad gym bodies on beaches, mutilated and maimed bodies of conscious and unconscious women, memes that blame women for not wanting sex, and pregnant women. I also found this image of a dismembered head and torso of a woman hung up on a wall as a stag trophy, linking to an article with the header, “Best Divorce Revenge Ever?” I don’t need to elucidate this.
I think the word is powerful, insofar as anything with the potential to control is powerful. It breaks my heart when, after friends get married, they refer to their spouses as “My Wife.” I usually know their use of the word is softer and more utilitarian than others, but I still imagine the truncation going on. I don’t know why it’s still okay that this word exists. I know that sounds a touch melodramatic, but “wife” has such a horrendous history, and one that bleeds into now with such violent silent force. I’ve had a bad time with men’s power, I guess.
The “Venus” of Willendorf has scare-quotes around the “Venus” because, in her discovery by the archeologist Josef Szombathy, she was decreed “Venus” and this had a strange effect of Westernizing her presence over Art History. A man decided to do this to her, to baptize her the most quintessential of Western appellations, and in so doing this, the act of naming had a strange ability to claim her as Western. Heretofore, she was a peculiar shape in the dirt. Heretofore, my mother wanted to be a journalist before her father tore up her acceptance letter to Cornell and forbade her from seeking a prestigious university—she could only marry to be saved. I can’t help associate what it means to act as Wife with what it means for a stone to act as Venus. The body of the wife as either tanned and muscular or else beaten bloody and senseless or else bloated with child, fertile. And so one word became interchangeable with the other.
How did the structure of this chapbook come about? Were the more prose-like sections structured as a whole and then broken into fragments?
I wrote the prose sections as a whole, yes. As a poet, I’m always worried that the tropes I espouse (get it?) in book-length projects will be runny at best, too saturated with lyricism and some dubious melancholy. I got this germ to write locating epistle blocks all called “[letter excavated from the willendorf tomb]” in which I write from the voice of the Venus to the character N. You might guess who that is. In these letters, once the Venus is excavated, she becomes something of a party girl in the Meatpacking District, but one who annoyingly and constantly boasts of her sexy immortality. Can you imagine doing bodyshots off the Venus of Willendorf? Well, I did.
There are these prose blocks interspersed in the chapbook. There are several eponymous poems also interspersed. There are Epithalamium poems, as you noted, also interspersed. What I wanted to do was create a stream of dialogues, either from the perspective of the Venus (both the letters and the “Conversation” poems are disjointed little Venuses), or else from the perspective of me, the groom. The poet, Justin Boening, actually gave me the idea of writing epithalamium poems when he asked “Why haven’t you written in that form yet?” I didn’t know. It was so obvious. So I did. The other personal sequence in there—yes, there are four running sequences because, fuck it, I’m an architect now—is me speaking to the Venus as a damaged girl undergoing heartbreak, starvation, and sexual traumas. I was too afraid, all those years ago, to get that last part right, which brings us to the next question.
How would you describe this chapbook in comparison to the chapbook you have due out later this year on Big Lucks?
Hoooooboy. Well, I really like book-length ideas. About a year and a half ago, I thought it’d be fun to write a poem in which there’s a world without men, and in which one woman decides she misses their abuses and creates them anew from discarded man parts. I was going for lapsarian irony, but then I kept going. I’ve always known that how I articulated gender in my work had to do with childhood and teenage traumas, but I didn’t necessarily want to put this out there. Too many factors. So I hid inside poems, which is a funny idea. Like a poisonous bramble that will kill you to sit in it and you sit in it still, despite of and because of its killing threats. When I ventured to write this new book, I wanted to get completely inside it. I wanted to say, I am writing about a world without men because I’ve always been scared of this world with men. Oh, it got personal. I didn’t stop it. I didn’t allow artifice to curl itself around my words and make it something else. I abandoned objective correlative. I put the whole fucking thing in my mouth. I kept writing these poems that were part-searching for dead male parts in a dystopian future and part-searching for the memories I didn’t want to remember in a familiar, 90s-washed past.
The chapbook is called And I Shall Again Be Virtuous., and it weaves in out of sci-fi and personal narratives. It comes from a great moment in Frankenstein where the monster attempts reason and clemency with his creator and delivers this bit of monologue, which I can’t help but include because it has always driven me to tears, and it pulsates with oppressive rage of circumstance: “Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” I’m really fortunate Mark Cugini picked it up with such enthusiasm.
You mention that these poems will also appear in your forthcoming collection, Swan Feast, due out next year. Do you envision them appearing in the same form that they do here, or are you planning to reorder or revise them somehow?
I actually just submitted a revised manuscript to Bruce Covey, editor extraordinaire at Coconut Books! Everything is different now. I removed the spike I had driven in them so long ago and now they are free agents. The Venus segment, which is a huge amount of Conversation with the Stone Wife, is sandwiched by two long poems—each about 20 pages in change—both titled “The Death and Life of the Venus City.” I’ve revised many of the poems, and even rewritten the one that were bugging me for the very fact of their age hanging over my current aesthetic. I’ve centralized the Venus theme only to decentralize it later. I’m so nervous about this collection, because I’ve been writing it since 2009, and holy god have I changed. I’ve been trying to update the poems to match my current voice when I can. Other times, I allow the timewarp to wash over me if the poems feel good enough to do so. It’s still gestating though, as any good fertility symbol, so we’ll see.
Photo: Emily Raw