Tricia Dearborn’s Frankenstein’s Bathtub

Tricia Dearborn, Frankenstein’s Bathtub (Interactive Press 2001)

I read this book in Istanbul, mainly in brief snatches while waiting in queues or similarly engaged. To lift a phrase from one of its poems, ‘this book will change your life’, you could say it was ‘the necessary unwelcome weight in [my] backpack’, though as it’s a very slim volume it was hardly unwelcome.

As one of the striking features of Istanbul in this hot summer is the length to which some tourists, and some locals, go to conceal the female body, I was delighted by the sweet, witty female sensuality in the poems of the book’s first section, ‘Body Parts’. When I say sweet, I invite you to think of mangoes rather than sugar cubes or apple tea – ‘slicing slivers of yielding flesh / that fill my mouth with / lusciousness / and after-tang’, which of course is about actual mangoes. I would have liked ‘the white dress’, from a later section, anywhere, but its tale of childhood rebellion gained an extra poignancy from the proximity of so many young women sweltering obediently beneath layers of black cloth:

the white dress

I knelt with your sewing scissors
beside the towering wardrobe

carefully I snipped holes in
your authority

I would see my life
through those holes

creating them I rained to the red rug
triangles of fine corduroy

I would not wear that dress

There are poems about growing up female, having a female body, female friendships, mother–daughter relationships. And quite a bit that doesn’t fit easily into that field. The titles of the book’s other sections give an idea of its range:

  • laboratory days, which includes the magnificently named ‘the biosynthesis of 3-nitropdropanoic acid in penicillium atrovenetum’
  • the leaping spark, about books and sex
  • short-circuit, which includes ‘the white dress’ and other poems about childhood, reproduction, same-sex attraction and violence against women (yes, I’m not sure what the common thread is there either!)
  • the uncertain human, containing the title poem and eight other short, strong poems, in which again the body asserts itself:

    I think, therefore I am
    said Descartes, but

    while he thrice denied
    the body, his neurones

    pulsed with electric
    solutions
    (from ‘proof’)

  • home, dealing with cockroaches, visitors, travel

I respond to these poems as if meeting an old friend for the first time. I have met Tricia Dearborn once or twice, but that’s not what I mean. I think it’s the way the poems refer back, fairly obliquely, to a Catholic childhood, and turn their back on it, joyfully asserting the materiality of humanness.

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