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The Creation of the Venus of Willendorf
Rita Dove looks at the gaze.
This is part of an occasional series about individual poems that interest/baffle me. It’s made possible by you (yes you!) So if you enjoy it and are not a paid subscriber, consider becoming one? (Paid subscribers can also read my giant double sestina mocking Jordan Peterson, which I posted earlier today.)
Rita Dove’s three-page poem “The Venus of Willendorf” from her 1999 volume On the Bus With Rosa Parks tells a fairly straightforward story. The narrator is a Black woman student who visits Willendorf, a small city in Austria best known for the excavation of a carved limestone female fertility figurine thought to be some 30,000 years old. The student is told about the figurine by an innkeeper, who shows her
the legendary Venus of Willendorf.
Just a replica, natürlich,
a handful of primitive stone
entombed in a glass display
the innkeeper kept dusting as he told
his one story, charmed by the sight of
a live black girl.
The student observes the miraculous efficiency of the Willendorf trains, and is herself observed by the people of Willendorf, who see her as exotic and sexual, like the figurine.
the Munich-Vienna express barreled through
at precisely—another miracle—
It was impossible, of course,
to walk the one asphalted street
without enduring a gauntlet of stares.
Have you seen her? they asked,
comparing her to their Venus
until she could feel her own breasts
settle and the ripening
predicament of hip and thigh.
That sexual interest crystallizes queasily when she visits a professor’s house, and he makes inappropriate comments.
They were on the veranda
when he confessed—no, “confided”
(wife occupied in the kitchen, slicing cake)
that his pubic hair had gone white.
The poem ends as the student watches a train in the distance and wishes for a kind of disembodiment and suspension of time.
then a faint, agreeable thunder
as the express glides past below,
passengers snared in light, smudged flecks
floating in a string of golden cells.
If only we were ghosts, she thinks,
leaning into the rising hush,
if only I could wait forever.
While the story of the poem is clear, Dove’s investment in it, and what she takes from it, are less so. “The Venus of Willendorf” is about the Willendorf residents’ sexist, racist gaze, which affects the student’s sense of herself and which affects how she is treated. It’s also, though about the student’s gaze at Willendorf—she looks at the Venus replica, she looks at the train, she looks at the professor and at the professor’s wife. And that gaze is both the student’s and the poet’s, since the student is to some degree a stand-in for Dove, the artist who crafts how Willendorf is portrayed—cutesy, bucolic, provincial, efficient, and implicitly threatening.
twilight is brutal: no dim tottering
across flowery fields, but blindness
dropped into the treeline like an ax.
It’s notable too that this ominous image of Willendorf is one of “blindness”—a gaze cut off. The brutal twilight prevents Dove from seeing, and also from being seen, complicating her wish to be an unseen “ghost” just a few lines farther down. Is the release from the gaze empowering? Or is it a kind of death? The epigraph of the poem by Paul Celan seems to suggest it is both
Let your eye be a candle in a chamber,
your gaze a knife,
let me be blind enough
to ignite it.
Feminist scholar Tso Yi-Hsuan resolves this confusion by arguing that Dove is talking about two different kinds of gazes: the limiting patriarchal violent gaze which functions like a “knife”, and a reflective, subversive, female gaze which is empowering and freeing. “Through her reflection on the gaze and on aesthetics,” Yi-Hsuan argues, “the student emerges as a subject capable of forming her own self-image as well as the image of her gender.”
That’s certainly a reasonable reading. But I think you could also make the case that the message here, and the treatment of the gaze, is messier—less of an efficient train, and more a disturbing stone jumble:
sprawling buttocks and barbarous thighs,
breasts heaped up in her arms
to keep from spilling.
The student’s response to the villagers’ gaze, and to the professor’s harassment, is irritation, resentment, even fear. But it isn’t just those things. After the professor tells her about his public hair:
She should have been shocked
but couldn’t deny the thrill
it gave her, how her body felt
tender and fierce all at once.
She then thinks about the professor’s wife in the kitchen, and half pities her because “no one devoured her with his glance.”
Then twilight comes, and the student tries to reassure herself the professor won’t assault her, because he has too much to lose. At the same time, she’s not entirely sure of him, and not entirely sure of herself.
Yet his gaze, glutting itself
until her contours blazed…
and suddenly she understands what made
the Venus beautiful
was how the carver’s hand had loved her,
that visible caress.
Yi-Hsuan says that when Dove says “loved” she’s not actually talking about love but is instead referring to “desire and attention” which “cannot be mistaken for genuine love.” The sculptor’s gaze is a gaze linked to porn, Yi-Hsuan says. The student in this reading knows to reject this objectification, and is analyzing the mechanics of patriarchal sexuality and desire, rather than actually feeling desire, or feeling sexy, herself.
I’m not so sure, though. Dove says the student “couldn’t deny” that she felt “tender and fierce”; she doesn’t want to respond to that patriarchal gaze, but she does. And the language in the lines about the carving aren’t censorious, but sensual. The words “the Venus beautiful/was how the carver’s hand had love her,/that visible caress” have an iambic lilt—they are carved and careful just like the sculpture; they reveal the “visible caress” of an artist’s hand.
It's not just the student who appreciates the gaze, or finds it provocative. The tavern keeper also is covetous of being seen; he is eager to show the Venus replica to the student, and more than that he says they should have kept the original, “Made the world come to us/here, in Austria.” He wants to be looked at—and his desire is granted by the poem itself, which immortalizes him by carving him like a sculpted image, shaped by the gaze that is a knife. Or, int eh words of critic Pat Righelato, “Just as the woman poet, amused, annoyed, or whatever, is nevertheless erotically aroused by the heat of the gaze, so art is envisaged as a visual climaxing between the physical body and the hand of the sculptor.”
That climax is the Venus itself—an ugly/beautiful image that is sexist and erotic, and which demands that the student gaze upon it and be gazed upon in turn. But the climax is also the poem, which positions Willendorf in the stone flesh of the Venus, turning it into an exotic, erotic object of contempt and/or love. The title “The Venus of Willendorf” thus refers not only to the figurine, but to the poem, which makes of Willendorf a Venus.
The penultimate image of “The Venus of Willendorf” positions the student as an observer, watching Willendorf’s (phallic?), efficient train pass in the distance, the “passengers snared in light…floating in a string of golden cells.” The people are reduced to impersonal images of beauty, cut out of the night. The student is not just viewed, but viewer, just as the professor’s wife, with her “charred eyes,” is both unwatched and symbolically unable to watch. Creation, love, desire, are predicated on a kind of double look. Celan’s eye candle ignites only when the gazer and the gazed upon see each other.
This game of gaze is fun; the student refers to the train’s “faint, agreeable thunder,” and the poem has an air of playful condescension as it turns its Austrian subjects into characters (“the innkeeper kept dusting as he told/his one story, charmed by the sight of/a live black girl.”) The play is also uncomfortable, though, tinged with power, sex, prejudice, and the potential for abuse. That’s perhaps the impetus for the ambiguous, ambivalent ending, as the student wishes she could get off the porch and out of the poem. She wants to turn into an unseen watcher, waiting forever—like the Venus resting underground or in its museum, and unlike the Willendorf trains riding on their miraculously timely rails.
The wish to be a ghost unbound by the clock could be a wish to be a poet; Dove, outside the poem, can see everything without being seen, and rides through Willendorf without a schedule, or indeed a train. She remakes Willendorf in her image—though that image (the student?) is also shaped by Austria, and by that figurine, with the gaze caught in its curves.
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