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If we are to properly understand women’s oppression in the West today, objectification and sexual performance must be understood as work. The sexual sell is real labour, propping up a socially mandated measure of erotic capital. From the working hours devoted to the purchase and strategic application of clothes and hair and beauty products, to the actual labour of dieting and exercise, to the creation and maintenance of sexual persona, self-objectification is work, first and foremost. Female sexuality, which every day becomes increasingly synonymous with objectification, is work.

Yesterday afternoon I was in my favourite sandwich shop in Bondi Junction, enjoying my avocado and salami while reading my book when I overheard an interesting radio advert. Two women are casually talking to each other and one says “You’re looking tired.” I must have zoned out at that point, because when the ad suddenly jumped to the name of a plastic surgeon, I realized that looking ‘tired’, apparently requires going under the knife now. What a wonderful world we live in!

Meat Market is Laurie Penny‘s first published work of critical commentary – of many I hope. It joins an impressive amount of journalistic writing, which can be found on her blog Penny Red, as well as The Guardian and New Statesman. Penny presents an overarching assessment of how many conflicting issues facing women today, from the continuing commodification of the bodies of women to the fragmenting within feminist ideology itself.

As such Meat Market is not a feminist work that continues to spell out basic tenets of the movement, already fought over for decades, instead challenging the complacency surrounding such notions as patriarchal society, or the modern liberated woman. “Why are we so afraid of women’s bodies“, she asks, that peculiar loathing for the female form in culture which demands it be plucked free of hairs, nipped, tucked and starved. I am reminded of Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject. However, this trend is highly visible in contemporary society and not an idea limited to academic journals about the unconscious.

Penny identifies the constant focus on feminine appearance as a form of labour, one which necessitates a state of constant anxiety. Far from being liberated, women today face an increasing set of prohibitions on their behaviour. Feminism itself is blamed for any societal trend that is considered bad, such as the breakdown of the family, or even teenage drunkenness. So how could it be said that female liberation has occurred?

It is this notion of everyday ‘labour’, that the author uses to investigate the hypocrisy of attitudes towards sex workers. Pornography has replaced natural sexuality in the minds of many, burlesque commodified from an ironic vision of the aristocracy to a commercial entertainment, the fetishised female form a marketing device for every product under the sun – and yet women who sell their own bodies are viewed with contempt, denied basic protections under the law. The prostitute is denied any agency in the media, described variously as drug addicted, or innately criminal.

Feminism has failed to address the rights of the sex worker, even as luminaries such as Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel have failed to acknowledge the status of transsexuals. Instead mainstream transphobia is indulged, gender reassignment surgery seen as a lifestyle choice that undermines the aims of feminist ideology. Penny points out that such a stance fails to consider women who are intersex and that by refusing to defend the rights of transsexuals, those who seek relief from their feelings of body dysmorphia are left at the mercy of the medical establishment.

Penny also discusses the treatment of anorexia in the media, which only reinforces the myth that women (as well as a growing percentage of men) begin to starve themselves out of a desire to appear more sexually attractive. To counter this claim she includes testimony from several anorexics describing how they in fact desired to eliminate any trace of femininity from their bodies, while newspapers feature the images of ‘size zero models‘.

The author insists that feminism must rediscover its political impetus and give recognition to the women whose lives are spent working on multiple fronts, as well as engage men who have become disempowered themselves.

This book presents a compelling argument for the reassessment of feminist values, as well as the need to challenge the false consciousness of modern men and women. Personally charged invective that demands to be heard. I read over underlined passages repeatedly after finishing the book.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

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He tells you, in the sombrest notes,

If poets want to get their oats,

The first step is to slit their throats.

The way to divide

The sheep of poetry from the goats

Is suicide.

When Stephanie saw me crack the spine on this collection of poetry, she queried whether any poem could be cited as definitively great. As verse (free or otherwise) is the product of the inner-world of the poet it is both subjective in its construction and reception.

When challenged the first poem that sprang to mind was The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

But is my appreciation of that poem due to its inherent quality, or because I have fond memories of my teacher Dennis Craven reciting those lines in 1998? Nostalgia creeps in, the associative quality of poetry merges with the personality of the reader and we end up with a poem having, in effect, reconstituted it to have a more personal meaning.

James Fenton’s career as a foreign correspondent and political journalist for a number of British newspapers informs his writing. In this collection he recounts in verse experiences he had in post-war Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and then his return to England, his perspective on his home country forever altered by what he witnessed.

Children in Exile describes the slow release of young emigrants who have escaped Pol Pot’s regime from the memories and nightmares of the country they left behind. One startling image is of a child who dreams of “Jesus with a gun”, an image of a newfound protector that he has learned of from his American rescuers informed by his understanding of what is required to save a life. These children’s education is of a bloodier sort than their Western counterparts: “Students of calamity, graduates of famine […] They have learnt much. There is much more to learn. Each heart bears a diploma like a scar”.

Fenton is writing journalism through verse, transforming coldly objective prose into more emotional material, where he has free reign to give vent to righteous anger. In a Notebook uses a comparison between traditional poetry, with its dropped hints and suggestive language, italicised to contrast it with the opposing page which repeats the content, but revisits the ephemeral beauty described with harsh reality:

And I’m afraid, reading this passage now,

That everything I knew has been destroyed

In a Notebook provides a valuable insight into Fenton’s project. A self-conscious note is present, highlighting the concern as to whether poetry is possible in relation to such atrocities. I am reminded of Theodor Adorno’s famous quote “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.

Fenton’s perspective on England itself has been heavily influenced by what he has witnessed. My opening quote is taken from Letter to John Fuller, challenging a rival poet to exchange the pretence of a tortured poet for real torture and suffering. The primacy of a published poet’s anguished musings loses some of its power when contrasted with the suffering of starving children, victims of oppression, or even the homeless who eke out their existence on the streets of Western cities. Our assumption in the benevolence of the Almighty is also rejected, as to Fenton’s mind there is not a lot of evidence to support it:

I didn’t exist at Creation,

I didn’t exist at the Flood,

And I won’t be around for Salvation

[…]

I’m a crude existential malpractice

And you are a diet of worms.

Throughout this collection Fenton supplies some wonderful combinations of language. I was particularly struck by the phrase “the eloquence of young cemeteries. To answer Stephanie’s challenge though, is it great poetry? I am not sure.

I think it is very good writing, but for me poetry is consistent in its meaning. The associations, wordplay and poetical structure are all meant to convey a continuous thematic thread from beginning to conclusion. With many of the poems here I felt as if meaning surfaced and then dived beneath the musings on war and death, like an elusive submarine plumbing treacherous waters. The uncertainty as to whether the poetical format suits these missives leaves the overall project unsteady at times, fitfully brilliant with occasional dips into  confusion.

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