REVIEW by Phillip Clement

NWR Issue 104

The Undressed

by Jemma L King

The second collection of poetry from Jemma L King, winner of the Terry Hetherington Award (2001), explores issues of gender and sexuality with a cumulative power that carefully traces the boundaries of personal and political dramas. The Undressed attempts to reclaim the voices of a series of ‘lost’ women found in a cache of antique nude photographs ranging from the 1840s to the 1930s.

In true ekphrastic form, King draws upon material elements within the photographs, the women’s posture, their accessories and the furniture surrounding them to piece together the missing lives of her subjects. In ‘Karla’, the speaker, a young girl covering her face, cowers against a distressed piano and begins a monologue in which she apportions her imagined shame upon the photographer: ‘I don't see / why I should own the disgrace, / when it is you whose body beasts and flinches / at the sight of it. Your odd / tensions.’ This passage is typical of the poems in The Undressed and the assured and authentic tone she adopts throughout, cleverly upending the conventions of the period.

From the lyrical to the colloquial, King reconstructs voices for these women that are able to transgress the span of years to hold a mirror to our modern society. In ‘Mary’, a poem which explores the Contagious Diseases Act, 1864, a prostitute is arrested and taken to await a hearing before a judge of whom she says ‘I’m ’opin I served ’im well.’ In a heartfelt, yet vaudevillian, style she begs sympathy of the reader, stating that ‘They marched me up to the slammer, / inspected me / wares for faults, gave me nonsense / bout the sailors getting sick an how it's the / dollymops’ fault.’ It is possible that parallels can be drawn between the cases of these women and with those of many high-profile cases of our own time.

Juxtaposed against these bold narratives of reclaimed prostitutes, high society women and contortionists are the rare voices of their male companions: doctors, pimps and circus owners. These bring balance to a collection that may otherwise have suffered from a dry, preaching tone. In ‘Dr. Knowlton and Dr H Barr’, a doctor lectures his patient on venereal diseases and preventative measures and the medical inadequacies of the period: ‘Our methods are imperfect / ... / Our custom is the trial and error of lotions. / ... / the use of acids – sponges dipped in vinegars (like so) or / wine prevents mischief / ... / with no threat to satisfaction.’ King treats these voices with overwhelming honesty and tact that enhance the authenticity of the collection and further mark King out as poet with considerable range.

The Undressed captures the impermanence of the photograph with breath-taking clarity. The final poem in the collection, ‘The End’, sees its subject (a woman, her back to the lens, gazing down upon herself) lamenting upon her life after the photo: ‘And then the world turned didn’t. / With every second that swam past, an invisible river, unmistakably, / … / her cells grew smaller, shrank their protean mass / … / Ashes to ashes // dust to dust.’ As with many in the collection, ‘The End’ flirts with Barthes’ assertion in Camera Lucida that the woman and her companions ‘are anaesthetised and fastened down, like butterflies’. King’s second collection reaches across the generations to remind us that those photographed existed outside of the medium in which they were captured, reimagining the lives of the women pictured; however bleak a portrait theirs may be. Haunting, distinctive and sensual, The Undressed beautifully demonstrates King’s empathy and showcases her poetic flair.

Phillip Clement writes for New Welsh Review and has recently completed a year-long marketing residency at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, Flintshire.

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previous review: Shine
next review: The Third Tower: Journeys in Italy


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