Opera di Cera by Kelley Swain – Review

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Image source: Valley Press UK

Threaded through the twisted physiology of Opera di Cera is a fairy tale of the most fluid sort. It’s as if all the latent symbolism of the venerable story type has been set in a pot and put on a long simmer. The reduction is the concise yet flavoursome verse form of Kelley Swain’s unique evocation of the grotesque.

Set in eighteenth-century Florence, the story follows a set of characters working at ‘La Specola’, a museum devoted to the teaching of anatomy through the medium of waxen simulacra. Their current project is an ambitious life-sized replica of Venus, whose body comes apart to show a cross-section of her organs, including a tiny foetus curled up in the womb. It’s a story that delves deeply within its source material – the detailed descriptions of anatomy and the creation of their wax counterparts lends an authentic richness to the verse. But Swain’s real talent lies in her deft handling of character, and it is here that the fairy tale subtext comes to light.

The activities of each contributor to the project – model, sculptor, director, and supplier – weave and converge, their individual obsessions empowering and conflictive by turn. Tess, the model, finds the biological nature of her humanity repulsive, longing instead to become the waxen replica she inspires. Her lover, the sculptor Susini, assists her desire by pouring droplets of candlewax upon her skin. In this sensual moment, Susini makes his lover appear more like the simulacrum he is creating, betraying the displaced sexuality that fuels his work.

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Kelley Swain at the launch of Opera di Cera. Source: Kelleyswain.wordpress.com

It is these confused appetites that Opera di Cera concerns itself with, evoking the visceral urge of the fairy tale form – the desire to consume (or avoid being consumed). Here it is given chaotic reign – hungers for sex, food, perfection, and death are forever interchanging, their metaphors as molten as the wax. In one scene Tess harvests, kills, and cooks a type of snail used as an aphrodisiac. These verses alternate with the museum director’s as he considers a selection of organs his assistant has supplied for him. The imagery is the same to describe both, dissolving the boundaries between appetites – eating, lusting, killing, creating – their definitions in flux. This metamorphosis – that other fairy tale constant – drives the swirling imagery, Swain’s lyricism commingling desires in an ever tighter dance, right up to the chillingly logical final scene.

It is this superseding of boundaries that enables the wolf-life director, Fontana, to proceed with his ambitions. Cintio, his misshapen reaper, harvests organs and body parts from the dead, before Fontana venerates the choicest specimen in wax. Fontana’s hunger for meat –either for perfecting, or for devouring – is insatiable and without compromise. His actions are of the master anthropophagus – without boundaries, the question of what is right and wrong is no longer present. Instead, all appetites become equal, all flesh becomes prey. This amoral cannibal utopia provides Fontana the setting to realise his sinister goals – flesh, food, or replica, all become malleable to his appetite. As Jacques Derrida once said, it is no longer a question of what is good to eat, only that it is eaten well.

Opera di Cera’s only real flaw is its remarkably short length. I could happily have spent far longer reading into the conflicted wants and devilish ambitions of its characters. But then, this is a fairy tale – it is not meant to last more than an evening’s telling. These are words to savour, literature for the taste buds, to be read and re-read, devoured and re-devoured, perhaps spoken aloud and shared, perhaps nibbled guiltily on one’s own. Opera di Cera is a forbidden dish of the choicest verse – go, consume.

An edition of this article first appeared at Dead Ink on 15th September 2014

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