Helen Ivory was born in Luton in 1969 and began to write poems at Norwich School of Art in 1997, under the tuition of George Szirtes. She won an Eric Gregory Award in 1999 and then disappeared into a field in the Norfolk countryside to look after two thousand free-range hens. When she emerged ten or so years later, she had two collections with Bloodaxe Books and had helped, with her own bare hands, to build several houses.
She is a poet and artist, a freelance creative writing tutor and academic director for creative writing for continuing education at the University of East Anglia, an editor for The Poetry Archive, editor of the webzine Ink Sweat and Tears, and co-organiser with Martin Figura of Café Writers in Norwich.
She has published four collections with Bloodaxe Books, The Double Life of Clocks (2002), The Dog in the Sky (2006), The Breakfast Machine (2010) and Waiting for Bluebeard (2013). She was awarded an Arts Council writer’s bursary in 2005 and in 2008 an Author’s Foundation Grant.
Her website is www.helenivory.co.uk.
“Waiting for Bluebeard tries to understand how a girl could grow up to be the woman living in Bluebeard’s house. The story begins with a part-remembered, part-imagined childhood, where seances are held, and a father drowns in oil beneath the skeleton of his car. When her childhood home coughs up birds in the parlour, the girl enters Bluebeard’s house paying the tariff of a single layer of skin. This is only the first stage of her disappearing, as she searches for a phantom child in a house where Bluebeard haunts the corridors like a sobbing wolf.”
“Helen Ivory creates a troubled yet beguiling world rich in irony and disquiet. She possesses a strongly-grounded narrative voice which, combined with her dextrous transformative takes both on reality and on what lies beyond reality’s surface, puts one in mind of the darker side of Stevie Smith who said that poetry ‘is a strong explosion in the sky’.”
– Penelope Shuttle
“A direct approach, via deep folklore and dream imagery, to the conundrum of being a woman … in keeping with what I think we mean when we say ‘women’s writing’. This book is mischievously dark, rich with anti-logic and harnessed to the power of something we used to call magic.”
– Katy Evans-Bush
“She is a visually precise poet, with the gift of creating stunning images with an economy of means … Ivory has established an eerily engaging style. Her poems are like mobiles suspended on invisible threads, charming to watch as they seem to spin by themselves in the air, but capable of administering more than a paper cut on the sensibility of the reader.”
– James Sutherland-Smith
When I started writing the poems based on part real, part imagined events in my childhood that make up the first part of the book, I had no idea I was going to go on to write about my experience of living in an abusive relationship which forms the second part of the book. But in retrospect this makes good narrative sense. ‘Waiting for Bluebeard tries to understand how a girl could grow up to be the woman living in Bluebeard’s house’. When you find yourself in an abusive relationship, it makes you question who you are. How did I end up there? I’m not that type of person, surely – a victim? An abusive relationship happens so invidiously, even the abuser probably doesn’t notice what has happened. Here I am, perhaps, being charitable.
So, the poems have at their heart autobiography – and form a narrative. When I was writing the childhood poems, there were many specific events I wanted to write about. There are those events from which you remember a detail and then try to construct a narrative as to what might have happened around it. It’s the same with photographs – our brain tells us stories as it tries to make sense for us. I was also attempting to get at a more powerful truth – a metaphorical truth to show what parts of my life have felt like.
There are more poems about my father than my mother in this collection. I think it’s because he was quite a shadowy figure, so I tried to create him in words.
My father was a shadow
who stood at the school gates
fresh from the factory
where he’d pieced cars together all night.
His old-fashioned clothes
were oil-stained and solder-burnt,
and his face wore the aspect
of moonless dark.
One winter, the north wind
pushed me right through him.
It was like losing your way
in the hills, in the rain.
I barely knew him, even though he lived with us. There was a deep feeling of sadness about him and he was incapable of expressing himself. This poem tries to draw him in his natural setting and to show how it felt to be his daughter.
Then there are poems that try to say how it felt to live in a house where your parents have an unhappy marriage that eventually dissipates.
The Inside-out House
The house turned inside out,
innards tumbled onto the grass;
with the quick eyes of birds.
One has laid eggs
in the body of her parents’ bed
and is breaking them open
with a pin sharp beak.
It eats the yolk,
leaves the albumen
to dribble down
through the rusty springs.
I was thinking of the house like a doll’s house or maybe a garage sale, where everything is exposed. I think the bird is engaged in some kind of anti-nesting behaviour! This wasn’t a conscious metaphor, it just felt right as an image.
There are family deaths in the first part of the book – indeed, it is dedicated to the memory of my grandmothers, both of my mother’s sisters and my cousin Emma who was a couple of years younger than me and died of cancer at 22. This represents the way that home seemed to fall away from me as I was growing up. I didn’t intend to write such a personal book; it’s only when I think about it in prose that I realise just how personal it is. However, the poems kept coming and I began to think in terms of how I might shape them as a book. That’s when I decided to animate the world and the house in which the child/me lived. Poems like ‘What the Bed Said’, and ‘What the Stars Said’, which are peppered through the childhood poems, making the environment a threatening and dispassionate place.
What the House Said
When the sky feeds me birds,
I cough them up
in the middle of your parlour games.
When you examine them
you’ll see even the most vivid
I do not have to pretend to like you,
we have signed no contract
yet you line my insides with your lives.
Then one day I just stopped writing the childhood poems and began to write about a character called Bluebeard. This was a coded way of thinking about somebody who I lived with for over a decade. Marina Warner writes “Bluebeard is a bogey who fascinates: his name stirs associations with sex, virility, male readiness and desire”. And Bruno Bettelheim writes: “Bluebeard is the most monstrous and beastly of all fairy-tale husbands”. The story is essentially about a man who murders his wives when they become too curious: Here is the key to all of the rooms in my castle. I am just going away for a little while. Use the key to explore any room you want to, but I forbid you to open THAT door. Her brothers rescue the woman the story centres on, in the nick of time, so she doesn’t befall the same fate as her predecessors. The story most people are familiar with is a ‘literary fairy tale’ written by in 1697 by Perrault but in a chapter entitled ‘Demon Lovers’, in From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner traces Bluebeard’s ancestors back to the oral tradition of beastly bridegrooms. She points out that in earlier versions of the story, there was no mention of female curiosity, which was the ‘moral’ added later – Bluebeard was simply a wife-murderer. So when it came to finding the perfect man who would use his maleness to subjugate my female protagonist, the Bluebeard character muscled his way into my mind.
The poem ‘Waiting for Bluebeard’ came first, which is part memory, but was also intended to signal foreboding, which in retrospect I did feel standing outside his house for the first time.
Waiting for Bluebeard
The child in the garden wears a coat
collaged from the skins of paper,
sutured with lengths of my hair.
I am inside the house
in a matching coat.
There is no one to tell us not to;
called here, as we were
by the halloo of peacocks
who turned tail
the day we arrived.
We are waiting for Bluebeard,
and when he happens here
in his grey-silver car,
he will unleash wolves
This is the last time, for a while, that the narrative ‘I’ is used as the ‘I’ becomes a ‘she’ and the woman moves further away from herself. There is a sequence of poems called ‘The Disappearing’, which forms the backbone of the second part of the book. Although nobody literally dies in Bluebeard’s house, the woman dies a tiny part at a time. As I mentioned earlier, an abusive relationship develops so invidiously – the abuser slowly gains control over the abused by keeping them remote, not allowing them friends nor financial independence. This is the first stage of her disappearing, in which the woman goes through a painful initiation into adulthood.
from The Disappearing
The tariff for crossing the threshold
was a single layer of skin.
She imagined a snake
unzipping itself in one deft move.
She imagined herself lithe
inside the house, her new home.
She didn’t imagine the scarring
nor the painstaking care required
to leave the ghost of herself
on the doorstep like a cold-caller.
Half way through writing these poems, I was a little concerned that Bluebeard was just becoming a big bad bully, so I wanted to write some poems that showed him as a vulnerable person, and to present some of his backstory.
Bluebeard the Chef
You coax the rabbit from its skin,
cradle the bruised flesh ripped with shot.
A deft incision and soon the tiny heart
is in your hand, its stillness
opens up a dark hole in the sky for you.
You climb inside
and all the stars are dying eyes
fixed into you like pins.
So you slice each optic nerve
The knife completes your hand
with such sweet eloquence
you part recall its amputation
when you were wordless
in your father’s house.
In retrospect, this poem touches on a similar relationship with his father as one I wrote about my father and his father.
My Father’s Accident
By then he had stopped painting us
so I picked up his book,
turned it upside-down
and filled up the last pages.
I couldn’t see the absence of floor,
the way the furniture floated on rafts
in a sea of lava,
so I painted in carpet round his chair.
Nor could I see his dead father
beating his stick like a metronome
against the ceiling,
nor the broken bones of his dog.
What I did see was the sketch of a man,
head held together with spiders’ legs
and the smell of the hospital
still trapped in his clothes.
I won’t go too deeply into analysis here, but there does appear to be a pattern emerging! Silent, controlling men who have as their hearts deep wells of sorrow. The poem I have chosen to end the book with conflates the two men in perhaps a disturbing way, but seemed to me to be the most logical way to end the book. It’s based on the Donkeyskin story, which is essentially one of incest, and I should state that there was no incest in my family.
My father made me a dress
from patches of sky
on my mother’s old sewing machine.
He stitched them together
with lengths of her hair
and carved all the buttons
from her neat white teeth
but I would not give him my heart.
My father made me a dress
from the light of the moon
pinned into place
with her fine finger bones.
He made me a dress as bright as the sun
and sewed her gold wedding ring
into the hem
but I would not give him my hand.
My father offered me
the pelt of his dog —
how quickly his knife
freed that beast from its skin.
I climbed inside while it was still warm,
zipped it up tight
then walked into the fire
so he could not give me his love.
I always say that we write poems to understand things about ourselves and to explore how we feel about inexpressible things. Poems come from the same place that dreams do – the unconscious – and when we start delving into the unconscious we are perhaps surprised by what we haul out. If I set out to write Waiting for Bluebeard, I couldn’t have done it. The poems came to me when they were ready, and when I was ready for them. Writing the poems did not feel exposing, and neither have I felt exposed when reading them at events these past few years. Now the book is out, it does feel a bit that people might be able to see my bones, and writing this piece most certainly does! But I have put the work out there because I must and I have dedicated the book to all of the women who have lived or are living in an abusive relationship, and have spent time inside Bluebeard’s house.
Order Waiting for Bluebeard (Bloodaxe Books, 2013).
Visit Helen’s website.
Visit Ink, Sweat and Tears.
Helen reads nine poems here.
View Helen’s artwork.