Waiting for Bluebeard by Helen Ivory
Waiting for Bluebeard
Bloodaxe, paperback, price £9.95
112 pages, 978-185224-975-5
Helen Ivory’s fourth collection poses the following question: how does a woman grow to become the legendary Bluebeard’s final wife? She explores this question through fairy tale and autobiography, couching a long narrative arc (of the kind Bloodaxe specialises in) in short poems and interwoven series. This theme, which is an excellent one, is divided into two halves: the first recounts a childhood, and the second that grown child’s relationship with Bluebeard, notorious wife-slayer.
The first half is in some ways the stronger, for the childhood, more than the marriage, belongs to fairy tale. Everything speaks to her – beds, houses, cats – though people are often mute, stitched up dummies or stuffed skins. The little girl is charmed, extending a helping hand to stars who ‘heaved themselves under the bed / and began to burn holes in the rug’ (‘What the Stars Said’). And yet, the overall picture wavers, as a child’s self-image might, between that of a being unique and remarkable, and that of a being struggling to exist, easily forgotten. Ivory skilfully builds a picture of a child not quite born, hatched from an egg, surviving her many perished sisters, but never quite noticeable, never quite solid. The girl seems to float through the contetradition, potentially any of the fragile, unlikely survivors, practising Little Red Riding Hood, ‘wearing a bright red coat’, fending off a ‘puppy, gruffling the dark.’ The outside world, like the girl herself, exists as a strange unreality – the collection opens with her pregnant mother, gazing at a television set on which ‘A man plays hopscotch on the moon.’
Motifs recur throughout the text, and the standout strand is ‘The Disappearing’, a series of nine poems scattered through the collection’s second half. An excellent poem from the beginning of the text, ‘Take. From. Away.’, foreshadows the work of this later series: ‘Unhinge my ribs, unbutton my vertebrae, / pull each slow thread / till I am spider writing on a griddled page.’ The marriage to Bluebeard fulfils this prophecy. ‘The Disappearing’ begins gently, ‘The tariff for crossing the threshold / was a single layer of skin’ (1), becoming gradually more sinister: ‘the hank of hair like a noose at rest / severed on the wooden floor’ (3). In the fourth Disappearing poem, we are told that ‘She stepped out of herself / like a matryoshka, one full moon,’ and when she found that she could not re-nest herself, ‘she drowned the sun like a sack of kittens / and threaded the rooster’s song / back into his throat.’ This is a particularly arresting example of an omnipresent theme – that of silence, of stifling, of being unable to sing. The links to writing, repression and healing are clear.
However, the relationship at the heart of this vanishing – the marriage to Bluebeard – feels a little too insubstantial. There is no hint of attraction, no ghost of even a past physicality between the two lovers. This is in part, perhaps, a conscious distancing from Angela Carter’s fleshy, erotic interpretation, though Ivory is influenced by her, too – the mirrors in ‘At the Dress Shop’ and what she finds in ‘Bluebeard’s Letters’ are reminiscent of scenes from The Bloody Chamber. The robbing of a woman’s essence is here not enacted in the swift fall of a sword, but by attrition. What Ivory gives us is a gradual relinquishing of the self to the other that might be affected by a marriage to a man who is only ‘almost human’. The loss of a child, a new addition, adds to this more quotidian tale of gradual waning. But at the same time, one could read this coldness as a study of what it is to be a fairy tale, a cipher or a moral with only half an existence. Not flesh, but ‘spider writing on a griddled page.’ There is no real relationship between the child-wife and the man who ‘sobs like a wolf’ (‘Bluebeard at Night’) – for ‘She has learnt to keep herself so neat and tidy / she corresponds exactly to her shadow’ (‘Bluebeard at Work’). In the final ‘Disappearing’ poem, it is not his previous wives she finds – those spectres are planted tree-like in the garden, for anyone to see – but ghosts of a self:
My skin hung from a wire hanger
on the back of the door
like a wedding dress
emptied of its bride.
It was too tight to climb into,
so she left the house naked.
A beautiful expression of what it is to leave, from a captivating collection which sometimes frustrates by what it leaves unsaid. A special mention, finally, goes to the cover image, designed by Ivory and photographed by her husband. Bloodaxe frequently publishes excellent poets in sometimes-risible packaging, but this design captures and enhances the aesthetic constructed within.