Waiting for Bluebeard by Helen Ivory

17 Jun 2013


Waiting for Bluebeard
Helen Ivory
Bloodaxe, paperback, price £9.95
112 pages, 978-185224-975-5


Jessica Stacey

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.

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  1. neilastley

    Never having heard our widely praised covers (always approved and often using images suggested by their authors) described as ‘sometimes-risible packaging’, I would be interested in knowing which books Jessica Stacey has in mind, especially since she believes we publish such titles ‘frequently’. And how sad it is to see a well thought-out review marred by this off-the-cuff insult at the end.

    Neil Astley

    • hotmonks

      Hello Neil,

      I’m sorry that you felt my comment to be insulting, it wasn’t intended as such. Looking over it again, I apologise for the use of the word ‘risible’, which is clearly far too strong – I was, at that moment, thinking not of the cover designs but of the occasional unintentionally funny author photograph (obviously not that of Helen Ivory, but the one of Peter Didsbury, which is blurred, wonky and whose eyes are obscured by light from the flash reflecting off his glasses, springs to mind – though he perhaps provided this himself).

      However, my criticism, although badly expressed, was not ‘off-the-cuff’ either. I appreciate that at Bloodaxe you’re trying to do something different from the Faber-style plain cover with contrasting colours that a lot of presses use, perhaps with a small picture, but I do feel that some designs work and others don’t.

      I can contrast some Bloodaxe volumes that I really love and that are at hand at home. The two books that I don’t think work share certain features which contribute to a rather messy impression – large images which fill the entire cover and don’t seem hugely expressive of the work inside, a variety of fonts used, the colours of which sometimes blend into parts of the background image so that the words are difficult to see.

      Two that look great, on the other hand, would be the Helen Ivory volume and Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts. Again, these share certain features. The type is clearly visible because it’s not laid on top of the image (or at least not the vital bits) and is of a colour which stands out, one font is used and it’s the same on both volumes so that they’re clearly from the same press, and the image fits neatly within the cover and is obviously relevant to what’s inside.

      Looking at the publication dates, the first two volumes are both about 10 years old and the others are more recent, and so these differences perhaps reflect conscious changes in the design policy? I had also assumed that the authors were often involved in selecting the images, but I don’t think this necessarily removes them from the realm of criticism? Though, in any case, in addition to all this obviously contradicting a well-known proverb, I can’t say I would go out of my way to mention a cover that I didn’t like – I was here highlighting that I DO like this one, with reference to a criticism which you do hear voiced about some volumes.

      I’m afraid this might be almost as long as the review itself. In any case, I hope you aren’t too offended!



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