Helen Ivory. Female Polyphony
When I think of Helen Ivory, a poet, but also an artist who creates collages and assemblages, I imagine her rummaging around a flea market, finding crippled toys and dollhouse equipment, a miniature stool and an old-fashioned black telephone the size of a cockroach, which she will use in The Marvel of Hearing – one for her art compositions. I see her picking up shells by the sea — they will be useful for her assemblages, too. Like Joseph Cornell, the author of the famous surreal boxes, and an important inspiration for her poetic and plastic imagination, Helen Ivory can spot many treasures in the garbage that will later be used as material for her art. Another inexhaustible source of her ideas, both visual and literary, are antique shops full of rare books and magazines from several decades ago, of maps, engravings, scientific brochures and illustrated fairy tales.
Helen Ivory is the author of five poetry books published by the prestigious Bloodaxe Books: The Double Life of Clocks (2002), The Dog in the Sky (2006), The Breakfast Machine (2010), Waiting for Bluebeard (2013) and The Anatomical Venus (2019). In addition, with smaller publishers she has published experimental collections in which text and image dialogue with each other on equal terms: Fool’s World (2015) – a deck of cards inspired by Tarot, created in collaboration with the artist Tom de Freston, and Hear What the Moon Told Me (2017) – a book composed of original poetic and visual collages. In 2019, she also published Maps of the Abandoned City, a chapbook with lighter texts, resulting from lyrical play that she described in an email to me as “a fun interlude”.
Since Helen Ivory’s poetry has not been translated into Polish so far, in our e-mail we wondered which poems to choose for the first presentation in the bilingual festival book with a dozen or so poems. The word chapbook would fit best here. In the end, we decided that Helen’s personality would be best presented in the texts selected from two books that seem the most important for her oeuvre so far: the volumes Waiting for Bluebeard (2013) and The Anatomical Venus published six years later. Both of these books are not just collections of poems. Each of them tells a certain (very coherent) story written into poems; the poet stretched a umbrella over all of the texts, organizing them into an accurate concept, as she told William Bedford in an interview called “Wunderkammer with Black Coffee”. The Anatomical Venus is in many ways a sequel to Waiting for Bluebeard. In the earlier of these collections, Helen Ivory employs what seems to be the autobiographical convention, focusing on the heroine’s gloomy childhood and her adult life “in Bluebeard’s Castle” – where the relationship with Bluebeard, as you can easily guess, is a metaphor for a destructive, toxic love relationship. In The Anatomical Venus, on the other hand, the poet departs from the autobiographic mode in order to look at the same problem – female trauma and violence against women, as well as their struggle for subjectivity – from a historical perspective that allows her to show various forms oppression has taken over the centuries. “So many women approached me with their own Bluebeard stories of abusive relationships in which they were made to believe that there was something wrong with them, I started to think of the universal story of the othering of women”, Ivory said in the same interview.
Let us dwell for a moment on the autobiographical nature of Waiting for Bluebeard and the poetic method of Helen Ivory. It was only in this book, the fourth in her oeuvre, that the autobiographical thread came to the fore so strongly, which for the poet was associated with a certain fear of how this disclosure would be received. “I was excited about Waiting for Bluebeard, but a bit worried it was so personal people might read into it things that are not there, and worse – things that are there! I’d found a way with the Bluebeard poems, to write about an abusive relationship I was in for half of my twenties and thirties. That’s way too long to be inside Bluebeard’s Castle by anybody’s reckoning, but when you are inside Bluebeard’s Castle you can’t see that you are” (“Wunderkammer with Black Coffee”).
Helen Ivory’s way of writing about intensely private experiences is as far as possible from confession or mere exhibitionism. Her personal suffering is turned into a universal story. The poet encrypts her own traumas, using a highly metaphorized, yet sparing language; she refers to fairy tales and myths, creates verbal images that on the one hand are associated with the enigmatic world of the aforementioned Joseph Cornell, and on the other – with Roland Topor’s macabre. And the third aspect is still different – she creates an illusion of a child’s nightmare inspired by the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. It must have been in some flea market, while looking for materials for her assemblages, that Helen found dolls with button eyes, to which she compared the two timid sisters in “The Family at Night”:
We saw little with our button eyes
and spoke even less with our stitched up mouths.
We played at playing till it was time for bed
We always woke as our human selves
to find the downstairs rooms had altered too.
A chair unstuffed, a table’s legs all wrong,
and, that one time, kittens gone from their basket;
the mother’s bone-hollow meow.
In the reality of this poem, which opens with a picture of “father in his armchair with an unlit pipe” and of “mother in the kitchen pretending to eat” is all play and pretending (as expressed concisely and paradoxically in the phrase “played at playing”). Violence takes place in hiding, but its traces cannot be ignored. The mask of a rag doll cannot protect the endangered child who is instinctively hiding behind it. Helen Ivory is the master of the silent punch line: the mother’s meowing in the last verse may refer the cat mother whose kittens have been taken away as well as to the mother of the girls – to her externalized despair or to the inner state of a woman constantly forced to act out something without a voice.
Speaking to Abegail Morley for “The Poetry Shed” website, Helen Ivory said she was always greatly influenced by Eastern European poets such as the Serbian classic Vasko Pop, who used metaphors to deceive political censorship. In Ivory’s work, a similar creative philosophy serves to outsmart emotional censorship, bypassing the taboo felt by anyone who is aware what personal and artistic risks excessive “exuding” might bring. And it is not only about censorship, but also about finding a language that is catchy enough to express matters that escape expression – and to suggest things that cannot be said. I think the most harrowing poem in which Ivory has managed to find. such a language is. “Hide” from the Waiting for Bluebeard collection. As a translator, I was puzzled by the title, because hide is both the verb “to hide” and the noun meaning animal skin, and also — in British English — the masked hiding place of hunters. All these senses are important in the poem. This is what the last, third stanza is about:
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.
To say that this is a poem about abuse, about the father’s paternal “love” for his daughter, is to bring this text down to a single diagnosis – one that seems legitimate, and implied early on, but flattening and simplistic it nonetheless. “Hide”, whose title I ultimately translated as “Skryć się w skórze”, seems sharp yet unsaid. It carries a powerful load of horror, grotesque and pain, contained in images as if from a dark fairy tale, amazing, but more legible. This is a feature of many of Helen’s poems: they use images that are of surreal provenance, but not at all arbitrary; they build a logical, psychologically credible narrative. It is interesting, however, that when asked about her attitude to surrealism, Ivory replied: “What I don’t like about the word ‘surreal’ is the word ‘irrational’ which is often associated with it. I, at all times, try to be rational and whenever I am making an image or metaphor it needs to make sense – I need to be able to see it. And the trick is to get other people to see it, to make something sound rational. If we are saying that ‘surreal’ means ‘dreamlike’, I am more comfortable with that because there is a logic to dreams – they are like theatres for metaphors to play out” (“Wunderkammer with Black Coffee”). In a conversation with Abegail Morley, in turn, Ivory described herself as a “visual writer” who follows the principle of magical realism in a direct manner: “I am […] a visual writer and always take transformations literally – I see them happening so the poems are just the written interpretations of the slideshow that goes on in my head!”.
This is not surprising in a poet who came to the world of literature from the world of visual arts: “I’d always thought I was an artist who wrote poems, but by then [after the publication of Waiting for Bluebeard] I thought of myself as a poet who made artwork. I try to combine the two sometimes as collage poems and assemblages – I like the way words and images bounce off against each other and enhance and skew each other’s meaning” (“Wunderkammer with Black Coffee”).
It is enough to look at a few assemblages of Helen Ivory, photos of which can be found on her website (www.helenivory.co.uk), and above all on the covers of her books, to be amazed how coherent the theatre of her imagination is both in art and in poems. Helen often places her assemblage compositions within small, inverted stretcher bars. The resulting containers – boxes – are filled with bird feathers, skulls, egg shells and fragments of doll bodies: from baby legs and hands to eyeballs like miniature lamps. The obsession of the body – subjected to aggression, constantly threatened, a body whose integrity and intimacy are constantly violated – also dominates in Waiting for Bluebeard and Anatomical Venus. In “Child”, the heroine “must have been somewhere else / when they cut her open, hauled the baby out / and tried to zip her up like an empty bag”. You can probably assume that it is the same woman in “Rabbit Season”, waiting for Bluebeard, who returns from the hunt with a string of dead rabbits (with their eyes open) at his waist. A chair unstuffed, a house turned inside out, with “innards tumbled onto the grass” – these are other clear signs of physical and mental disintegration.
The Anatomical Venus objectifies this obsession by placing a series of historical mirrors for it. The language of the dark fairy tale is replaced by narratives of well-documented past practices, and the nature of these practices supersedes the boldest ideas of the twentieth-century surrealists. Let us take the eponymous anatomical Venus – she refers, as Hannah Stone writes in her review, to the past “practice of creating tiny models of women (sometimes stored in coffin-shaped boxes) which can take apart so the viewer can inspect and learn from the individual organs and even the unborn child inside the mother. This excavation of female properties serves as a metaphor for the entire collection; the reader becomes viewer or even peeping Tom, and has to ask themselves from whose perspective they are looking” (http://www.thelakepoetry.co.uk/reviews/ivory/). The poet herself notices in the anatomical models of women “a heady mix of sex and death and scientific empiricism. The Venuses are uncannily beautiful, usually made of wax which looks like human skin. They would often have long and flowing human hair which made me think of all the women who would have to sell their hair to live” (“Wunderkammer with Black Coffee”). Ivory created her own version of little Venus from the bust of a boudoir doll, bird feathers, and string found on the beach, and of a friend’s dried-up wedding bouquet. Her photograph was featured on the cover of the collection, which received the “Book by the Cover” award by the East Anglian Books Awards.
The Anatomical Venus is filled with stories about women told in the first and the third person: the book is a mosaic of voices that have never had a chance to be heard in real life. We get to know an alleged witch, stigmatized by the rural community, “for her womb is a wandering beast; / for she is husbandless, and at candle time / brazenly trades with the Devil”. It seems that is is the same witch, who, having been hanged, in another poem gives a vengeful monologue to the Reverend Heinrich Kramer, a 15th-century inquisitor and author of Malleus Maleficarum, the famous treatise on witchcraft. Among Ivory’s protagonists there is also a midwife “with birth blood and earth caked to the hem of her skirts” – her profession and folk knowledge also make her a victim of accusations of witchcraft and make her inferior to the male doctor, despite the macabre effects of his actions (the doctor, as we learn from the punch line, tore off the head of a new-born girl with forceps). Other female figures include a housekeeper who neglects her duties in her lord’s house as a result of her menopause, and is sent to a psychiatric institution and “treated” there with barbaric methods; a “hysterical” wife on whom the doctor performs a “medical procedure” with “his new, mechanized instrument” in the fainting room; finally, there is Hellish Nell, a psychic woman and a historical figure, who was the last person to be imprisoned in 1944 under the British 18th century Witchcraft Act.
All these women are suffocating in a world that has assigned them subordinate social roles; they are all restrained by one corset of male ideas and expectations, and any attempt to win for independence immediately makes them dangerous witches. Feminine biology and sexuality are taboo spheres, the female body becomes an object of violence stemming from ignorance. The oppressive effect is reinforced in the book by the mottos that themselves create a rich history of misogyny: starting from the quotation from the Old Testament: “Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Sorceress to Live”, through excerpts from the aforementioned treatise Malleus Maleficarum, to recommendations from Domestic Duties, a nineteenth-century textbook for young married women written by Mrs. Parkes. It is significant that this Mrs Parkes, even as the author of the textbook, does not have her own name; on the title page of Domestic Duties she is hiding under the name of her husband: Mrs William Parkes. This is in line with the poems in The Anatomical Venus, in which women, as Jayne Stanton notes in her review, are rarely mentioned by name; they are usually referred to as somebody’s daughters or wives (boatman’s wife, farmer’s wife), or on the basis of what they do (a maid, a prostitute).
The poems from The Anatomical Venus have, in my opinion, a somewhat less destructive power than the personal texts in Waiting for Bluebeard. Historical costumes are generally distancing. Besides, the superstitions about the hysteria caused by the “wandering uterus” and the questionable methods of treating it (as well as the blood-curdling history of the persecution of women accused of witchcraft) are widely known. One would like to believe that they belong to the past. Which does not mean that their metaphorical potential has run out. No, it is still relevant, as Helen Ivory shows, because oppression – not only against women, but against all those in whom society only sees dangerous, threatening “others” – is doing well and is taking new forms. Old superstitions revive in modern guises. The strength of The Anatomical Venus consists in the ways the collection makes this phenomenon visible – in creating a suggestive polyphony of alleged others, in showing the excluded and humiliated in a colourful and vivid way, without slackness and moralizing, but with empathy and imagination. Let us, then, listen to what an aging housewife has to tell, looking for respite and solitude in a home distillery; let us follow the flight of the moth – the soul that flew out of the mouth of a woman losing her mind in a tight corset. We might. perhaps gain something – just like the heroine of Helen Ivory’s poetry. As a matter of fact, it might be the case that these various female characters are many faces of one heroine – whose confrontations with fragility, with otherness, and with what constrains and overwhelms her – have allowed her to free herself from Bluebeard.
A selection of Helen Ivory’s poems in Polish and English: Bluebeard and the Anatomical Venus / Sinobrody i anatomiczna Wenus, translated into Polish by Krystyna Dąbrowska. Instytut Kultury Miejskiej, Gdańsk 2020.
translated by Miłosz Wojtyna (www.languageextreme.pl)