Thursday 8 June 2023

Helen Ivory, "Wunderkammer: New and Selected Poems"

Helen Ivory is a poet, and collage artist who also makes shadow-boxes. Her fifth Bloodaxe collection is  The Anatomical Venus (2019). She edits the webzine Ink, Sweat and Tears and teaches Creative Writing online for the UEA/NCW. A book of mixed media poems Hear What the Moon Told Me is published by KFS, and chapbook Maps of the Abandoned City by SurVision. She also has work translated into Polish, Ukrainian, Spanish, Greek and Croatian as part of Versopolis. Wunderkammer: New and Selected Poems (2023) is published in the US by MadHat Press. She was awarded Arts Council of England to research and write her next collection for Bloodaxe, Constructing a Witch (2024), which fixes on the monstering and scapegoating of women. Her website is here.  

About Wunderkammer: New and Selected Poems

From the Introduction, by Robert Archambeau

Ivory is an intensely visual poet, and her images could nestle up close to those of artists like Leonora Carrington, say, or Dorothea Tanning: Surrealist painters whose strongest work gives us domestic interiors where the realistic takes the impossible in uncanny matrimony. 

And then there are the nameless women in these poems—or, perhaps more properly, there is Woman, in archetypal form, standing at the center of Ivory’s work. Ivory introduces us to women who disappear in bad marriages; women who are in various ways fed on and consumed; women shut into houses, sometimes for many years; women who parade in new dresses in front of men they should not trust; women silenced in scold’s bridles; needlewomen; cooks; laundresses. But she also brings us into the presence of sorceresses, witches, communers with an ethereal other side—Baba Yagas before whom one trembles.

There’s a consistent feel to these poems, to such an extent that should you meet one wandering in the deserts of Arabia you’d call out, astonished: “Helen! Helen Ivory!” But what is that mood? It’s something we often find in Gothic fiction, where the uncanny rubs shoulders with the marvelous, where sanity and chastity quake a little at the surrounding depth of darkness. At moments—when Death lies beside us, our bedmate and lodger—the aesthetic term is weird: a mode when something is present where it ought not to be. But more often we find a sense of absence, of phenomena without explanation, of ghosts where there had once been substance. The term for this is eerie. Helen Ivory writes to take us there ...

From Wunderkammer, by Helen Ivory

A Little Spell in Six Lessons

after Ana Maria Pacheco


You must first mask
your human self,
then forget your tongue.
Learn to talk as birds
or cloven-hoofed things.


To lose yourself
is a very particular art.
If you want ever to be found
scatter breadcrumbs,
pray the birds are not hungry.


I will tell you a story
of the dark corners
that hold us in place,
of the chandelier of bones,
the wind whistling through teeth.


Your body is a sheet
of blank paper
and the birds have eaten
their fill of your path.
They have pecked out your eyes.


Now see afresh,
see what you’ve become!
Your words are butterflies
pinned to your tongue -
release them.


And what you hold 
is perhaps what you wished for
as you sang as a child
in your feathered chair 
when the world was asleep. 

Spirit of the Storm

Frederick Sandys study for wood engraving 1860

There comes a point in very woman’s life
when she transmutes into The Spirit of the Storm.
Why not grow snakes for hair,
conjure rain and lightning from your artful hands?

You’ve earnt this wrath, don’t squander it 
on slapdash chores and sundry empty tasks 
in the hollow of your living room - 
get out and find a fitting auditorium.

They’ve been opining it for years
it should come as no surprise 
when venom spouts forth from your breasts. 
Lo! you are supreme, the most debauched of all bad mothers!

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