Stride Magazine -


by Helen Ivory, 80 pp, £7.95, Bloodaxe
Do you have one of those bedroom ornaments, all adorned with feathers and strung with an intricate weave, like an erratic spider’s web, its tricksy substance contained by a magical frame on your wall? The dream catcher promises to fend off unwelcome visitations from the world of your dreams, a world we still know so little about. And it is the predominant image which comes to my mind as I think about Helen Ivory’s poems, snared as they are in their fluid illogicality. Ivory’s language, seemingly innocuous, sometimes almost deadpan, is in fact highly and instinctively wrought to contain the elusive resonance of her subject matter. That subject matter is myth, madness, dislocation of self, shifting intent of narrator and her (it is almost always a ‘she’ who speaks) quixotic elemental world. Helen once said at a reading that ‘the poems are mad so I don’t have to be’; they capture the hectic imagination at full strength. Prepare, therefore, to be disturbed.

‘Meow’, the first poem of ‘The Double Life of Clocks’, is a case in point. Our narrator speaks of childhood games with the family cat, reasonably enough, until gradually the poem twists into an encompassing insanity. We lose sight of our firm ground as the narrator loses sight of her cat, her mother, her own human parameters. Repeated phrases interweave loss and longing like an hallucinogenic pantoum. ‘I never saw her again’; ‘we wash our faces together’. Other poems capture the same intensity of menace without leaving the domestic arena: washing machines turn homicidal (‘Spin Cycle’), bubble bath invades and taunts the bather’s skull (‘Why I Don’t Use Bubbles’), even sleeping bodies turn traitor, sloughed off like pervasive sadness, permeating their surroundings (‘A Curious Thing’). But there is no comfort out of doors, where night seeps into skin like a death (‘It’s Like This’), or abroad, where the lone traveller can turn quietly insane at the drop of a copy of Madame Bovary, that classic of unsatisfied female longing (‘Baggage’).

Balanced against these poems of (to forgive a paradox) tightly controlled disintegration is a selection of animal poems which, like a rural bestiary, capture strangeness in more luminous forms: huge chickens loom, cows swim in moonlight. These cows in particular impressed me, ‘dissolving in the space between night and day’(‘The cows in my garden swim in moonlight’); these creatures move towards a liminal space where time is destabilised and Keats’ ‘negative capability’ takes on a peculiarly contemporary form: the ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’ (Keats’ words) of a female voice on the run from cultural or emotional ties.

I am interested in the way femininity in the poems merges with the waywardness of these fabulous animals, fusing with the elements, courting magic. Like one of Ivory’s poetic chickens, her voice flows to fill the gaps and absences of limited expectations placed upon her: for in the light of apparent normality ‘her shadow is vast’(‘Chicken by Moonlight’). But the risks in slipping the bonds of convention are also spelt large, and, like the wayward chicken, ‘she must be aware of the dangers that darkness/ holds for her kind’. There are plenty of fairy-tale qualities to Ivory’s work, but the biggest darkness and dangers by far are either psychological or plain inexplicable in the simple man-made language she uses. This is language that is nevertheless imbued with great power. In one poem, pain is draped around the narrator like a garment with innumerable cultural references:

      Today she wears it like a dress,
      So tight, she can barely move.
      The red fabric burns her skin
      As she reaches for the knife to cut free
             (‘The Red Dress’)

I never said the outcome of escape was positive.

Ivory’s writing is at its best when she captures the ambiguities of (female) desire through dense, illogical narratives that recount mysteries. She can twist a mythical framework with unerring accuracy. ‘The Weight of a Hundred Babies’ in particular does this brilliantly. A land is ravaged by fire and all the pregnant women give birth to fireflies which drift away to a ‘star-spattered’ sky. Many years pass until it begins to rain, each drop magically turning into a dew-scented baby if caught by a woman. But the women are overcome by possibilities, ‘crushed by the weight/of the hundreds they were trying to catch’. Fecundity is as unreliable a heaven as is dearth. But don’t trust me either ­ I know the poet in question and have become familiar with some of the dreamtime threads. The only sure way out of uncertainty is to capture a copy of this book yourself.

      © Sarah Law 2003