Locked Room Mysteries

Waiting for Bluebeard
, Helen Ivory (112pp, 9.95, Bloodaxe)

From the version of Charles Perrault onwards, the fable of Bluebeard has carried something of the hallucinatory logic of the nightmare. The rooms of Bluebeard's palace, thronged one moment with party-goers, fall suddenly empty and coldly threatening. The husband's physical freakishness (why blue? answers on a postcard) signs a moral monstrosity, and yet the test failed by all the wives is one of obedience, in which they stand in line with Pandora and Eve, accompanied by at least the ghost of censure - indeed Perrault's rhyming moral at the tale's end cites the dangers of unseemly curiosity. The locked room, its grisly contents, the golden key with the inexpungeable stain of blood, are meat and drink to psychoanalytic and feminist interpretion and have been variously explained as encoding fear of the male, or of defloration, or of exotic perversion and despotism (see the illustrations of Dulac and Rackham) or of the arranged marriage, or of just being quite disastrously mistaken about the person we've married.

Helen Ivory, the latest to join Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood et al in giving new literary form and interpretation to the tale, delves rather deeper into the back story of the bride herself, nameless here, who even at her birth finds herself in a world in the process of mutating from the historic and dateable to the alien and unprecedented.

   The suitcase has been packed for days.
   All the clothes are white or lemon.
   A man plays hopscotch on the moon.
         (from: 'Moon landing')

Thereafter the child moves through the stages of her life, all leading inexorably to Bluebeard, her movements detonating flurries of skewed folktale, magical perplexities, surreal turnings blurring into shrewd metaphor, sometimes bleak, sometimes mordantly or wistfully funny. Her parents appear, marking and moulding but emotionally absent - their disappearances prefiguring the bride's surrender of self.

   A hundred years later
   my mother left with the carthorse,
   the glass clowns, a suitcase
   full of babies' teeth
   and all the records in the house.

   My father's cars were skeletons;
   emptied of their hearts
   hollowed of their eyes and tongues.
   He cried oil, bled oil, drowned in oil,
   or so the legend goes.
              (from: 'Oil')

Only in the final quarter of the book does Bluebeard appear, and in none of the established avatars, princely or exotic. Instead, he is a feral, earthy presence, a worker of the land, an intimate of wolves.

   We are waiting for Bluebeard,
   and when he happens here
   in his grey-silver car,
   he will unleash wolves
   like rain.
             (from: 'Waiting for Bluebeard')

I remember that Angela Carter's 'The Company of Wolves' shares a volume with her Bluebeard treatment, 'The Bloody Chamber', but there's also in the folkloric origins of the tale the figure of Conomor the werewolf, a Breton legend. The terrible energy and amorality of the wolf is wired in. There are also locked rooms with horrors in them, gardens too: 'Some are only buried waist-deep/ and from a distance / they are trees holding hands'. As for the bride, she loses herself in 9 poems called 'The Disappearing', beginning with the shedding of her skin:

   She imagined herself lithe
   inside the house, her new home.

   She didn't imagine the scarring
   nor the painstaking care required

   to leave the ghost of herself
   on the doorstep like a cold-caller.
                (from: 'The disappearing 1')

Finally, the surrender and fissuring of the self is in complete -

   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.
                 (from: 'The disappearing 9')

and the father is fetched back in the closing poem, hardly distinguishable from Bluebeard himself.

   ...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.
                  (from: 'Hide')

Re-read, Ivory's version of Bluebeard seems to be not so much a mutation as a return to the true psychic roots of the story - issues of masculine and feminine, family, marriage, obedience and expectation, the world and how we fit in it, how we confront its demands and dangers and sometimes overwhelming oddness. I've described a narrative strand running through it, but the wondrous thing is Ivory's vision and the linguistic resources she deploys to make that world  unsettlingly weird and yet come vividly to life, through our unexpected recognitions of its persuasive illogic. This is my poetry book of the first half of 2014 - I'd be surprised (and feel blessed) if the rest of the year brings anything as good.

     Alasdair Paterson 2014