Wunderkammer: Helen Ivory, MadHat Press

entry picture

Wunderkammer is the new and selected poems of UK poet Helen Ivory, published by New England publisher MadHat Press, based in Massachusetts. The book contains poems that chart Helen Ivory’s poetry career to date, from her Bloodaxe debut, The Double Life of Clocks (2012) to her forthcoming collection How to Construct a Witch, due out from Bloodaxe in 2024. It’s a literally spellbinding greatest hits of Ivory’s poems that illustrate both the quality and epic range of her work stretching over two decades. 

In ‘Moon Landing’ which opened her collection Waiting for Bluebeard (Bloodaxe, 2013), we witness those giant steps for mankind through the lens of a pregnant mother “who watches with the millions/in their front rooms”. But Baby Helen “will not budge”. The poem ends with the absurdity of a man playing “hopscotch on the moon” as this iconic moment in history is reduced to a mere distraction by a woman desperate to give birth. But her daughter will enter the world when she’s good and ready. It’s a brilliant opener to her critically acclaimed fourth collection which shows the reader she’s already in control of the world she’s about to inherit. 

In part two of the same collection, poems directly featuring Bluebeard are presented opposite poems about The Disappearing and run parallel in an extended metaphor through a series of poems which use the folklore surrounding the murderous husband to examine loss of identity in an abusive marriage. 

In ‘Bluebeard’s Letters’ a woman searching for "traces of a life before" finds "nothing in his study/but the heads of his ancestors/glowering from vellum walls." Instead, the woman finds traces of humanity in the "stuttering lines" of old love letters she finds in a trunk. 

In ‘The Disappearing #6’ a woman presses “missed heartbeats into a wet plaster wall ... measuring out silences to fall into”. When the plaster dries, “the heart dies into a well of forgetting”.

In ‘Bluebeard the Chef’ a rabbit is skinned and with “a deft incision … the tiny heart is in Bluebeard’s hands”. This visceral detail can’t help but encourage the reader to find the process analogous with how Bluebeard treats his wife. It’s a powerful metaphor and also worryingly prophetic in that it hints at how his current wife might well meet her fate.

On the opposite page, ‘The Disappearing #8’, Bluebeard’s wife doesn’t recognise “a single hair on her head”. She feeds chickens and guinea foul and “pheasants/ in the fields … inherits their scratchy voices;/the urge to look over their shoulders.” Again, the metaphor of helpless animals fearing what might become of them resonates with the reader. 

In ‘Bluebeard at Work’ we discover his wife has “grown into her own company” but can’t fathom the work he does at his desk that keeps him “occupied and furious”. Once again, his wife is clearly traumatised by Bluebeard, as she “corresponds exactly to her shadow”. 

This devastating series of poems illustrates an abusive marriage in all its horror. Utilising the folklore of Bluebeard - a man who killed one wife after another - provides an engaging framework for Ivory to examine marital abuse in a slant yet poignant way and draw out the absurdities of a narcissistic psychopath. Ivory’s version of Bluebird folklore ends on a happy note, thankfully. In ‘The Disappeared #9’ Bluebeard’s wife escapes, leaving her skin hanging on a coat hanger “like a wedding dress decanted of its bride”, and leaves “the house naked”, thus breaking the cycle of Bluebeard murdering his wives as she literally disappears from the marriage. Bluebeard’s wife is a survivor. 

In the selection of poems from the chapbook Maps of the Abandoned City, we find Ivory in a more apocalyptic mood. Indeed, in ‘Nights in the Abandoned City’ the dark itself is brilliantly and disturbingly personified, “heaves its boots off by the fire” now he’s home, and “unburdens itself of all human sorrow”. It’s not by accident that the dark is presented to us in male form. Published a year before Covid, the poem draws to a close in the final stanza with a prophetic twist: “In the shadowplay, the dark is a plague doctor’s mask.” Not for the first time in this brilliant best of, one starts to suspect that Ivory is a writer armed and blessed with more than just poetic powers. 

Elsewhere in the same selection, the Art Gallery is personified too, “clears its throat and holds forth/to the symposium’s audience/of one hundred and twenty stacking chairs …” And in this creepy gallery in the abandoned city, the “old masters/are shorn of their aesthetic and monetary value” because there are no humans left to ogle the art on display. This surreal take on the end of days brings a fresh and often ironic eye to the literature of apocalypse. 

Elsewhere in Wunderkammer, we’re treated to a selection of Ivory's outstanding 2019 collection, The Anatomical Venus and her earlier beguiling collections, and given a preview to her forthcoming collection, How to Construct a Witch. Ivory takes us back to the Pendle witch trials where the poet becomes Margaret Johnson, and “Days were moonless, drab/and I was a sack of bones/in my widow house.” Later, she questions representations of witches in Hollywood, via Glenda the Good from The Wizard of Oz: “Are you more peaches and cream or frog in a quagmire;/opiate stoned in a cradle of poppies/or rattled awake in the dash of a blizzard?” Her final question suggests the poet isn’t convinced by Glenda at all: “Are you a good witch or are you a bad witch?

She begins ‘The Menstruous Woman’ with a quote: “... bees, it is a well known fact, will forsake their hives if touched by a menstruous woman.”

In the second stanza, Ivory tells us: “Not everyone is bold enough/to turn their menses into art;/to scriven gore against primed cotton board.” It might not be “elegant to speak of blood” as the poet playfully informs us in the first line of the poem, but when Ivory does, we’re all ears. Her mocking tone to all the men throughout history who have been talking bollocks about matters they don’t understand is pitched perfectly and packed with her distinct brand of irony and humour.

I could go on for pages about what an outstanding book this new and selected poems Wunderkammer is, but there’s always the danger of myriad spoiler alerts. Indeed, this captivating book is not just a self-contained masterpiece but also entices the reader to read each and every collection the book takes its selections from. Wunderkammer is a perfect title for where these beguiling and wonderful poetic curiosities find themselves exhibited. Come on in. Have a look. There’s a wonder around every corner. 


Helen Ivory, Wunderkammer, MadHat Press, £18.45 


◄ Thinking of Seamus Heaney as tenth anniversary of his death nears

Prose Poetry in Theory and Practice: ed. Anne Caldwell, Oz Hardwick, Routledge ►


No comments posted yet.

If you wish to post a comment you must login.

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse, you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

Find out more Hide this message