Helen Ivory writes on belonging, identity and finding a voice, and wonders whether her poetry has a Luton accent
For many poets, where they were born and where they grew up has a great bearing on how they write and what they write about. This sense of ingrained identity wasn’t really anything I ever had; I never felt that I belonged where I was born. I spent the first 21 years of my life trying to tunnel away from there. It has become something of a cliché to show your working-class hand, to say that you grew up on a council estate, but I did indeed grow up on a council estate. And in Luton. The most-Googled questions about Luton are: ‘Is Luton a poor town?’ and ‘Is Luton Safe?’, and an article Why the Hell Would Anyone Visit Luton? appears on page one at the time of googling. It didn’t feel a particularly unsafe place to live in the ’70s and ’80s but, apart from my mother, sister and grandmother, I never had the sense that there was anything there to nourish me.
As a child, I lived inside my imagination, did a lot of drawing and staged a lot of dramas for my toys. We didn’t know about Literature, we watched television. We went to church for jumble sales, and Bagpuss was my religion. The otherworld was always just around the corner — the women in my family did the Ouija, and there were ghost cats in our house. I am the only member of my family not to have seen them and still feel massively short-changed about this. In Waiting for Bluebeard I wrote about these aspects of my childhood, but I do not think those poems spoke with a Luton accent, as such. I have no way of knowing how my work would have developed if I’d been born to a middle-class family and went up to Cambridge to study English. Or if I’d have known what to say at my interview for Theatre Design at Wimbledon School of Art. I’d done a Foundation Art and Design course at Barnfield College in Luton and got a Distinction, but I was hopelessly out of my depth at Wimbledon. It was a totally different other-world and I can only assume that they invited me for interview because they needed to fulfil some quota of other. In retrospect, maybe they did see promise in my portfolio and my imposter syndrome began there. Either way, I didn’t have the language or currency to operate in that environment and so I got a job in one of those olde-worlde video rental shops.
George Szirtes recently asked a few of us on Facebook to talk about music that was important to them. I immediately turned to She Moves Through the Fair — the traditional Irish folk song/poem. The version I was first aware of is by All About Eve from their 1988 album All About Eve. I was a teenage Goth, haunting the graveyards and Arndale Centre of Luton, and this is the first poem I was ever aware of. I didn’t know it was a poem, or that it was was first collected in Donegal by poet Padraic Colum (1881-1972) and musicologist Herbert Hughes (1882-1937), and published by Boosey & Hawkes in London in Irish Country Songs in 1909. Why would I? This kind of thing wasn’t A Thing for somebody from my background.
And it was before such information was searchable online. Before there was an ‘online’. I just knew that it felt somehow like solid earth; somewhere I could live, even though it sounds ethereal. And then she went homeward, just one star awake . . . you can use language like this?! Two others on the album are In the Clouds, and Wild-Hearted Woman, which of course spoke to me in my crimson velvet skirts and aura of patchouli. I was different, always a bit out-of-kilter, and this song, this album, made me feel part of something bigger, and that there was something else out there. Julieanne Regan’s voice is within my range too, so of course I’ll sing along with this song — with all of their songs — at the drop of a black velvet witch hat!
I didn’t begin the proper search for the ‘something else out there’ until I was 24. I made a few disastrous relationship choices and lost the five years many poets these days would spend gaining their BA and MA. Then I did some stupid things, and some good things. I ended up in Norfolk in another disastrous relationship with a man twice my age, but happily found a place on a degree course at Norwich Art School where George Szirtes taught creative writing. And then I met someone I’ve come to call Bluebeard, who was even older than twice my age. I stayed with him for eleven years in what turned out to be an abusive relationship.
The whole notion of ‘finding a voice’ is tied into the many ways I have either not had the words because of my class and my background, or have been bullied into holding my tongue. The otherwise eloquent Bluebeard would use his own silence as a weapon and sometimes wouldn’t talk to me for days. We lived in the middle of a field and he had successfully made sure I had no friends and had lost touch with my family, so apart from some chickens and the cows in the next field, I had nobody to talk to. Thankfully, I had begun to write poems so could talk to the page. Not like you might a diary, but in a slanted, fractured way, in case Bluebeard saw it. It was a bit like living under siege, and I scarcely recognise the voiceless person I was then. In the second part of Waiting for Bluebeard the ‘I’ becomes a ‘she’ — a disembodied, observed person. I was only able to write about this experience seven years after I left him.
After Waiting for Bluebeard appeared in 2013, 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 consider the universal story of the othering and silencing of women. My research took me to texts such as the Malleus Maleficarum (1486), The Ladies Dictionary (1684) and The Complete Servant (1824), and into the Norfolk Record Office where I looked at female inmate records from St Andrews Asylum from the 19th Century. These notes included photographs of the inmates on entry to, and on leaving the asylum as part of the analysis of the time. Photography was new then, as was psychiatry, so men (women were not allowed to be doctors) were using it as a tool to carefully study female patients in particular to see if the shapes of their heads or the expressions on their faces gave anything away about the nature of their insanity. Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893), a French neurologist and professor of anatomical pathology, was one of the most famous exponents of this method. I first came across photographs of hysterical women at his clinic in Salpêtrière in Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady.
I found the images of the women in the asylum records so moving. The photographs, taken at times of great stress, and the notes about them written by doctors, were probably the only record that these women had ever walked about in the county I live in. The women in the asylum were poor and working class. Their occupations were listed as domestic servants; wife of somebody; daughter of somebody. As a working-class woman, I would have been a servant or maid of some variety. One woman was put into the asylum for singing hymns loudly in the street. I have stood up with a microphone saying poems in public places to unwilling audiences, so there’s another parallel. Each time I walked toward the Norfolk Record Office I felt an uncanny draw towards the women in the photographs. It would be arrogant to say that the poems in The Anatomical Venus speak for the voiceless, but it was my intention to acknowledge the sisters who have gone before me; to reach out my hand to them.
A great number of them had post-natal depression, couldn’t have children, had so many children they didn’t know what to do, or had children ‘out of wedlock’, so were sent away. I am not saying that none of the women in the asylum were psychotic, but often women were put away because they were troublesome. Much is made in the notes of how much fuss women were making, and how they could be stilled. More brazen in its control of behaviour, and a chilling metaphor, is the Scold’s Bridle or Witch’s Bridle, the use of which was first recorded in 1567 and last recorded in 1856. An iron muzzle in an iron framework enclosed the head and a bit slid into the mouth and pressed down on top of the tongue, often with a spike. This humiliated and silenced any loud and awkward women who were forced to wear them through the streets.
This piece has been more confessional than I intended it to be. At times I almost drew back and began the whole thing again from more of an academic viewpoint, but I talked myself out of that. I told myself that this is about voice and to stop censoring myself. Looking back, for I am now half a century old, I can see influences which have been collaged into my voice from things I’ve read and seen and connected with. I nod to Angela Carter, to Oliver Postgate, to Jan Svankmajer, Vasko Popa and Leonora Carrington to name but a few. I nod to all those anonymous tellers of the tales collected by Perrault and Grimm.
Going back to confessions, a little anecdote for you. Like many creative people, I was picked on as a child for being different, and so at school I became introverted. Year after year, my school report would say ‘Helen is rather shy, hopefully next year she will come out of her shell’. My life’s work has been to try to ditch the shell, it seems. It’s happened in fits and starts. Now I have the image of Botticelli’s Venus using her shell as a surfboard. I am doing my wobbly best to stay upright, but the metaphor has got itself into a pickle. Thank you for listening.