Clare Best reviews Wunderkammer by Helen Ivory (MadHat Press, 2023)
This substantial volume of Helen Ivory’s ‘New and Selected Poems’ brings together work from eight of her collections, including ten tantalising poems from the latest – Constructing a Witch – to be published in 2024 by Bloodaxe. Wunderkammer offers not only a wide range of poems but also a chronological overview of Ivory’s work. It presents the cumulative power of her imagery and allows the reader to fully experience the strong undertow of the uncanny in her work.
When it comes to visually descriptive language, this poet brings authority and a consistency of purpose. Ivory always knows exactly what she is doing with an image, where it might take a reader, and what kind of sensory journey it will create. I like this feeling of being invited in and swept along. I can put my hand in hers, knowing I will arrive somewhere unexpected. The ride will be reliably surprising.
I like this feeling of being invited in and swept along. I can put my hand in hers, knowing I will arrive somewhere unexpected. The ride will be reliably surprising
In ‘Moon’ (from The Breakfast Machine, Bloodaxe 2010) each image is clear and crisp – from “The spine of this tower block / is breaking” via “my voice is as loud / as a hatful of headaches” to the impact of the final stanza:
The sky is a sheet
of black paper,
and the moon is painted
with the brush of a child.
With the same brush
he takes, and he loads
and then skilfully paints out the stars.
The most powerful of Ivory’s images recur across poems and across collections, accruing layers of meaning and significance well beyond their original trope ‘tog rating’, even when that already carries as much cultural and symbolic weight as the moon. It is fascinating to follow just this one image, the moon, through Ivory’s poetic oeuvre. In Waiting for Bluebeard (Bloodaxe, 2013) the moon makes multiple entrances. In ‘Nights’, for example, the moon “somehow rests / on the top of the wardrobe”. In ‘A Week with Bluebeard: Monday – Drawing Down the Moon’ the moon “followed him home / cold light burning the back of this neck’ and then “He gripped her by the waist, by the wrist, / as he spun her around / […] / and her names fell from her / and the night blurred”. The moon also appears in different manifestations – diminished, suggested, or alluded to in phrases such as “the lunatic flight of a moth” or the fingernails “floating in the dark liquid / of neatly labelled jars”. The final poem, ‘Hide’, holds at its centre a beautifully weighted and poised lunar metaphor: “My father made me a dress / from the light of the moon” which is “pinned into place” with the mother’s “fine finger bones”.
In Fool’s World (Gatehouse Press 2016), moon imagery – enigmatic, potent in a more ‘Sensurround’ kind of way – plays a key role in several of the poems associated with the feminine. And lunar presences integral to The Anatomical Venus (Bloodaxe 2019) appear as “dark little half-moons / packed under broken nails”, as “the blood moon”, and as a “waxing belly”. The moon sometimes seems now to be thoroughly embodied, even incorporated into a human body, rather than existing outside it. In ‘Sister’ (from Maps of the Abandoned City, SurVision 2019) it resumes a role as principal player – “weary of the City’s halogens / and neon flamingos”. In a brilliantly triumphant statement of unearthly lunar power, Ivory imagines what might happen “If the moon could anthropomorphise itself”:
She would summon the sea
to this landlocked place
and tuck it in snug with hospital corners.
The poems drawn from Ivory’s imminent collection, Constructing a Witch, carry references to the moon-related physical manifestations of menstruation and menopause and to days that “were moonless, drab” (‘Margaret Johnson’). It has been quite a lunar journey since “the moon was a distant ghost / in the still dark sky” in ‘The Sky Wolf’ from The Double Life of Clocks (Bloodaxe 2002).
Ivory has a particular gift for evoking a sense of the uncanny. She blurs the boundaries between imagination and reality – a feature identified by Freud as an important characteristic of the uncanny, in his famous essay The Uncanny (1919). Look out for birds, contraptions, dolls, night-time, silence and stillness, strange slippages of time, an intensity of attention, feeling trapped or claustrophobic, peculiar differences in scale (Alice in Wonderland often comes to mind), repetitions, reflections and doublings, crossing boundaries between worlds, the sense of not being ‘at home’ in a place that should be home. These are all part of her universe.
Ivory has a particular gift for evoking a sense of the uncanny
The poet’s collages and assemblages, of which eight are represented in Wunderkammer, show visual representations of her work in this area. I’m so glad they are included (although more would have been better!) because they illustrate connections between her visual art and her verbal art, and because uncanny effects are sometimes more readily identified visually. Her visual pieces help one recognize similar effects arising from the poems.
J. M. Barrie wrote “Children have the strangest adventures without being troubled by them. For instance, they may remember to mention, a week after the event happened, that when they were in the wood they met their dead father and had a game with him”. It is exactly this casualness about engaging with the uncanny that makes Ivory’s work so disarming. She writes poems that assume the odd to be normal, and in this way she brings the uncanny to life – which is also strange because feelings of uncanniness are so often associated with death and absence. Of all the groups of poems in Wunderkammer, the poems from Maps of the Abandoned City seem to do this most, and I think this is related to the surprising animation of the abandoned city, even in the absence of human life. Here is ‘Sleep’:
The city is old.
It pulls furs about itself,
hunkers down and draws archetypes
on the insides of its eyelids with chalk:
a staircase stopping to consider
if it is going up or down,
a bed empty as a ploughed field,
a discarded sheet miming snow.
These days there is nothing
you can say to bestir the city.
No seraphim or hooded minstrel
to pour music through its underground trains.
The abandoned city poems come along at just the right moment in Wunderkammer to reinforce themes of danger and destruction inherent in her earlier collections. They seem to say: This is what can happen, this is what does happen, if we think we can invent the world for our own benefit. It’s a strong message, succinctly delivered in poems of surreal beauty in which the world somehow continues in its own absence. I hadn’t met these poems before, and they are among my favourites in Wunderkammer.
They also lead neatly into the final poems in the book – ten tasters of what is to come. The sample stops just at the point when I’m completely hooked, with ‘Resistance Spells’. This is the first stanza of ‘Summoning Spell: The Body’:
Call back blood to blood.
Call back the spectacle of flesh.
Fasten on your head with wire,
hold it like a scrying ball
in your savvy hands.
Clare Best has published a memoir, The Missing List, three full collections of poetry, and several pamphlets and collaborative works. Her latest publications are End of Season / Fine di stagione (Frogmore Press, 2022) and Beyond the Gate (Worple Press, 2023). Clare often collaborates with visual artists and musicians. In 2020-21 she was a Fellow at Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Clare Best’s website is here.