Helen Ivory

- United Kingdom -

Helen Ivory was born in Luton, England and now lives in Norwich in an old Butcher’s shop.  She is a poet and also a visual artist who makes word and image collages and shadowboxes from found images and old cut-up books and ephemera. She teaches poetry writing online for the University of East Anglia/ National Centre for Writing and edits the webzine Ink Sweat & Tears.
Her fifth collection from Bloodaxe Books, The Anatomical Venus examines how women have been portrayed as ‘other’; as witches; as hysterics with wandering wombs and as beautiful corpses cast in wax, or on mortuary slabs in TV box sets, was published in 2019. It was shortlisted for the East Anglian Book Awards and won the East Anglian Writers ‘Book by the Cover Award’. 
Fool’s World a collaborative Tarot with the  artist Tom de Freston (Gatehouse Press) won the 2016 Saboteur Award for Best Collaborative Work. A book of collage/ mixed media poems, Hear What the Moon Told Me, was published KFS in 2017, and a chapbook, Maps of the Abandoned City, by SurVision in 2019. The Street of the Clockmaker, a poem from Maps of the Abandoned City was chosen in November 2023 one of the Poems on the  (London) Underground.
In 2020 she received Arts Council of England funding to research and write her next collection for Bloodaxe: Constructing a  Witch (October 2024) which explores the witch archetype and the witch as human woman. The book investigates witch tourism, the witch as outsider, cultural representations of the witch, female power and disempowerment, the menopause, and how the female body has been used and misunderstood for centuries.
In 2023 MadHat Press published her Wunderkammer: New and Selected Poems in the United States of America.  In his introduction, Robert Archambeau writes: 
            Charles Simic may be the first poet an American reader thinks of when coming to Helen Ivory for the first time, but it was really Vasko Popa who counted more. It was his work that called out to her when she first set out to write poems. Popa mattered to Ivory along with, one feels, a whole host of Eastern European Surrealists behind him—a less impassioned a crowd than their Latin American peers, not so slapstick-goofy as the Belgian Surrealists, and not as prone to revolutionary rhetoric and manifesto-writing as the Breton circle in Paris. Like Simic, like Popa, Ivory gives us a spare Surrealism, laying the ordinary and the strange down in uncanny juxtaposition.
            Other Surrealists matter to these poems too. Ivory is an intensely visual poet, and her images could nestle up close to those of artists like Leonora Carrington, say, or Dorothea Tanning: Surrealist painters whose strongest work gives us domestic interiors where the realistic takes the impossible in uncanny matrimony. 
            And then there are the nameless women in these poems—or, perhaps more properly, there is Woman, in archetypal form, standing at the center of Ivory’s work. Ivory introduces us to women who disappear in bad marriages; women who are in various ways fed on and consumed; women shut into houses, sometimes for many years; women who parade in new dresses in front of men they should not trust; women silenced in scold’s bridles; needlewomen; cooks; laundresses. But she also brings us into the presence of sorceresses, witches, communers with an ethereal other side—Baba Yagas before whom one trembles.
            There’s Bluebeard, too. Reading Ivory you’ll get to know a great deal about him and what he wrought.
            Moons: the ancient symbols of femininity.
            Cats: sometimes, like the other small animals that run through the underbrush of these poems, they’re figures of vulnerability; sometimes they have something of the feel of witches’ familiars.
            Beasts: they’re here in the form of menacing, clawed creatures with feathers or fur. On rare occasion they take machine form, eliciting a distinctly modern unease.
            Cards out of an ancient deck: the Tarot. They form a system, not for narrative, exactly, but for binding poems together and allowing Ivory to come at the same things from a multitude of angles.
            Personae: they creep into Ivory’s poems after the earliest work is behind her. But the they aren’t here as psychological case studies, the way they are in Robert Browning’s poems; still less are they the historical figures of Ezra Pound’s modernism. “What the Moon Said,” “What the Dark Said,” “What the Stars Said,” along with what the cat, the snow, the house, and the earth said—these are the words Ivory cares for, spoken by the personae she creates. It’s an animistic world she conjures by letting these things speak, a world alive around us with its own energies and mysterious intentions.
            And death—no, Death, personified. Death is someone never far away. The wisest people in these poems know how to sit down with Death and live with him, a presence both intimately familiar and impossible to know.
            In Ivory’s childhood home, watching her mother hunching over the Ouija board on the table. If there’s a beginning to Ivory’s poetry, a primal moment that launched her brave armada of poems, I’m sure this was it. A world haunted by numinous spirits and the presence of the dead? In our time, it doesn’t come to most, but it came to Helen Ivory, and it came early enough to lodge deep. When Ivory’s teacher George Szirtes showed her poems by Vasko Popa, the realms of the marvelous were already inside her: all she needed to know was how to let them out in words.
            At university, where Szirtes gave her a book; on stage, in a Goth band, learning to make mood out of style; in art school, too—these are the wheres that are also whens, the places of origin.
            In another sense, the where of Ivory’s poems is a diorama, like the ones she made in art school. A diorama, a stage set, a wunderkammer: spaces that evoke reality but flatten and simplify it, with the paradoxical effect of generating resonant symbolic depth. But the most profound space of these poems is a house, a domestic interior. Ivory is not a poet of the office or the factory, except as places from which a silent father has come home. The rooms of Ivory’s houses are the farthest thing from cozy: they’re haunted. And the walls of her houses are porous, letting in energies from outside, but not from a sociologist’s world—from a shaman’s.
            For insight, to be sure, but more than that for tone and mood. There’s a consistent feel to these poems, to such an extent that should you meet one wandering in the deserts of Arabia you’d call out, astonished: “Helen! Helen Ivory!” But what is that mood? It’s something we often find in Gothic fiction, where the uncanny rubs shoulders with the marvelous, where sanity and chastity quake a little at the surrounding depth of darkness. At moments—when Death lies beside us, our bedmate and lodger—the aesthetic term is weird: a mode when something is present where it ought not to be. But more often we find a sense of absence, of phenomena without explanation, of ghosts where there had once been substance. The term for this is eerie. Helen Ivory writes to take us there.