Review: The Breakfast Machine, Helen Ivory

Ivory Breakfast 64:Lumsden Third 72

I read Helen Ivory’s The Breakfast Machine the same way that I read most of my books, while step, step, stepping away on my favourite piece of cardiovascular machinery. I also do most of my writing while pumping my feet up and down against the pedals, so blame any surrealism on the effects of too much oxygen combined with an adrenalin high. I have been doing this for years and I have built up a strong resistance to shock- it would be very bad to topple over- so it would take quite the work of art to shake me free from the traces, or make me stop. I read this book through in one session of exercise and it is a testament to the fine craftsmanship of the work that it drew me up short not once but several times.

Helen Ivory is a master of horror, a mogul of mal-ease. This book was the equivalent of combining of the violent, jewel-like poetry of Vicki Feaver and the horror novels of Shirley Jackson in the teleportation device left over from the movie The Fly. I can honestly say that I enjoyed every poem in the book, but there were five that crystallized as favourites. ‘The Dolls House’ was the first that latched its teeth into my flank. I enjoyed the way that the author set the stage, the atmosphere of stasis, which is death, before infusing it with a sense of the magical through the use of the implied ghosts in the third stanza, ‘But there is a shifting of furniture/ in the dolls house tonight,’.

This nominal ghost transitions into an image of terrible, mundane reality by the fifth stanza:

You will notice tomorrow
Your new doll is gone.
You will find her blonde hair
lines a mouse nest in spring.

I love that the poet nonetheless manage to infuse that ‘mundane’ reality with a fairy-tale edge that leads the reader back to myth. I love the way that such seemingly innocent creatures as mice have become, for Helen, symbols of the mythic malice of the world. Time and time again she flips the image of the innocent, revealing the blackened silver which gives the world its bright shine.

Ms Ivory did this very well in ‘The Tooth Mouse’. She presents us what appears to be a sweet take on a children’s story, laced with disquieting intimations of violence, that suddenly shifts in a way that reveals the roots of cleaned up kid-stories:

But look at them here
all broken and angry
chewing at the cold
Metal door to get out.

The teeth are abandoned. The beautiful story is proven a lie, resembling others that well-meaning parents tell children. The old dog was not taken to live on a farm. The new puppy was bought with real blood. The coins you receive from under your pillow come at a filthy, measurable cost.

The first stanza of the poem ‘Creation’ reminded me of the soul-selling scene in Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ played out in reverse. The act of swallowing the sun was an appropriate, vivid reclamation of the act of giving life, returning it to the realm of the female in a way that, over the course of the poem, drew attention to the blood inherent in creation, the necessary pain.

Everything was a little off ‘In That House’, in a way that was deeply, deeply unsettling. This poem brought to mind the connection with Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’. Helen wrote that, ‘every floorboard is a tip-off/ every door a squealer,’ instilling the rooms with such a vividly gleeful sense of malice that I had to run to my book-fort (a construction I made when I ran out of shelf) and tear Jackson’s book from its place supporting the lintel. On page thirty-eight I found:

No human can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and plane which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a manic juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice.

Ok, one more poem before I sew the body shut and send it shambling back to wherever it arose from. The poet set up such an atmosphere of fear in ‘Listen’ (a poem containing very little love, despite including the word for it) that I was reeling at her mastery. It reminded me of Vicki Feaver’s best poetry- the understated horror, the fantastic, falsely reassuring voice of the speaker. The last stanza underscored that exquisitely:

Be hushed, my love, be calm
or some piebald bird
will pluck out your tongue.

This made me shudder. Me! I write poetry that involves disembowelling people and she made me queasy with her dry, inescapable fear. There is still hope, I think, when blood is flowing. Absolutely none remains in polished bone. And that is what Helen Ivory deals best in. She is a prophet of the ossuary, specialist in seeing girls dry to withered crones and the cobwebbed skulls of hook-beaked birds grow duty on the windowpanes. She sees the songs they bleat as dust in vertebrae throats. I have respected her artistry for a long time; this book cemented my opinion of it.

Helen Ivory: The Breakfast Machine (Bloodaxe, 2010)

It is available for purchase here:


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