Review: Waiting for Bluebeard, Helen Ivory



Helen Ivory’s Waiting for Bluebeard (2013, Bloodaxe Books) is a myth, an exceptionally fine one. Like all myths it depicts the true face of life, all masks torn off. At her reading last night, at Lower Shaw Farm in Swindon, Helen stood before a packed room, dressed in her usual 1940’s fairy-tale finery, her blond hair rolled beneath a blue Cinderella kerchief, and said, ‘Some of these poems are realer than others.’

She spoke truth, but not one to be taken in the usual logical/literal context.

Helen opened her reading with the poem ‘Moon Landing’. Set in 1969, when science believed it had conquered the earth and two human males gave up calculation and frolicked with the terrified wonder of children on the rock NASA replaced the cheese with, the poet’s mother, swelled up, waxing lunar:

Watches with the millions
in their front rooms as she waits
but I will not budge.

Reason falls away, fairy tales rise again to the surface, ‘All the clothes are white or lemon./ A man plays hopscotch on the moon.’

Helen has a gift for blurring boundaries, a trick she will find useful in the second half of the book. For now, the narrator remains in childhood. Helen prefaced the poem ‘Night’ with a brief explanation. The house she grew up in had literal ghost-cats. The spirits existed, she believed, left behind by the previous cat-crazy owner (who frankly sounded like something of a fairy-tale creature herself). She meant this stanza literally when she wrote it:

Those sleepless nights of my childhood
where cats and phantom cats
hiss from opposing corners of the room,
where the moon somehow rests
on the top of the wardrobe.

Truth is revealed through careful selection, in this case the surreal symbolism of childhood. Each mind latches on to different details in any given situation, speaks about it in their own warped language. This is why no one is a reliable witness.

This is a why a child who follows up a statement about the behavior of phantom felines with the comment that her parents, ‘chase each other/ down the street with knives.’ would face a wall of reasonable disbelief. One of Helen’s greatest gifts is the ability to gently shift her perspective back to the real, though disguised, logic of childhood. Her second gift is that she brings all of us with her. The visible world loses some of its carefully hoarded rationality when she describes it, becoming just a little more truthful.

Before she began reading from the second half of the book, concerning her eleven-year span spent held in captivity, Helen said that in this section, “‘I’ becomes ‘she’ because that is what it feels like to lose yourself.” The narrator believes that she has let go of her childhood, though the image of a stolen infant permeates the text and stories determine the language. The narrator believes that she has let go of herself.

The narrative, Helen’s life, conforms to a fairy-tale pattern, reminding the reader that every life is a myth. In folk-tales the clothes the characters wear define the self, both the representation of the thing and the thing itself. A thief becomes king by wearing the ermine and the crown. Garments are deeply symbolic of transformation.

It is significant, then, that in ‘At the Dress Shop’ she loses her agency to Bluebeard, becoming totally his object when she consents to wear the clothes he selects for her. She becomes another thing he owns, a ‘wife’ in his collection:

He has phoned ahead and they come at her
with his choices, all prim on wire hangers.

She parades for him and so do all the women
in the mirrors. Every one looks older than her.

By the end of the poem she has become a doll of herself. His shadow-puppet.

Bluebeard at the handle of the zoetrope,
she spinning too fast for herself.

It is very hard to see yourself with the objectivity of a character in a story, especially when you have been abused. It can feel like losing control of your life all over again. Thank God, Helen had the bravery to do it. This book is a path of dropped white stones, more lasting than breadcrumbs. It leads out of the woods.

In a Jungian analysis of fairy-tales the appearance of a child symbolizes the soul. It is therefore appropriate that in this book about a woman held in thrall to a dark force the image of a lost child, a child that the speaker believes she had once but which has since been taken or slaughtered, should appear again and again in the text.

It is difficult not to think about that take on the psychological state of the narrator when, in a poem titled ‘Child’, she states, ‘She must have been somewhere else/ when they cut her open, hauled the baby out.’

She searches for the phantom baby in ‘Rabbit Season’:

She digs at the edge of the lawn
with a spade first,
then with her hands
to be closer to her work.
By dawn, there are little mounds of earth,
but still no child.

The reader knows, but cannot tell her, that the child is neither imagined or dead. The narrator is searching in the wrong places.

The fact that the narrator, the poet, does escape from Bluebeards dark castle doesn’t need to be said. How else would she have rescued the story? Like every good folk-tale, the journey the hero embarks on, the process of plot and the transformation it brings, is the true treasure. Go out, buy this book now, or attend one of her magical live readings. Court some changes yourself.

Waiting for Bluebeard is available here:


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