World Poetry Portfolio, edited by Sudeep Sen in association with ATLAS Magazine
Helen Ivory is a poet and artist. Her fourth Bloodaxe Books collection is Waiting for Bluebeard (May 2013). She has co-edited with George Szirtes In Their Own Words: Contemporary Poets on their Poetry (Salt, 2012). She teaches for the Arvon Foundation, The Poetry School, and mentors for the Poetry Society. She edits the webzine Ink Sweat and Tears, and is an editor for The Poetry Archive.
All poems taken from Helen Ivory’s new collection Waiting for Bluebeard, available from Bloodaxe Books.
After a picnic in the park
my mother gave birth to an egg.
At the hospital they placed it in an incubator,
and the midwives held vigil.
Her mother said
it was the tuna paste being ‘off’
and didn’t believe the fanciful story
involving the swan and the roundabout.
On the day of the hatching,
the sun rose as usual and my grandmother
took her customary bus to the hospital
with grapes and Lucozade.
The next day my mother took her bundle home,
oblivious to the entourage of swans
massing in the sky above the bus.
The baby looked like any other newborn.
I am constructing a house
from cardboard and fabric
and bits of flowery wallpaper,
while my mother sings
the song of a girl
as she skips with a rope.
There is a black and white cat
skit-skattering round the hall
with a cotton reel.
The walls are held together
with sellotape, and the roof
is an upside down box.
And the bed that I’ve made
from a matchbox is big enough
for only my smallest doll
who is hairless now, and almost
eyeless; who has the head
of a child, the body of a woman.
The Family at Night
We were rag-dolls after school
and passed long winter evenings like this:
father in his armchair with an unlit pipe,
mother in the kitchen pretending to eat,
my sister and I with our small occupations.
We saw little with our button eyes
and spoke even less with our stitched up mouths.
We played at playing till it was time for bed
when mother sewed our eyelids down
so we could get a good night’s rest.
We always woke as our human selves
to find the downstairs rooms had altered too.
A chair unstuffed, a table’s legs all wrong,
and, that one time, kittens gone from their basket;
the mother’s bone-hollow meow.
It all comes back to the breakfast table
still set in the middle of a room
which has become so vast and arid
you would need a camel train to cross it.
Her father has turned himself
into wallpaper, and is rolling further
and further up the wall,
away from the sidewinders in the carpet.
There is the Sunday smell of washing powder
and the glimpse of her mother’s back
as she pegs out uniforms
in the oasis of grass in a far corner.
She is doing her best to spoon marmalade
onto her toast but it is molten in the desert sun.
A solitary crumb falls from the table
and a snake sidles over, all eyes.
My Two Fathers
When my father removes his skin
he steps to one side and tidies
the old skin away with a dustpan and brush.
He wants nothing more
than not to make a spectacle
but my mother insists he fill it with stones.
The stone father is anchored
to the armchair, while the other
goes upstairs to his room in a sulk.
The stone father holds the television control,
orchestrates the night’s entertainment.
The other stays asleep like a bear.
My Grandmother’s Lodger
She used her hand-cranked machine,
while Death whizzed ahead with electricity.
They sat at the same table, and when she made tea
he took it stewed with three sugars.
He was quicker on straight runs,
was a genius at pillowcases and curtains
while she sewed the eyes onto dolls
and lace onto petticoats with a dexterity he envied.
Since he’d taken her husband
Death had acquired the cold side of the bed,
liked nothing more than watching her sleep;
coveted her breathing, even her dreams.
His insomnia always drove him downstairs
where he would sew too many sheets
for the sleeping, the rest he would sell
at the church jumble sale.
You disappeared slowly;
hair first, the flesh from your bones,
then you were gone
like a bad-taste magic trick.
When you finally died
everything electrical in your room
The family tried to call you up on the Ouija board
but you must have been too far away.
A year later, your mother
heard you coming home
late on a Friday night;
brushing your teeth,
taking your face off, everything.
The House of Thorns
after Alice Maher
It takes no more than a word
for a flame to stir in its womb
for smoke to rise and push at the walls
like a trapped and injured beast.
There is no chimney, no window,
no gasps of air, so the fire that’s grown
too big for the hearth
will die before it eats up the room.
Here is a bed for the wolf,
here is a chair burst at the seams
and here’s the little pot
that will cook and cook and cook.
It’s hard to imagine a path from this house
when you can’t imagine a door.
The roof is braced against all four winds,
you’re swaddled inside a coat of thorns.
There are stories about spring mornings,
about dew-soaked grass,
the signature of your footsteps;
you, the only child on earth.
The house is blind to romance;
makes you pin down your tongue;
rocks you till you fall asleep
hush-a-bye, hush-a-bye, hush-a-bye.
When the seeds are planted
and the roses are grown
mature enough for a harvest of thorns
and all the effort of building a home
tattoos neat scratches
on your parents’ hands,
now, think of a house.
Think of another house
a house of your own,
cut from the cloth of your very own skin.
The thought rises up
like a singing clock;
its bird constructed
of feathers and springs.
from The Disappearing
The tariff for crossing the threshold
was a single layer of skin.
She imagined a snake
unzipping itself in one deft move.
She imagined herself lithe
inside the house, her new home.
She didn’t imagine the scarring
nor the painstaking care required
to leave the ghost of herself
on the doorstep like a cold-caller.
The first time he left her alone
she wandered his house
in search of traces of a life before.
The stories of course, had been fixed
in her head by dress-makers’ pins
since she was a girl, but this wasn’t fiction.
She found nothing in his study
but the heads of his ancestors
glowering from vellum walls.
She unearthed only shadows in the library
spilled between bookcases,
soaked into the carpets like blood.
She discovered the love letters in a trunk
at the bottom of their bed
with a handful of his half-written notes.
They were pressed between skins of paper
like statice and cornflowers.
His stuttering lines were almost human.
She grew to know him by his dog;
gauged his humours
by the slant of its ears,
learnt when to keep low to the ground.
Dog preceded her by fifteen years;
every corner of the house,
every midnight walk from the pub
tattooed the map on his hide
Now, Dog was half-blind,
his teeth and claws grown dull.
She nursed him with milksop
all his last week.
When Dog died, Bluebeard sobbed,
held Dog’s fading warmth to him,
murmured for hours
into Dog’s empty ear.
Later she found him outside,
clay stuck to the soles of his boots
quarrying with pick and shovel,
waist deep in Dog’s grave.
She must have been somewhere else
when they cut her open, hauled the baby out
and tried to zip her up like an empty bag.
She must have been waiting for a bus,
or playing lawn tennis, she must have been
Atargis the mermaid goddess at the boating lake.
That night, cries rose from her half-closed wound
and they watched her temperature soar -
mapping it on a chart like the lunatic flight of a moth.
She awoke as a rock in a fast-moving river.
There was no child, no tiny warmth.
There were voices and hands, all of them hollow.
from The Disappearing
She stepped out of herself
like a Matryoshka , one full moon,
looked along the row of herself,
at the hand-painted colours,
checked each pair of eyes
for what lived there.
A scarf hung about each pelvic girdle
to conceal the scar of each birth;
hearts were black hens
held in each pair of arms
and cabbages grew
from fallen seeds at their feet.
When earth spun away from the moon
she attempted to gather herself back in,
and when she could not
she drowned the sun like a sack of kittens
and threaded the rooster’s song
back into his throat.
Bluebeard the Chef
You coax the rabbit from its skin,
cradle the bruised flesh ripped with shot.
A deft incision and soon the tiny heart
is in your hand, its stillness
opens up a dark hole in the sky for you.
You climb inside
and all the stars are dying eyes
fixed into you like pins.
So you slice each optic nerve
The knife completes your hand
with such sweet eloquence
you part recall its amputation
when you were wordless
in your father’s house.
Bluebeard at Night
When she’s gone to bed
Bluebeard sobs like a wolf
from his leather armchair.
Only the television responds,
slips the leash of its power cable,
dragging itself to its master’s heel.
She hears them leave the house
like solemn drinking partners
emptied into the night at closing time.
Then she imagines the nocturnal insects
entering the house by the grace
of the left-open door
and their frantic gathering
round the hallway’s