A review of Waiting For Bluebeard by Helen Ivory

The poems in ‘Waiting for Bluebeard’ have an intimate quality. They read as if the narrator is talking to you and you alone.  The voice of the narrator is a cool one, and this voice maintains some of its cool when dealing with the potentially very ‘hot’ and explosive subject of dysfunctional family life and later in entering the darkness of an abusive relationship with the eponymous Bluebeard.

The book is compelling and immensely readable from the outset, unfolding chronologically in short poems which initially have qualities of fables, fairy tales or myths. It is in the control and craft of the writing that so much of the power of this collection resides.  The language is sparse and simple.
Line length and stanza structure flow with apparently effortless ease.  This fluidity makes it easy for the reader to be immediately immersed and transported.

The first section draws us into a surreal (perhaps hyper-real) world of infancy and childhood.
The real and the fantastic co-exist in a child’s perception of early family life. This life is simultaneously absurd, marvellous, miraculous, mundane, beautiful, horrific, farcical, fantastic, frightening and magical. If I have used too many adjectives here it is in an attempt to convey the scope of a work which brilliantly contains so many contradictions.

Nearly all relationships, (with the possible exception of the narrator’s relationship with her grandmother,) both with the physical world and with its inhabitants, human and animal, are mutable and mutating.  There is a disturbing and sometimes humorous quality to many of these poems, and clues that all may not be as it should in lines like ‘…my mother sings/the song of a girl/as she skips with a rope.’ (‘Playing House’)

There are few certainties and many disorientating shifts. People and objects are confusing and untrustworthy.  Hybrid creatures serve as a metaphor for the unreliable and deceptive nature of things. Even the stars are subject to fear and misinterpretation of their place in the grand scheme.
In ‘What the Stars Said’ they  (the stars) ‘no longer believed/they were sheep, waiting for a midnight field’ and become ‘fearful of heights’.   This beautiful and charming image might simply remain a beautiful and charming image. But the poem ends with the stars hiding under the little girl’s bed and, while she says a prayer, they are burning holes in the rug. It is detail such as this which carries the emotional weight of the collection.  Throughout this collection individual words and images have been carefully chosen to powerfully influence the tone. In ‘Crafts’ the rugs made by the narrators mother are recalled as ‘smothering the lino.’ In the same poem moulds of candles have wicks ‘like drowning hands,’ and the child is left to try and ‘suture’ the gap left by her mother in the crown of a soft toy.

Through the acute perception and imagination of the child we feel undercurrents of difficulties and unhappiness of the adults, and sense their trials, failings and failure to communicate with each other and with their children.   One of my favourite poems in the first section is ‘Trampoline,’ in which the bouncing child glimpses the sea, which seems to be going the wrong way. The child has been warned to keep to the X on the trampoline; even her contact with ‘earth’ is difficult and hard to maintain.

Many of the poems- like the cover of the book which depicts rows of labelled jars- capture and present strange and emotive fragments. Dolls appear in several poems; rag dolls, paper dolls, broken dolls.  Dolls are a motive for innocence and affection, but when confused with the girls in the story their presence is disturbing, as if their parent’s ability to perceive them as real children is in question.

Then there is the unforgettably grotesque/humorous image in ‘Her Uncles New House’
of food on the dumb waiter that

..spent all night
conveying food through the storeys.

The head of a pig, cooked till its eyes
were cataract milky, jaw fallen open
to a wise-cracking grin.

A rabbit blancmange wobbling
through each jolt of the hoist,
fiercely trying to keep a straight face.

This quote serves to illustrate the macabre humour of many of the poems, and is also an example of the deft line breaks and deceptively easy flow created by skilful internal rhyme and rhythm.

The book is divided into two sections, the second dealing with the narrator’s relationship with the eponymous Bluebeard.   There is threat and unease from the outset; ‘he will unleash wolves/like rain’. , and Helen Ivory talks with dignity about the abusive relationship upon which these poems draw on Michelle McGrane’s Peony Moon.  You can also read some of the poems on Michelle’s blog and these, together with Helen’s comments, will tell you more than anything I have to say here.  Suffice it to say that, like Pascale Pettit, Helen Ivory has explored ‘difficult’ subjects by deploying her unique and singular focus and skill. Her particular strengh is in using metaphor to explore her subjects through images both beautiful and terrifying.

Waiting for Bluebeard is published by Bloodaxe.


  1. Well written review. I must admit I have a great fondness for poets that have lots of animals in their poems 🙂 Your post complements the one at Peony moon. Thanks.


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