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4 minutes reading time (732 words)

Wunderkammer by Helen Ivory - Book Review

Wunderkammer by Helen Ivory

Mad Hat Press 2023

ISBN: 978-1-952335-57-0

This remarkable collection documents the poetic development of Helen Ivory’s work from 2002 to 2019, with the addition of a selection of poems from How to Construct a Witch awaiting publication by Bloodaxe in 2024.

Why “Wunderkammer”? As a writer, I can attest that titles are significant and potent. Therefore, before diving into this collection, I undertook a little research. The Wunderkammer (literally translated as a room of wonder) has a long history stretching at least as far back as the 1600s, being a “a place where a collection of curiosities and rarities is exhibited”.  Contemporary artists like Louise Bourgeoise and Damien Hirst have a predilection for this kind of phenomena, with the curious and the weird. Nowadays we might call the wunderkammer a “Cabinet of Curiosities”, one we might peer into, to be both fascinated and repelled in turn, one where mystery, magic and the natural world collide.

The first poems in the collection offer a glimpse into a childhood world of disturbing archetypes, quirkiness and the weird, set within familiar and domestic environments, such as the kitchen, dining room and garden shed.  In these earlier poems we glimpse the child attempting to comprehend and decipher whether there is any underlying universal design in a confusing world – and whether there is love – and safety. The poems beautifully convey the child’s magical thinking, fantastical schemas at play in making sense of the world.  Poems which might simply have been fond memories of domesticity and family life (washing up, baking, watching the moon, having breakfast, cats playing, for example), transmute instead into fragmented scenes containing riddles and danger, mice without hearts, skulls sucked dry, creatures trapped in glass boxes, the teeth stored by the tooth fairy gnashing, the dark feathered birds of the night.

Ivory fashions a world of skewed whimsy, populated by cats, dogs, birds, foxes, mice and magicians; with fantastical powers, unpredictable behaviours, murderous intent. Wardrobes and washing machines have sinister personalities. We peer closer into the poems as if into the cabinet, glimpsing a child’s interpretation of domestic conflict, uncertainty and chaos. As readers, we may struggle to comprehend the jumbled collision of images and memories. But just as those peering into the shadowy cabinet packed with puzzling weird and wonderful objects, we are held and intrigued. We are lured into the game of sense-making and survival, interpreting the messages.

The latter poems speak with a bolder voice, still weaving a fantastical lexicon, a personal Tarot of power. As Ivory exhorts in The Waking (p.203), “I hold up those rekindled women and we reel, we howl, and we shoot our filthy mouths off”. 

These poems address the deep cruelty and abuse towards women, the “lunatics”, the witches, Bluebeard’s wives.

These poems give voice to survivors, to the abandoned and abused women, to women wounded by the restrictions of society. These poems are resonant with the urge to warn, to offer escape; they offer spells for survival, they are indeed “Resistance Spells”.

Ivory references Frederick Sandys’ engraving “The Spirit of the Storm” (p.210) for her eponymous poem that so clearly conveys a call to power. “Why not grow snakes for hair, / conjure rain and lighting from your artful hands? / You’ve earnt this wrath, don’t squander it / on slapdash shores and sundry empty task … “  And there is beauty too, gorgeous words, painting fabulous pictures, as expressed in The High Priestess (p.115):
“You must listen as the  moon / draws the sea through space; / listen to the tides breathing … “.  The language of Alchemy (p.12) is sensitive, powerful, sensuous: “Seasoned with a little fire / I am quicksilver in your mouth. / Drink me down, I am pure enough; / the colour of sky in water.”

But perhaps the fundamental intention is not to be beautiful, but to be powerful and free. “Your words are butterflies / pinned to your tongue - / release them” (p.41), A Little Spell in Six Lessons – after Ana Maria Pacheco (the Brazilian artist with her deep faith in the supernatural).

The creative force stirring beneath the conflation of images, fantasy and symbolism surely cannot be referenced as surrealism, but arising from curiosity, intuition, a belief in feminine power and a deep empathy with the vulnerable.  This is a rich and powerful book.

Review by Lisa Rossetti

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Monday, 22 July 2024

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