From the version
of Charles Perrault onwards, the fable of Bluebeard has carried something of
the hallucinatory logic of the nightmare. The rooms of Bluebeard's palace,
thronged one moment with party-goers, fall suddenly empty and coldly
threatening. The husband's physical freakishness (why blue? answers on a
postcard) signs a moral monstrosity, and yet the test failed by all the wives
is one of obedience, in which they stand in line with Pandora and Eve,
accompanied by at least the ghost of censure - indeed Perrault's rhyming
moral at the tale's end cites the dangers of unseemly curiosity. The locked
room, its grisly contents, the golden key with the inexpungeable stain of
blood, are meat and drink to psychoanalytic and feminist interpretion and
have been variously explained as encoding fear of the male, or of
defloration, or of exotic perversion and despotism (see the illustrations of
Dulac and Rackham) or of the arranged marriage, or of just being quite
disastrously mistaken about the person we've married.
Helen Ivory, the latest to join Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood et al in
giving new literary form and interpretation to the tale, delves rather deeper
into the back story of the bride herself, nameless here, who even at her
birth finds herself in a world in the process of mutating from the historic
and dateable to the alien and unprecedented.
The suitcase has been
packed for days.
All the clothes are white
A man plays hopscotch on
Thereafter the child moves through the stages of her life, all leading
inexorably to Bluebeard, her movements detonating flurries of skewed
folktale, magical perplexities, surreal turnings blurring into shrewd
metaphor, sometimes bleak, sometimes mordantly or wistfully funny. Her
parents appear, marking and moulding but emotionally absent - their
disappearances prefiguring the bride's surrender of self.
A hundred years later
my mother left with the carthorse,
the glass clowns, a
full of babies' teeth
and all the records in
My father's cars were
emptied of their hearts
hollowed of their eyes
He cried oil, bled oil,
drowned in oil,
or so the legend goes.
Only in the final quarter of the book does Bluebeard appear, and in none of
the established avatars, princely or exotic. Instead, he is a feral, earthy
presence, a worker of the land, an intimate of wolves.
We are waiting for
and when he happens here
in his grey-silver car,
he will unleash wolves
(from: 'Waiting for Bluebeard')
I remember that Angela Carter's 'The Company of Wolves' shares a volume with
her Bluebeard treatment, 'The Bloody Chamber', but there's also in the
folkloric origins of the tale the figure of Conomor the werewolf, a Breton
legend. The terrible energy and amorality of the wolf is wired in. There are
also locked rooms with horrors in them, gardens too: 'Some are only buried
waist-deep/ and from a distance / they are trees holding hands'. As for the
bride, she loses herself in 9 poems called 'The Disappearing', beginning with
the shedding of her skin:
She imagined herself
inside the house, her new
She didn't imagine the
nor the painstaking care
to leave the ghost of
on the doorstep like a
(from: 'The disappearing 1')
Finally, the surrender and fissuring of the self is in complete -
My skin hung from a wire
on the back of the door
like a wedding dress
emptied of its bride.
It was too tight to climb
so she left the house
(from: 'The disappearing 9')
and the father is fetched back in the closing poem, hardly distinguishable
from Bluebeard himself.
...how quickly his knife
freed that beast from its
I climbed inside while it
was still warm.
zipped it up tight
then walked into the fire
so he could not give me
Re-read, Ivory's version of Bluebeard seems to be not so much a mutation as
a return to the true psychic roots of the story - issues of masculine and feminine,
family, marriage, obedience and expectation, the world and how we fit in it,
how we confront its demands and dangers and sometimes overwhelming oddness.
I've described a narrative strand running through it, but the wondrous thing
is Ivory's vision and the linguistic resources she deploys to make that
world unsettlingly weird and yet
come vividly to life, through our unexpected recognitions of its persuasive
illogic. This is my poetry book of the first half of 2014 - I'd be surprised
(and feel blessed) if the rest of the year brings anything as good.