My Iron Spine by Helen Rickerby


You’ll forgive me, I do hope, for my absence. We can ascribe it to poor time management and leave it at that. With the move downstairs, an important development at Matchbox seems to have been overlooked.

The new digs mean we have more space, and thus the zine table has expanded. We’re still providing an outlet for individuals to stock individually published content, in addition, however, we are now selling works from a number of local independent publishers including Hue & Cry and Headworx. Exciting, right?

Writer and publisher Helen Rickerby is one of our new inhabitants. Her 2008 collection, My Iron Spine is a carefully executed examination of constraint and release. Framed around the corset as a metaphor, these poems deal with characters whose experiences are as stifling as they are empowering. The collection is split into three sections, the first is autobiographical, this is followed by a series of portraits of famous women (and one man), followed again by the poet’s ficticious accounts of interacting with these women.

The portraits are tender and humanizing, but there’s an element of wariness in Rickerby’s handling of a couple of the more ‘tragic’ figures. And for good reason, for Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf are remembered as much for their deaths as they are for their work. Ted Hughes in Sylvia and Ted is not the antagonist he’s remembered as. The portrait is a complex one, that acknowledges the presence of love in their relationship, but also destruction. These poems acknowledge the limitations of collective memory in terms of dealing with these figures, in the romanticizing of death and the impulse to turn the demise of tragic figures into a binary narrative, one of victims and perpetrators.

When she met him when she bit him    on the cheek       so hard          that the blood             ran down                his face

   she knew    she knew

she was making him her twin


The complexity of her portraits does not negate the collection’s ease. When I plucked My Iron Spine from the shelf, another member of the Matchbox team confessed she didn’t think she liked poetry, and was surprised at how much she enjoyed Rickerby’s work. Rickerby’s work is so accessible because everything is beautifully controlled. Her autobiographical work is warm and sweet and funny, but never saccharine. When subjects are heavier, she never manipulates pathos from the reader, rather she allows the reader to be drawn to her of their own volition.

She was proud to be the first woman in the whole of London to wear purple stockings She shows them off as she shimmies her skirt above her knees I teach her the twist and she spirals off towards D H who has found an ironing board from somewhere and they take turns at sliding down, shrieking with laughter

The collection is bound (excuse the pun) by this warmth, Rickerby does not shy away from dealing with oppression or institutional misogyny, but she treats it with a light-handedness, without ceremony or rhetoric, she allows the reader to be charmed by her recollections of childhood, her fictitious accounts of swimming with Katherine Mansfield, and she has faith enough in her arguments to let them sit just beneath the surface.

Review by Simon Gennard


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