Maps of the Abandoned City, Helen Ivory

SurVision Books, 2019

Lost in the city

Helen Ivory’s Maps of the Abandoned City is an immersive, fantastical and mesmerising collection. The personification of an abandoned city and creation of a cartographer to map it is masterful, with each poem building an anatomical vision of a lost urban world which is truly haunting.

There is much that is wild and dark in this pamphlet — and it is the sinister atmosphere which I found most captivating. Many moments of pure horror exist, as in ‘The Hungry Mirrors’:

Once, a spider hauled itself
down by a thread
and they gorged on it frantically

The idea of a reflection feasting upon itself is deliciously disturbing, as is another spidery description in ‘snapshots of the city’:

heads, all of them
stacked in a box
sewn together
by cellar spiders,
mouth to ear.

The brevity of each line here creates a breathlessness which enhances the creepiness of the image. Ivory frequently creates a frightening mood in her poems, often playing upon the mystery of this invented place, as shown in a couplet from ‘the forest outside the city’:

keep away from the shadows
mouthed the shadows

The absence of humanity is darkly fascinating. In ‘Streets of the Abandoned City’, we find this sinister, yet beautiful image:

The Street of the Birds is a vault of locked cages,
each inhabitant rendered to feather and bone.
Wind blusters through keyholes to parody song.

Cages are again referred to in ‘Zoo of the Abandoned City’, this time ‘left unlatched / (the keepers were not beasts after all)’ — yet, the stanza’s conclusion creates fear by alluding to the wildness of the animals:

everyone is free to come and go
at their own leisure and, well, peril.
Caimans have made Monkey Walk a no-go zone.

The sense of foreboding peaks in the closing poem, ‘The Cartographer Unmakes’:

And when there is no one left
a traveller will open out
some spotless pages of the map
and imagine lady fortune shines on him.

The reader has borne witness to what awaits the traveller — but with no way of warning him, we are left chilled, and utterly enthralled.  

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