Ellie Evans: The Ivy Hides the Fig-Ripe Duchess

I recently wrote a blog about the collection published for the late Linda Lamus, which made me think to go back and look at Ellie Evan’s first and only collection.  A more complete work published a year or two before its author’s death.  The work is now set in time, like many first collections praised fro its promise, it still has much of value when detected from its author’s possible future.

My first contact with Ellie Evan was by telephone. We were both going to a course at the welsh writers’ centre in Ty Newydd and Ellie wanted to know if I could give her a lift, she recently having had an operation and being unable to drive. I remember the unassuming manner of asking, and her bright open character that was apparent even in a short telephone conversation. Ellie was a person of considerable experience and accomplishment who came to writing poetry late in life, her writing life probably lasted no more than ten years, cut short by her death in 2012 at the age of seventy. Late to writing but not late to literature, she gained a degree in English Literature from Oxford in the sixties, and taught English for many years.

I only know Ellie through her poetry, through courses at Ty Newydd and at the Poetry School in Bath. I Remember the clarity and craft of the work she presented.  I was sometimes inclined to think of her as the school teacher setting a good example by doing her homework, which is not fair at any level at all.  Craft is certainly part of her work, especially her control of metre, subtle use of rhyme and well chosen poetic forms.  Above all of this there is joy in her work, the backbone of The Ivy Hides the Fig Ripe Duchess are quick moving fantasies, poems like Cuttlefish and Candelabra and Artist of the Morning Dew found towards the middle of the collection.

If I were to stereotype EE as a poet, which is obviously to say more about me than is about EE, I do find the poems that I might have expected to find: treatment of exotic places, of family history, and art history; all of which is done well, with the control and craft I have already mentioned, I found Edna a tribute to one of her aunts particularly touching, but there is more.  The collection’s opening poem Skin gives the clue, it is a fantasy about being uncomfortable, and even losing one’s skin.

There is something edgy, hard and critical in the best of EE’s poetry. She gives us the end of the world and the truths behind apparent domestic certainties.  The collection’s title poem uses hard flat language to create an image of the apocalypse, that speculates how poorly our current values would stand up to such a test.  EE uses her classical poetic skills partly by holding them back to allow crystal images to come through. The image of corpses nails curling into the earth like sickles is particularly memorable.

The end of days is not always on EE’s mind, the poem Lilac creates a similar feel, though this time in a cold war context. Domesticity and containment are the most commonly reoccurring themes.  These are first encountered in Crazy House at the Fairground and IKEA Room Set.  In the first a hall of mirrors is the setting for a domestic bliss and comfort, where everything is changeable but walls and ceilings seem so straight.  The second is one of several poems that imagine the domestic scene as a film set with obvious artifice and undeniable truth.

EE was a great admirer of Pascale Petit, and the influence is clearly present in this collection.  The poem Weaver Bird is credited as being after Pascale Petit and it shares that poets technique of brining a metaphor to life, so it is a once a thing in its self and a cypher.  In this case the Weaver Bird builds a nest that is also a prison to punish someone who has lied about writing some love letters.  Though this technique is used elsewhere in the poems Ant in Vaseline and Batbridge.

Ant in Vaseline along with Kalypso are probably my favourite poems in the collection.  The first shares something of the metaphorical approach of Weaver Bird, though this time it is a family environment and the environment is stranger, a family who’s father is a natural scientist the other family members his insect specimens.  Kalypso is a beautifully phrased villanelle, in which Homer’s character laments the loss of Odysseus, the use of landscape as a focus for her morning is particularly touching.  There is something in the richness of her longing, which makes me think she might have overcome her loss, even if she does nor realise it yet.   

What Ellie might have done with another decade, we will never know.  What is here is a book of well crafted poems on a wide range of interesting topics, set in fascinating locations, much captivating energy, and a vein of disturbing surrealism delivered in a clear light..

The Ivy Hides the Fig-Ripe Duchess is still available from Seren Books, and you can see Ellie read it on YouTube.  A full obituary is also available from The Guardian, if you go here you will find Ellie wrote under light cover, her real name was Anne Evans.



Books for the Dead

Do the verses that poets write truly live after them, or do they start to fade with the poet’s last breath, persisting only as memories, echoes, or marks on paper. Once the author, the poem’s final arbiter, has gone do they exist like the text of Gilgamesh waiting for future translators to decode them, give them a proxy afterlife.  Reading the recently published collection A Crater the Size of Calcutta by Linda Lamus and The Ivy Hides the Fig-Ripe Duchess the 2011 collection by Ellie Evans who died in 2012, made me consider if there a fundamental difference between a poem written by a living poet and one written by a poet who has since died.

Single poems can probably survive more easily than bodies of work. That is to say the poems life and afterlife are similar.  A poet’s one or two best poems, anthology pieces possibly, or poems that fit their time or fashion well. The body of work raises more questions, possible contradictions, which there is no one left to answer. This points to where a poem’s meaning resides, the poet has one view, the reader or listener another, a translator a third, an editor a fourth, and so on. These meanings overlap, diverge, and any of those involved can choose to change their mind at any time. Except, of course, the dead.

Reputations come and go.  The going, usually by neglect, goes gradually and unannounced.  The coming, by definition, a more public event. Two poets that have recently come back are Lynette Roberts and Rosemary Tonks. Both had substantial reputations for part of their lifetimes, and faded at least in part because they moved away from poetry.  In their cases their deaths cleared access to major work that the poets themselves had made difficult in one way or another. In the case of Linda Lamus and Ellie Evans death was an obstacle, both writers had the conventional desire that their work should be known, but could not be there to see it through.

In the case of Lynette Roberts and Rosemary Tonks their poetry has gone through, or is going through, the purgatory that select few writers’ work endures, on the way to come out as literature.  There are many established literary pigeonholes for them to be popped into.  In the case of more recently dead writers their literary timeline is still uncharted.  What a reader is left with is ordinary grief, either because the reader knew them or has come to join those who know them trough their work. It is the kind of grief made up of one sided conversations and of an awareness of what might have been.

So I feel there is a difference between reading the word of a living writer, an established writer dead for a generation, and one who has recently died.  If a reader chooses to immerse themselves in such work they will find a challenging solitude, like sitting at the end of a play waiting for someone to applaud.