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.