Poetry Review: 'I, Ursula' by Ruth Stacey
Updated: Mar 28
Cover Illustration: Magdalena Kaczan
I, Ursula is finely tuned. In an uncovering of interior lives, Ruth Stacey has created a communion of crystalline voices for her second full poetry collection.
Longlisted in the Poetry Book Awards 2020, I, Ursula by Ruth Stacey is published by V. Press (2020).
Magdalena Kaczan’s striking cover illustration signposts Ruth Stacey’s adaptation of tropes from traditional folk tales for this body of work. Bears, poison, woods, hares, swans, corpses among others lurk between the pages, conjuring a backdrop reminiscent of Angela Carter, and are used for edgy reflections on love and relationships, identity and psychological narratives.
The collection opens with the female muse, the stereotypical subject for the male gaze, subverted by the female gaze in ‘Averse Muse’. The female speaker warns her male muse not to fall in love with her if he does not want poems to be written about him, and declares that she ‘will write poems [about him] that will petrify…’ This change of stance introduces the realm of the muse and the observed, central to I, Ursula.
Through variety of form and evocative language, an ensemble of impressive voices builds...
Through variety of form and evocative language, an ensemble of impressive voices builds, and includes several historical muses. Camille Claudel for example, is the subject and title of a stream of consciousness that includes, ‘…clay clay clay bronze I sleep completely naked to fool myself…I wish to walk into the forest and set fire…’ The sculptor’s prime identity as the muse and mistress of Rodin is keenly felt. Key words reveal her plight as an artist in her own right, caught up in a male dominated field, tangled up in love and jealousy and slipping into madness.
Alongside muses, the family unit and motherhood are significant features, sometimes provocatively explored via taboo practices. ‘The Exchange’ presents consensual swapping of babies at birth. Recognising parental yearnings for sons, it touches on the meaning of fatherhood and the resilience of female offspring, while maintaining the angle of the spotlight on the mothers' positions.
The voice in ‘Little Corpses’ expresses overt fears for her young children and forewarns the dangers of ‘silent water’ and ‘friends’ that ‘taunt’ and ‘monsters’ that appear ‘human’. However, through delicate use of repetition, the reader is directed to watch the mother watching. Drawing attention to her, enables the reader to sense her reasoning when all she sees is an unsafe world and to ponder on the sources of her modern-day anxieties.
The range of voices is testament to Stacey’s dedication to research, her strive for authenticity and her knowledge of the Arts.
Fox Boy is especially captivating: he speaks intermittently throughout the collection, trying to make sense of his identity and belonging. In ‘Fox Boy: Dewey Decimal’, the library classification system represents tick boxes on official documents that satisfy requirements for structuring diversity in organisations. It focuses on otherness in the face of careless terminology regarding racial identities. It also magnifies racism in the casual remarks made at Fox Boy’s birth on the previous page: ‘Look at all his hair — / where is he from?’ say onlookers in ‘Fox Boy: The baby with all the hair.’ Stacey acknowledges Native American writers as inspiration for the Fox Boy sequence: there are many echoes and her use of hybridism is transformative.
The most compelling voice is that in ‘Vorspiel’. It rears out of a prose poem, in which a broken mind is a beast personified. Stacey creates a visceral effect of rare intensity. This perfectly timed overture shows ‘an angry beast in the house’ and a mother reassuring her children that ‘the beast is a soft loving bear.’ At the heart of this poem is a suicidal man. The speaker registers exquisite agony. The final lines are so brutal they must be whispered in French, but it could be any language, as long as it is not native to the speaker. By giving the poem a German title and concluding in French, Stacey’s final image is made universal, and yet unspoken by so many who love and are loved in these circumstances.
...a stunning ability to inhabit the personae of those presented in this collection.
The range of voices in this collection is remarkable; it is impossible to do justice to them all in a review. It is testament to Stacey’s dedication to research, her strive for authenticity and her knowledge of the Arts. There are many nods to other works. ‘Woodlander’ for instance, opens with ‘A stillborn baby must be buried too’: words that evoke Thomas Hardy’s opening to his fourth chapter in The Woodlanders, when he compares the dawning of a winter day to the emergence of 'a dead-born child.’ Stacey has a stunning ability to inhabit the personae of those presented in this collection. Giving readers tantalising snippets from the mouths of muses ('You cannot create a life / out of a dead baby — / you just can't do that' in the poem 'Iseult Gonne', for example) encourages a desire to know more about their lives. No single voice takes centre stage; each is allowed space in the vehicle of voices revealing interiority of selves. Above all, I, Ursula makes us consider what it is we choose to observe, ignore and judge.
Ruth Stacey lectures in Creative Writing at The University of Worcester. Her first poetry collection Queen, Jewel, Mistress was published by Eyewear Publishing 2015 and her pamphlets include, Inheritance (Mothers Milk Books 2017), which won Best Collaborative Work with Katy Wareham Morris (Saboteur Awards 2018), How to Wear Grunge: a poetic memoir (The Knives, Forks and Spoons Press 2018), which was shortlisted for Best Pamphlet (Saboteur Awards 2019).
Links to Margaret Adkins Writing:
Margaret Adkins started writing when her nursing and midwifery career came to an end in 2015 after thirty-six years. She become a full-time student at the University of Worcester. She gained a BA (Hons) in Creative Writing & English Literature and an MRes in Theatre & Performance. Winner of the inaugural University of Worcester V. Press Prize, her debut poetry pamphlet Mingled Space is published by V. Press (2019).