I, Ursula begins with Averse Muse (p.7). A confident poem with a knowing humour, it warns men of the dangers of falling in love with female poets and the reader of what is to come. Here the word ‘suckles’ becomes a weapon, the poet’s honey persona sweet and dangerous as a gingerbread house. She will ‘petrify’ her lover, turn his ‘royal jelly into wax,’ a revenge perhaps for ‘white roses that smell of other girls’ in the second poem, Rose Red (p.7, pp.8-9). Cruelty is seen in He used a silver spade to plant the birch tree too (p.61). No soft vowels remain at the end of a relationship that is to be destroyed ‘at the root’, just the self-centred ‘I’ of two people desperate to reclaim separate identities. Stacey’s collection plays with fear of female power, of the wicked witch, but it doesn’t allow it to go unchallenged. An accusation often levelled at women who have affairs with married men is that they have laid traps for their lovers. In The Actress and the President, Monroe answers back on behalf of all ‘other woman’ when she asks the man to take some responsibility (p.23). The president had ‘kindling in his eyes’, his own moral compass.
These poems drip with sex. There are love triangles, intricate fantasies and women who luxuriate in sensual submission shown through animal metaphors.
There is superstition, folk ritual and legend – mermaids that drown in fresh water, smashed mirrors. In the first of the prose poems Narrative, ‘Mayflower trees smell like flesh.’ (p.13) This superstitious belief is made more disturbing by being preceded by ‘Love is exuded from the child like breath,’ and the repetend of ‘like’ and assonance in the final words in each sentence. In I, Ursula, death regularly sits alongside new life. Fairy tales are not to be trusted. Anything can metamorphosise, reveal its lie, turn swiftly from love to hate, life to death.
There is always transformation in any good fairy tale. The poem Haunting Dante talks of ‘words as nebulous as stars,’ (p.33). Stacey’s words are not nebulous but who and what they inhabit and depict is. Concerns shape-shift across time and character like the trees that become carousel horses atop sticks in the eyes of the speaker’s child (p.44). Phrases that echo through the collection have a nightmarish effect that haunts the more mundane poems like Little Corpses, which takes a public health warning as the beginning line of each stanza to outline a mother fears for her children (p.27).
Mental health is a key theme. In the painful beat of prose poem Vorspiel, a man’s depression sparks fears in his family (p.40). Gilt portrays anxieties about images of femininity. ‘Open your mouth wide./ Wider: as if you were holding an apple,’ simultaneously recalls the mediaeval banquet table with the hunted boar and Snow White as she slips into a coma (p.30).
The stark colours of fairy tales are everywhere – the black and white of unlucky magpies and much that is blood red. A couple’s mental health problems are described as an ‘indigo, chill mud’. There is solace but little hope as they hold hands ‘the way people do who fall/ from planes, facing each other,’ (p.43). Animal metaphors are employed again to speak of mental illness – a man’s depression turns him into a hare man, anxiety is a panting white horse (p.31).
Stacey’s lexicon, which combines fairy tale motifs of roses and kingdoms with modern day ‘fuck buddies’ and marijuana gives these poems a timeless feel (p.8). Try Fox Boy: Dewey Decimal for a poem that successfully talks about racial inequality by bringing together the outsider of legend with diversity tick boxes (p.22). Try my favourite in the collection – Air that uses the prose form to write in a stream-of-consciousness style, successfully colliding half-memories with present events to give us the sense that we intimately know the speaker’s history (p.25).
Indeed Stacey is admirably flexible with her form. There is free verse, prose poetry and more formal structures that employ end-rhyme or half-rhyme and established forms such as a golden shovel, which uses William Morris’s invitation to not allow anything in our houses that is not useful of beautiful (p.10).
The same could be said of Stacey’s collection. Contained within I, Ursula is a treasure trove of female historical figures. Some are lesser known such as Jane Morris (the model and wife of designer William) and Iseult Gonne who was conceived in her brother’s tomb because her mother hoped the dead boy’s spirit would transmigrate into her from his grave. After researching these women’s histories further (check out Stacey’s website for more) and reading their stories through Stacey’s lens, we are of ‘unveiled eye’ (p.3). The women are vivified. Their concerns are mythical in scale but many still chime with us today – stillborn babies, unrequited love, economic inequality. Velvet rots ‘at the same speed as royal flesh’ – queens are made of blood and bone like the rest of us (p.19). The women in this collection are often found in art works but are artists in their own right. A prose poem voiced by sculptor Camille Claudel and spurned lover of Rodin, melts into one chaotic sentence of free associations (p.17). Despite Camille’s distress, her identity is asserted through her creations, her narrative held together by repetitions of the substances she uses in her craft and the regular use (again) of the ‘I’. Like many of the women portrayed here – Camille refuses to simply be a muse and insists on shaping her story, an existentialist need which manifests in another poem where crows ventriloquise in their caws – ‘I am here/ I am here here’ (p.34).
Our relationship with the wild is explored throughout the book. Humans move from being intensely connected with nature to ‘staring at the box on the wall’ (p.65). The bear lover of Averse Muse, returns for the final poems, invited to retreat to the woods with his beloved. ‘Keep your pockets full of acorns, bury them in all the dirt you see,’ she beseeches (p.67). In this hopeful ending, Stacey seems to suggest that we can find our haven in what grows from the dirt.