The title poem blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy, life and death, putting this collection firmly in the realm of inspiration, symbolism, muses and storytelling, “I, Ursula” starts, “You tell me that still pools of water/ used to echo the dead; I stare –/ it reflects an ancient forest”. “Rose Red” may be a fairy tale character, but there’s not much of a happy ending here,
“He brings me white roses that smell
of other girls; it is torture.
The snow is melting and I throw him out
of the doorway, my foot in his ample arse.
I just can’t stand him anymore.
I sweep every part of him away,
the tufts sparkle in the daylight.
But at night, as I brush my long dark hair,
plait it into ropes, I dwell on how
he would bite my cheek red,
and I hope he comes back.
I miss the warmth of the bear in my bed.”
Muses may inspire but they also have limited agency and often find themselves reduced to the role they have been given rather than being allowed to be fully human. Rose Red is left at home while the bear prowls elsewhere, the white roses symbolise friendship rather than the desired love and yet she’s left pining for him. Unsurprisingly madness features too, in “Dark Thoughts, Lately”,
“Did anyone gather the ashes
of the Jacobean witch women?
Perhaps their children would
wait for the embers to cool
and fill a sack to take home,
embrace it during the bat-dark
night, when only the wolf
smiles and the rest of us shiver.
It is always the river, deep
and cold like the cruel slap
of the midwife after the heart-loud
clamour of the womb.”
The echoes and consonance give the rhythm and sound patterns a chilling note fitting for when superstition deprives children of mothers. Again there’s a sense of lack of agency and that only certain emotions and feelings are permitted. Children aren’t allowed to openly grieve but have to steal small comforts from a unwelcoming world.
“Exit Songs” ponders on the last song someone might hear,
“porcelain thin, an aria smoked. Some opera singer
lifting her voice to see you on your way,
and not that when the door clunked open and you
were absent in the eyes
of the paramedic, sighs echoed from Radio 4.
But perhaps it was just silence, your bloody silence.”
Radio 4 is primarily talk radio, music relegated to a supporting role of sound effects and theme tunes. “Silence” introduced in the last night isn’t just the silence of death, but also suggestive of someone unresponsive giving others the silent treatment as a means of control. The voice in “The Curiosity of Redness” is unidentified and alien, a deliberate choice,
“We have no feelings, only curiosity;
that is the word humans use – I have
read their dictionaries and oil paint
charts, pondered on their destruction
and pointless cycles of war: it all
comes back to redness.
A blood womb delivers each one –
ruby-splayed bodies, the surprising cut.
Veins pour dark red onto tarmac
or sand. I observe their relentless desire
to disassemble one another…”
This observer sees separation: the cutting of an umbilical cord dividing child from mother, the battlefields and death by machine. It’s also a strong voice, not swayed by human argument but making its own observations and drawing conclusions. The alien doesn’t interrogate or try to communication with the subject under observation. Like muses, humans are given no chance to explain themselves, to argue that not all of us behave like that.
Not all the poems are esoteric or concerned with strangeness. “Infiltration” looks at police who were encouraged to infiltrate groups of peaceful protestors – often for environmental causes – invariably male police targeting women and starting relationships under false names and pretending share their interests and policies as he
“Gets up and reads long lists of things with
the right amount of resentment for authority.
He listens to her whisper rhyming couplets
in her scented sleep. He feels some remorse.
The boss is pleased with him, says he is the
best undercover guy on the force. We’ll bust
these poetry rings right apart by Christmas.”
Poetry slinks undercover, but refuses to die. Overall “I, Ursula” is a chilling, memorable exploration of the darker side of the muse. She is stalked, hunted, desired and formed in other’s image, a body on which to project desires. Rarely does she get her own voice but here she contemplates the power dynamics in relationships and how she is used to create art, often to her own detriment. Despite the projection of delicacy and fragility, she has to remain strong with a will to survive. Ruth Stacey has created a powerful collection.
The Significance of a Dress book launch Leicester Central Library, Bishop St, Leicester LE1 6AA from 7pm. Free Entry.
Book Trailer at Arachne Press: https://arachnepress.com/books/poetry/the-significance-of-a-dress/.