At an online literary festival earlier this year, I heard poet Ruth Stacey speaking about writing imagined memoirs - and the techniques which she uses to create an authentic sounding voice for historical characters. In I, Ursula, her second full-length collection of poems, she presents the reader with a wide range of voices for female characters both real and imagined.
The poems about the imagined characters take us back into the worlds of fairy-tale, legend and folk-history – to Rose Red, to Beauty and the Beast, to mermaids and witches. These poems take us into familiar Angela Carter territory – magical, subversive, feminist - and they are often entertaining in their exploration of paradoxes of female experience. ‘Bears are not good fuck-buddies’ begins the poem ‘Rose Red’ – and though the speaker goes on to list her bear’s many faults which lead her to throw him out because she ‘just can’t stand him any more,’ the poem ends, ‘I hope he comes back / I miss the warmth of the bear in my bed.’
The poems which I find the most powerful are those where the poet explores the experience of the female muse and the male artist in both art and literature. This major theme is introduced in the wittily titled poem ‘Averse Muse’ which opens the collection, and it is easy to spot in other titles such as ‘Muses.’ There is a strong feminist agenda behind the presentation of the muse in many of these poems, and it is perhaps most striking or shocking in the eponymously titled poems such as ‘I, Ursula,’ ‘Camille Claudel,’ ‘Jeanne Hebuterne,’ ‘Emilie Floge.’ This is where the personal becomes political: the male artists are known, but not the names of their female muses – not even when they were talented artists in their own right. The poor ‘I’ even goes unnamed in the golden shovel ‘Decorative’ and the later poem ‘Lady of a Portrait’ - no wonder that these women rebel. These poems – like so many others in the collection – explore relationships between artist and muse, men and women, the tensions between life and art, and the creation and appreciation of various forms of art, in terms of power and powerlessness.
About the reviewer
Jane Simmons is a former teacher/lecturer who has recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. She is now a PhD student at the University of Leicester. As a reviewer for The Blue Nib literary magazine, Jane has built a significant publication history of writing about contemporary women’s poetry. A selection of her own poems appeared in the March 2019 edition of the magazine. Her pamphlet From Darkness into Light - poems inspired by the Book of Kells was published in 2018. Further poems have appeared in The View from the Steep, an anthology published by Pimento Press in 2019.