The speaker in Ruth Stacy’s How to Wear Grunge (2018) is a struggling female poet who is heavy, hung-over and coming down. The poems have an intensity driven by the speaker’s emotional problems and alcoholic fixation upon a world made dreary through substance and alcohol dependence.
‘Her Name’, a prose-poem/character outline which reads like an exaggeratedly eccentric Tinder description, ends with world-weary, foot-dragging advice for any pursuers of this kind of dating app: ‘Was any of that true? (Be cynical, doubt the stories.)’ Without wishing to simplify the collection, this could be its mantra. The key word is ‘doubt’. The persona is a deeply regretful female, bemoaning the wasted time, money, relationships – which have all gone into the blender for the sake of another cocktail or drug-fuelled evening.
The book is connected by echoes. ‘Be Cynical, Doubt the Stories’ is the title of the third poem along from ‘Her Name’. This gives the sense of repeated mistakes, of a pattern which the persona perceives emerging from the carnage of her free time, in which she is not free.
It is no surprise that this volume was shortlisted for the recent Saboteur Poetry Prize. Cunning and daring are on obvious display, two crucial qualities a poet must have to reach a reader. The dedication is morbid: ‘In Memoriam to….(blank for you to fill in)’ – which fits the material. The persona is by turns outrageous, lethargic and self-loathing.
Stacy experiments with form in an attempt to portray this – sometimes writing in stilted free verse, interspersed with prose poems which often take the form of sorrowful, drunken rambles. Here, internal narrative is characterised by a use of italics, allowing inner truth to surface, such as the final line of ‘Don’t Pry’: ‘I want to know something new, something fresh.’
Yet the collection is uneven. Occasionally, Stacey’s message is heavy-handed, as in ‘Fresh Meat’, where the ‘show but not tell’ rule, vital to poetic authenticity, is discarded. The ranting nature of some of these pieces detracts from an otherwise ingenious conception. Edgar Allan Poe’s famous words: ‘music, combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry’ – is absent in ‘Lecture to Myself’ as it is a lecture: a rant. Those on the receiving seldom find the experience pleasurable:
a thing of beauty is a joy…etc.
Keats knew the power of an unrequited thing
& you could say this is second-hand electric love
yes, you fall in love with people
Although this collection is a portrayal of a tragic anti-heroine, at times we feel as though our noses are being rubbed in the decay. Not enough is made of the romantic macabre and the lure of the darkness enveloping her. What remains is unipolar darkness, with beauty sacrificed. But this poem ends with the most devastating lines of the collection:
truth she reminds you/me of a period of time
hippy wall hangings & live bands
smokes, pills, music when nothing/everything hurt
drinking morning red wine into limb-splayed openness
wanting to screw her, him, them, everyone
dressing her up twisting her cut-out
paper doll compress me again
This is when Stacey’s poetry is at its most powerful – showing us the ‘cut-out/paper doll’ figure, the ‘morning red wine’ having hollowed out her personality to the point where it is throw-away.
‘Not that, not Vague, a Real Quote, a Real Story’ is also enticing, since it sees Stacey revert back to a concentration on showing the reader the persona’s world: ‘She had a habit of flashing her small tits at anyone […] just to see the flash of surprise in their eyes.’ This use of internal rhyme reinforces the speaker’s commitment to self-degradation and destruction.
With ‘Royalty’, a Rimbaud translation ending with drunken commentary from the speaker, we return to the heavy-handed, the self-pitying. Stacey’s writing is strongest is when the speaker is less self-conscious, the writing is not so stilted, as in the cleverly-titled ‘It’s When the Punctuation Goes, You Know You’re High’:
&words/words are my everything
&these can’t be genuine:
who would write that?
just to melt my mind/*
The experimentation with punctuation and metaphor is a welcome return to invention, though immediately followed by poems lacking this: the title poem begins ‘with big inside pockets for wine’. ‘Give Me Another List’ consists of eight random words the persona has fixated upon.
‘Describe a Picture No-one Else Has Seen’ is another return to form: ‘her slim/arm held up as if celebrating. Scars.’ Showing, not telling. ‘The Worst Thing’ – included in the #MeToo anthology – is Stacy at her best, the tragic entrapment of a young rape victim who: ‘is lonely but dare not wake him up.’
This collection is strongest when the poet uses lighter brush strokes. There are two voices at work, that of the intoxicated persona, and the persona en route to intoxication. The intoxicated passages contain spent, overused phrases. Though this mirrors the persona, we want to access her world and mind. The most powerful of these poems examine the cracked world through her inquiring eyes, rather than preach of her error.