Poetry Review: Viola, The Virgin Queen by Ruth Stacey

This experimental poetry pamphlet by Ruth Stacey, accompanied by the illustrations of Desdemona McCannon, explores the complexities of identity, displacement, and gender expression within the confines of Tudor society. Stacey cleverly juxtaposed a semblance between the lives of Queen Elizabeth I and Viola, (from the Shakespearean play the Twelfth Night).

This beautifully illustrated pamphlet opens to a passage from Twelfth Night, “I am all the daughters of my father’s house, And all the brothers too: and yet I know not.” A direct quote from Viola, Stacey links back to this towards the end of the pamphlet to fuel this riveting poem.

“I am all the sisters of my father’s house and all

the sons too

and yet I know
knot tied

Stacey’s use of allusion is a common occurrence throughout this pamphlet, with many excerpts from the Tudor period, including the works of John Knox, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I. This reflection on Tudor culture displays the misogynistic attitudes perpetuated by those in power, specifically with John Knox’s “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women” which asserts that female monarchs are in direct opposition to the bible. Stacey references Knox’s work in yet another captivating poem that demonstrates her creative ability to voice the dubious displacement that both Viola and Elizabeth I might have felt during this time.

“first blast of the trumpet
second blast was stuttered
at night you mutter monstruous
an entire regiment of women
in your brain clumps ruling over”

Stacey’s use of enjambment in some poems presents a unique look into how fragmented both Elizabeth I and Viola’s minds may have been; with thoughts running from one line to the next, Stacey eloquently illustrates themes of convolution and hesitancy to conform to societal expectations.

“I am a guiser and you are a
guiser revels mummers
memory and you”

For a woman to assume the role of a male figure and the expectancy to express oneself as such is apparent in the lives of both Viola and Elizabeth I, for Viola this manifests an outward change whereas for Elizabeth I, an inward change. This juxtaposition between the mental and physical is explored by Stacey in my personal favourite poem from the pamphlet.

“boy dressed as girl guised
as a boy arouses lord
erotic same
girl dressed as boy
courts lady erotic same
siblings slip swap exchange.”

Viola, The Virgin Queen consists of endearing historical poetry that fully encapsulates the mental and emotional space of both Elizabeth I and Viola. Ruth Stacey’s broad range of literary skills provokes a poignant and empathetic response in the reader. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this pamphlet and highly recommend it to poetry and history lovers alike.

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