about Mary Stanley
Mary Stanley, 1919-80.
From Islands 23, March 1980, pp. 87-88
The death of Mary Stanley will send many of us back to her one book, Starveling Year, published in 1953 as one of the Pegasus Poets, in that first hopeful postwar efflorescence of young New Zealand writers. In rereading this score of poems, it is a pleasure to rediscover how accomplished they are, the ease and compactness of form and the powerful sense of emotional realities.
Mary Stanley saw the relationship of man and woman with a clarity and detachment which does not date. In the image of the dead Procris and the huntsman, this is expressed bleakly –
He is by nature shaped to kill
This provides a brief introduction to the strongly felt and beautifully real poems of domestic life which make up the substance of the collection; these explore the woman’s feelings towards her mother, her husband and her sons. And the centre of these, the real core of the book, are the series of night poems, "Waking, The Rising Wind", "Per Diem Et Per Noctem", "Sestina", "Put Off Constricting Day" and, in part, "Three Festivals". These are poems of reflection, brooding over the sleeping beloved, full of affectionate concern and well-wishing towards his work and his self –
Sky-walker, the lonely hawk, applaud
They look back towards the various activities of the ‘constricting day’, with its conscious interests in books and ideas as well as its mutual love. But they move always towards the night-world where husband and wife inevitably enter their own realm of dream and myth, which is expressed in the imagery of Scripture, Shakespeare and the classics as well as that of sea, tides and moon. In the longest and subtlest of these, "Sestina", the loved one is seen at first in terms of a benign and familiar landscape, sun, harvest, rocky shore. Yet sleep divides them; its landscapes are no longer reassuring and, in any case, solitary –
At the end we come home
Or, in a still deeper sleep, the husband becomes Orpheus, descending into the underworld of the unconscious in search of a Euridice who is perhaps a mirror-image of the wife.
These poems, and the whole volume, will repay a careful reading alongside the early poems of her husband, Kendrick Smithyman. There are informal echoes of sound and rhythm, a common tone of voice and a shared background of classical and other references, a dialogue of lovers which, as far as the printed word is concerned, seems to end about the time of "Three Festivals" –
Another recurrent theme is the link of generations and the bonds of love, rebellion, dependence and memory which make these links durable. To her mother she is able to return, "my sons [at] my back", with a new understanding of how the mother feels about her –
And the poems for her sons, full of tenderness and celebration for "my nine months’ guest", are also well aware of all the uncertainties and risks of the future, and full of protective wishes for "my little dancer on the tightrope of time".
Somewhere, though still years ahead, is the reality, the long story of illness and suffering which we can register only as one of life’s needless cruelties, of which there is even a kind of chilling anticipation here –
This I, I was, is not
In the meantime, she spent her energy and goodness in her life and that of others. Mary Stanley is one of the unfulfilled promises of our literature, but her poetry, and her early golden self, endures at least in this single bright talent.