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Mary Stanley

about Mary Stanley

This grave festival my word praises: Mary Stanley.

Michele Leggott

Adapted from the script for ‘But don’t forget the girl is a genius’: Re-Reading New Zealand Women Poets #2, Concert FM (12 August 1993)


The Wrecks

Offshore, sea beached these wrecks, their ribs
picked clean by seasons of salt, and here
the raping wave is master at last.

No bell is burial. Shag and gull
preach their heresies over the drowned
and foundered derelicts no one mourns.

This is the first poem in Mary Stanley's single and singular collection, Starveling Year, published in 1953. What are these wrecks, so dispassionately observed? Why am I suddenly convinced the poem encodes a disturbing vision of women in the world? Look again. ‘Wrecks’ have ‘ribs,’ and ‘the raping wave is master at last’ -- the whole figure breathes a familiar power play. Boats are women, and women are ribs of Adam, worse luck. No-one mourns the drowned and foundered derelicts, there is no bell and no burial, they are offshore. Out of the picture. That's why the poem is a cool view of sea vistas, dereliction and heretical shags and gulls. I wonder though what heresies the birds are preaching over those ‘ribs’?

The last poem of Starveling Year is an address to ‘Adam's Heir.’ This inheritor must deal with the sins of Adam, Stanley says -- Adam who fathered ‘the rib that whets / [the] sexy knife’ of all his descendants. A dangerous image indeed. The whetting of that ‘sexy knife’ is also a wetting of it. Sex and death lie in a close, difficult embrace and the matter ofAdam's rib’ is everywhere the subject of a book concerned to have us read for what is beneath the surface and might, once discovered, have something important to say. ‘For love lies close / as bone under my living flesh,’ Stanley says in another poem. Hearing what bones have to say is a tricky business whether they're encased by living flesh or ‘picked clean by seasons of salt.’ Mary Stanley teaches us how to listen to these strange languages:

Casual or causal, our eyes explore
strange coasts. Voyaging always
among islands we mark what rocks
prick the intolerable shore like sores.
What legend buried in the ear
or compass-instinct poised in the first
cell prints on the mind this shocked
syllable of fear? What angry thirst
steers us beyond outrage to the amazing
estuary where no dangers are?
            [(‘Three Festivals,’ #3]

There is so much fear in Mary Stanley's poems; their beauty is thrown into sharp relief by a co-efficient pain. The terror is of having what is most loved taken away. It tears at the heart:

Dear second-born whose narrow head was end
and apex of a winter's day, your star
fulfilled our feast yet I in plenty fear
the starveling year. What grace your little hand
confers is cancelled by our mortal debt.
We all are Sisyphus, the endless climb
distorts the heart where punishment and crime
have equal genesis, unholy night.
Lighten our darkness, Lord. The laden womb
gives up its lamb, the cloudless eye is dimmed
already with foretaste of tears, and dread
the hydra-headed rises by my bed
turning his knife of grief. My son, my Christ
in diapers, must every kiss be cursed?

This is the first of ‘Two Sonnets for Stephen.’ It is shattering; ‘my Christ / in diapers’ wrenches us from the sacred to the profane and back again in just four words. My Christ in diapers. Christ is given birth by a mortal woman, another Mary fearful of the future -- the sacred is profane: Christ in nappies. And, importantly, the profane is sacred, though its grace is fragile and fugitive.

Mary Stanley's baby poems, their searing grief and beauty, have enormous impact. One line, ‘Night puts / an ear on silence where / a child may cry,’ tells me instantly that someone else has tried to reconcile the twenty-four hour day of child-care with a desire to build its orbits as the measure of a breathing universe. There is so much tenderness and so much vigilance in that line; it is unsleeping. ‘A house designs / my day,’ the same poem says, ‘an artifact / of care to set the hands / of clocks, and hours are round / with asking eyes.’ See how the children take over time, get into everything. When Stanley brings Icarus into the end of the poem, she is standing at the door of this same house. Icarus is no mythical figure, ‘not beautiful, / envy of angels, but feathered / for a bloody death.’ He is a son, who has flown too near the sun. Isn't that the mother's terror, seeing her boy fall out of the sky? Did she ever want him to fly with that contraption on his back? The wings aren't good enough; the charms have a shelf-life. The ultimate terror is loss, the prevention of it the business of our waking lives:

‘My mendicant, caught between two seas / with the world at your elbow for a begging bowl / brighter than coins your hair . . . four teeth are more than pearls, / and sursum corda in the crowing mouth / babbles my bliss . . . I wish / by every star, Orion, the Pleiades, / two centaurs guarding the Cross, by all spells / by incantation, to keep from harm my thief / my little dancer on the tightrope of time.’ [‘Nursery Tale’] Listen to Stanley's fierce possessives -- My little son, my mendicant, my bird, my nest of kisses, my thief, my little dancer, my Christ in diapers, my augury of good, my son my nine months' guest. This is love-talk, stuff we talk to our babies, and I had heard nothing like it in the poetry of the Forties and Fifties until I came to Mary Stanley, who takes it in poems for the compelling subject it is in real lives. Love and talk and babies, in poems. Hers is the lone voice of that period that rises -- sensual, intimate, protective, determined, fearful, prophetic -- to mix dense poems from these and other tensions.

Mary Stanley's sensibility is shot through with knowledge of the checks and balances of her situation as a mid-century woman. She was a trained teacher and she received a BA in Philosophy from Auckland in 1947, just before the first of her three sons was born. As a poet-scholar she mixed intellect and passion and watched the result impact on her socially defined roles as a wife and mother in the late Forties and early Fifties. She was married to Kendrick Smithyman, also a poet, also a maker of densely worked semantic tensions.

And bear this in mind. It's the 1940s; Stanley can write babies and some stunning poems about sexual passion because she is a married woman. Here is the trap: conjugal status permits this celebration (where, by contrast, are Robin Hyde's baby poems? why are her sexual subjects so heavily encoded? An unmarried woman had to find other ways of writing these areas of her experience). But the permission carried with it an automatic demotion: poems about babies joined a multitude of lullabies, cradle songs and effusions about curly heads and winsome smiles. Women's poetry. Poems about sex written by women always raise the eyebrows of a good taste which would prefer silence on the subject. If deterrents fail, it can always be laughed off as boudoir poetry.

Traditionally these subjects disqualified you from the high ground of serious poetic endeavour, and the 1940s in New Zealand poetry were no exception. Mary Stanley was acutely aware of her historical position, and her decision to write babies, and sexual passion, as inextricable from other centres of her intellectual activity, is courageous. She also writes it long before a generation of women encouraged by feminism and American role models manages to do something similar in the 1970s. And how does she do it? How does she escape the deadly trap of ‘women's poetry’?

I think it has to do with her deployment of the fear that contaminates everything it touches; she maps its effect onto every part of her writing. Her metaphysics are as one with her mothering because of its dominant presence. Her cradle songs are metaphysical depth-charges. There are no possible diminutions in a poetry which takes terror for its very centre. I also think Mary Stanley's fear is symptomatic of her era; it is epochal, spreading over a generation born between two world wars (she was born in 1919). Ruth Dallas, herself a poet and Mary Stanley's exact contemporary, observes dryly in her recent autobiography that had she been the son her parents wanted she might not have survived to write autobiography or anything else. ‘The boys in my age-group were to fight in the second world war,’ she says, and describes how it felt to watch the start of a war:

I was still in Wellington in June 1940 when New Zealand troops were embarking for service overseas, and saw the soldiers marching along Lambton Quay . . . When the tramp of their heavy boots was heard in the street, work stopped. Men and women from shops and offices and government departments poured out to the pavements. When I saw the soldiers . . . no band was playing, they marched in silence, save for the tramp, tramp. tramp of their boots, an ancient, dreadful sound that seems to stir memories in the mind that are more than our own. The bystanders watched them dumbly. A woman climbed on a parked lorry, and half-crying, screamed at the watching crowd, ‘Cheer them, you fools, cheer them!’ But no-one cheered. The crowd could not have been more stricken . . . Some had husbands in the ranks, sons, brothers, friends, lovers. The older people were remembering the young men who had marched away only a generation before . . . it was the kind of experience that scorches the mind; having seen it once it is impossible to forget that it could be seen again.
             [Dallas, Curved Horizon: An Autobiography,1991]

Impossible to forget that it could be seen again. Exactly. There was, too, for Mary Stanley a personal coordinate to that ancient fear. Her first husband, Brian Neal, was killed in action. They had been married only a few months, and the marriage produced no children. Aspects of this experience of loss surface in Stanley's poem ‘The Widow’:

Irrefrangible, by fire hardened,
tempered by ice, this love I bear him now,
being dead, beyond all comfort burdened,
unalterable as law, will neither grow
nor lessen. Time my catalyst has shaped
this stone no weather shall wear down
or stream polish to anonymity. O raped
bruised, blinded, this once was green; the flame
of sap rose to a kiss, and kissing fought
to die a death other than this he took
by one stray bullet of a war. What weight
of years and earth the living tree made rock
has shrunk my cooling flanks, given nurse to ghosts
nightly importunate at flattened breasts.

Irrefrangible. Unbreaking, inviolable -- the word is rock-like there at the start, like the images it goes on to produce. See, though, how Stanley sets fire, ice, law and stone against an earlier vision of love as green and growing -- the lovely fluency of sap as a flame which rose to kiss, ‘and kissing / fought to die a death other than this he took / by one stray bullet of a war.’ A deft seventeenth-century way of talking about sex, the ‘little death.’

It is that second vision, organic and acknowledging due seasons, which eventually redeems the irrefrangible grief. A different poem observes: ‘By change / the migratory heart is turned to fresh / preoccupations, hour by hour, act / by act, this counterpoint of breath removes / the past, empties the echo from the ear.’ One can look back:

                                          This I, I was, is not
older only by years, rejects the girl
I would not recognise whose fictions grown
too thin with use are useless to refute
the cold unanswerable logic of a death.
                    [‘Record Perpetual Loss’]

Stanley leans hard here on the old game of I and EYE to explain how things may be seen differently, in time. But in 1945, aged 26 and widowed, she had won the Jessie Mackay Memorial Award with three poems rather different from these we have been looking at. They provide a fascinating link to an earlier phase of her writing.

The poem that most impressed her judges is called ‘The New Philosopher,’ pitched at the moment of homecoming after war. There Is to be no sitting around; the poet's voice is alert, implicated in what the conflict has taught and confident of comradeship. Her voice tells his story:

The new philosopher comes home to farms
Sloping northward to the sun
To factory above the harbour
To the playground where gulls settle
At lunchtime and children run
To summer bays, young-moon-curved
Under fire-petalled trees. Of these
He dreamed half-world away or felt
Again for one heart-beat the cool
Of early morning streets, inland
In some small town, saw snow melt
Milky green on shingle, ere
The earth reeled over, washed him then
To unknown shores. Such hard-won prize
Will not be spent on sport for fools
Or crazy knaves who garner wealth
Out of our comrades' tears and cries.

How different from ‘The Homecoming’ by James K. Baxter, where ‘Odysseus has come home, to the gully farm’ and the knots of an old maternal strangulation tighten again, ‘a love demanding all, / Hypochondriacal, sea-dark and contentless.’ Stasis and sourness reassert their hold and the agent is -- a mother. By contrast, Stanley takes hold of the dream of peacetime, a vision of male/female allegiance looking to be made over as community. Where have we heard something like this before? The clue is there, children running to summer bays ‘young-moon-curved / under fire-petalled trees.’ It's a line that could have been written by Robin Hyde.

Robin Hyde, expert at sending holograms into aching voids, and always ready to hurl defiance in the face of oppression. A sensual, intimate, protective, determined, fearful, prophetic voice rising out of the pre-war years. The connection leaps into focus when we find some of Mary Stanley's first published poems in Lyric Poems of New Zealand 1925-1942, edited by Charles Marris. The same anthology features Jessie Mackay, Eileen Duggan, Eve Langley, Ruth Gilbert, Gloria Rawlinson and, in the place of honour, Robin Hyde. Mary Stanley fits this matrix comfortably, and her two poems sound uncannily like Hyde. One of them is called ‘Song for the Oppressed’:

We must remove, deny and cancel
This ancient legacy of pain;
Too long we were a sacrifice
To kings, lords of the manor, priests in the chancel

We starved, suffered, drowned, burned
Fell before alien spears like wheat
Scythed in midsummer's golden noon.
This is a bitter lesson we have learned.

Who are we? ‘Song for the Oppressed’ speaks to a poem of Hyde's called ‘Woman’ (‘I am The Silenced. From my ageless dumb / Affronted calm, the last commands shall come’) and is radicalised by the contact. Suddenly a gendered struggle appears where none was visible -- only hinted at by that list of oppressions. ‘Beware of the bright standard we shall raise,’ Stanley goes on, ‘You will cringe / Among your shattered gods when our voice speaks.’ Hyde finishes with the unforgettable prospect of The Silenced laughing the world to ruin:

And man may choose the portent of his fate --
Whether he rule in honour, and be great,
Or if The Silenced laugh; and laughing, face
The ring of spears, the unnumbered alien race.

If Stanley speaks a common language of resistance that can be read as gender struggle, what does she learn from Hyde about the ache of separation? The other poem in the Marris anthology, ‘To B---,’ is addressed to the lover gone to war and perhaps to death. This is territory Hyde knows a good deal about, also from personal experience. Both poets return to it time and again; a poetry of loss and the attempt to throw neural bridges over the gap. Two voices, the same language:

Stanley: Here or hereafter there is no escape
             From me. My guardian spirit is gone out
             Into the far shadowy paths where rest now
             Your feet. I hide amongst the olive boughs,
             The slender wreathing tendrils of the grape
             Are my wild hair. Look up and see my face . . .

Hyde: Does the darkness lie on your face, the pulsing dark,
          Black-laurelled hair, and face like a woman's face?
          And your hands grope up and knot themselves in space?
                          . . . a girl with lips like grapes
         Whose white feet splash the wine-vats of Babylon
                               [‘Cockcrow Thrice’]

Stanley: I am sweet water, ease
            After pain, the shadow in the burning place.

Hyde: Sweet landfall water . . .

Stanley: We shall not forget landfall / On foreign coasts . . .

Hyde: I think her joy was to make sick men whole

They speak the same language, and if it's a stock lyric pool it is still important because their handling of it rivets our attention. Both poets stand out as opposition, earlier and later, to a mainstream poetry that wants to diminish the importance of this language and these subjects. If it is outworn romanticism why do we listen with knots in our throats to Hyde and Stanley? I think a great deal of Stanley's fire-power comes from this link to a distaff line that reaches from Jessie Mackay's humanitarianism through Blanche Baughan and Eileen Duggan's crusading to Robin Hyde's epic smash against social conventions. When I see Mary Stanley's photograph in The Listener of 24 May 1946 as winner of the Jessie Mackay Award, with a photograph of Mackay above an explanation of her importance to emergent New Zealand literature written by Eileen Duggan – there is a lot of the picture fortuitously on one page. All that is missing from the action is Hyde. But poems fill the gap as always. Here is a final connection: in ‘The Beaches’ Hyde recalls a moment of mixed splendour and terror written as sexual tumult:

But the tide broke in, and with one magnificent shout
Caught me, carried me, balanced me, held by the knees:
Curled to me . . .
Turned I, and shaken, a child and a woman, blindly
Shook off the weed from my breasts, and knelt upon stone.
[Hyde, ‘The Beaches’ V]

Stanley ends the poem to her distant beloved like this:

And if beyond this life only the grey
Waters of oblivion lie, and all that once
You were goes down into that waste of silence,
I still shall rest in that same earth that shelters
Your dead hands and sightless eyes. Day
And night spin round us both. The wind and clear
Rains dissolve and fuse our final dust
As once our bodies were when strong waves,
Lifting, drowned us. Blind and breathless we lay
At the world's heart, O my very dear.
                [‘To B---’]

Two, beached not offshore but at the world's heart. From first to last Stanley's writing is haunted by the dream of unity:

Which most dear country being
found I cherish always its mild
climate of birds and trees. All weathers
shelter me, and what storms break
speak no distress, for love lies close
as bone under my living flesh.
Now I am known here, how lightly tethered
by two year bonds in the passionate
bride bed and bloody torment of childbirth
and this grave festival my word praises.
                           [‘Three Festivals,’ #3]



Last updated 04 December, 2002