new zealand electronic poetry centre


Mary Stanley

about Mary Stanley

Starveling Year, poems by Mary Stanley.

Louis Johnson

From Here and Now, April 1953, pp. 32-33


Mary Stanley is the most impressive woman writing poetry in this country. She consistently refuses to write in terms of the conventions which women writers seem to feel are imposed upon them.

Poetesses (who may also be male) too often insist they are soft and soulful creatures inhabiting a man’s world; or are suspended above it, a rung nearer heaven and in direct contact with their souls. They may condescend to try to uplift the coarser, earth-bound male. They work still in a Victorian tradition, knowing woman’s place, and what she dare write about. Miss Stanley defies the conventions and emerges as a most completely expressed woman, a poet rather than poetess.

She chooses subjects which are the subjects of women writing everywhere – and I am not asking that any woman try to express herself as a man.

To Mary Stanley a poem represents a struggle to resolve a problem, the equation of which is words and meaning. The poetry arises out of the texture of her materials: the illuminations, the sparks set off from friction of word against word, image against image, in achieving the final steady flame.

In this small first collection of verses she has several bright lights, some merry glows (sometimes of satisfaction) and an occasional faint "Phut!". The collection opens with one phut but ends with considerable combustion in "Address to Adam’s Heir". The second page redeems the slight opening. In "Death of Procris" the amazed New Zealand reader is told (by a woman) that

          Procris is dead; loving too much
          is slain at last by her excess.

But the poem does not run to excess. Calmly, logically, deftly, the poet delivers her statement. We regard it, humbly, for its pure white light. We recognise now we are journeying; sometimes in country peopled by haunting shapes, sometimes in corridors of menace. We must rely on the hand conducting us to produce another light.

We escape the walls of home and mother. Yet without solace, there is Heraclitus to remind us justice sleeps, each must journey his own way not only towards justice and love, but to death. Death is not a depriver, nor the journey in despair. The road enriches and falls into the heart of the flame – fulfillment. Look now at the sketches of enrichment. She prays not to be made perfect but to be given grace of love. Mystery is delivered from the womb. The new voyager is born to suffer his own pain, carve out his own shelter in a world where menace mounts and a shadow of unfulfilled death threatens the voyager.

These are, to me, some of the significant landscapes and sensations of Mary Stanley’s world, and we look outwards through her eyes. I have tried to map, roughly, her country. There, you may not find it all as I found it. You may not see it in terms of lights or flames or as a journey. The book is capable of several extensions and interpretations. The pictures will remain as clear, the language as vivid and precise by whatever means you gain entry.

This is more a testimonial than review, for I am able to believe in the subject I recommend. Mary Stanley, in Starveling Year, offers a trip I would not want to precis.

Put your own foot forward and undertake the venture.


Last updated 13 December, 2002