new zealand electronic poetry centre


Mary Stanley

about Mary Stanley

Mary Stanley, 1919-80.

Michael Joseph.

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
          and she to love, so both fulfil
          the antique pattern laid on man
          and woman since the world began.

But in the serener context of a marriage it becomes a complementary relationship of equals –

          Being a woman, I am
          not more than man nor less
          but answer imperatives
          of shape and growth.

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
          his purpose, the equipoise among
          cliff and rock, his difficult song.

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
          to the same bed, fallen with stars and stones in a country
          no one travels …

                    … He walks a country
          I cannot touch or reach. …

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" –

          the wind cries in my thirtieth year
          under the drowned circle of the brief
          sun. The bitter airs report
          world winter closing round
          the mole-blind heart gone underground.

But it can be traced, continuing later, as a haunting presence or hidden landscape in the later work of Kendrick Smithyman himself.

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 –

                                                what ache
          she learned on the crippled gaze of the stranger
          climbed out of her cradling breast, my manger.

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
          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.

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.



Last updated 02 December, 2002