about Mary Stanley
peace! Yet there was panic terror
pages, devoted to the work of Mary Stanley, have already outnumbered hers.
There are many lines which can be drawn backwards through New Zealand
literature. To find a place here,
in the company of Stanley and Spear, is to draw a crooked line, somewhat
lapsed, perhaps lame, touching upon those writers who are secrets of the
archive. The insistent
reading of Stanley’s poetry as that which ‘resolves’ dilemmas, teaches
one to ‘accept one’s place,’ erases the hunger shut inside Starveling Year. This
must be writing which resists the archive it will be deposited in.
Devoted to prisoners, then, of the archive – to those who were
rendered mute too soon – to those whose terror was subdued.
should she be remembered now? Mary
Stanley carried the advances of modernism beyond pleasure; and they who dare
to enter this realm of disjuncture, lapse and suffering will be rewarded with
the recognition of their own earthly lameness.
She is never trivial. At
every turn she encounters that which the melancholic cannot help but feel an
ontological superiority for facing, invincible necessity, the corrosion of
memory, self and love, all that is worldly, by an inhuman devouring machine,
perhaps called nature – perhaps death – perhaps time – She turns
suffering into an anti-metaphysics.
repulsive pleasure is now,’ Nietzsche wrote, ‘that crude, musty, brown
pleasure as it is understood by those who like pleasure, our “educated”
people, our rich people, and our rulers!’
A lifetime of ‘great pain, that long slow pain in which we are burned
with green wood’ had given him his philosophy.
It was a gay philosophy which could only be understood by sufferers –
those who are ‘too experienced, too serious, too gay, too burned, too
deep.’ It was also a philosophy
‘for artists only,’ the adorers
of ‘forms, tones, and words’ (681-682).
suffering is not sublimated. It
maintains its rigid, consuming power. She
starves – originally it simply meant ‘to die.’
Chaucer in Troylus and Crisseide: ‘[Christ] Upon a cross oure soules for to
beye, first starf, and ros, and sit yn hevene a-bove’ (v. 1844).
In Norman dialects it referred to epilepsy, attaining its usage through
its primitive root, ‘to be rigid’ or corpselike.
Rigidity of imprisonment in culture – she is married.
Rigidity of ascetic immolation of the self.
Cruel rigidity of the devouring machine of nature.
To be a starveling extends the duration of death, attenuating it into
the perpetual playing-dead of the melancholic.
A life of hunger. How much
melancholy is bound up in this
phrase, Starveling Year…
One is rendered starveling through fate, through nature, or through
loss of faith –
(Charles Spear. ‘The Prisoner.’ 9-11)
As if rather some blind fortune had bestowed her blessings carelessly till
An irreligious man is always a starveling.
Our hearts are too poor and starveling … to find room for all
The book-sellers, who gave him occasional, though starveling,
Mary Stanley prods the primal wound, the ineluctable necessity, into which she is born. Monstrous dread is the knife which turns in the wound and produces the pain which arcs over the body, inscribes it, twists it, and makes poetry. Dread is the volume itself: ‘I in plenty fear / The starveling year.’ Dread is inseparable from melancholy and mourning, the one feeding back into the other in a salty (teary) harmonic.
the dialectician, the champion of the negative, wrote
life of the Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself
did not spiritualise the negative into a teleology.
To dream an end
language reposes at the level of worms and far away from lost heaven.
For medieval monks, ascesis meant mystical sadness, the path to divine
truth. In the years after war and
loss it signified nothing. Pain produced a Satanic questioner, regretfully, ineluctably.
Melancholy longing, hunger, is put to work as a power of corrosion in
her writing. Her poetry is
mundane, and does not escape the salt of the earthly realm.
The body in her poetry is exposed and fragmented, it exceeds its
limits, it is lame. It tastes of
blood, tears, amniotic fluid, the saline products of pain and discipline.
Starveling Year opens with
‘The Wrecks’: the body devoured by salt.
Offshore, sea beached, these wrecks, their ribs
No bell is burial. Shag
is at the empty heart of Stanley’s poetry, not beauty, truth or
reconciliation. The word Stanley
returned to insistently (repetition without content, beyond pleasure) was
wound. The lapses of her syntax
are symptomatic of the insistence of the spasmodic body in her work.
She draws upon the advances of modernism, but resists its ironic
posture to touch the bitter and repulsive wound of the corpse.
Her companion is Janet Frame (‘The Lagoon’ was published in 1951).
In a similar movement Frame brought modernism to one of its
conclusions, elaborating a writing of the weak and the lame.
these writers elaborated the disruptive power of modernism made at the level
of language to contradict the imprisonment of women and other animals, the
cages of history, self, ineluctable marriage.
Stanley advanced into a new domain the project of disrupting western
logic – logocentrism – which began with Pound, Eliot, Stein, Williams by
thrusting the body into history and beyond.
Because she remained secret the archive must be resisted to read her
– and this is a project which has already begun before this thesis, a
project which owes most to the work of the feminists of the last three
decades. The use of unpublished
poems frees the flow of text from the punctuations and ordering of the
grammatical literary institution. The
text itself floods the archive.
Stanley’s work forms a knowledgeable critique of Platonic philosophy and the
chronology it demands. While she
herself desired a philosophical order, access to the logos, which she
expressed through tropes of natural language: ‘the weeds rejoice’; this
romantic, Wordsworthian vision of nature was undermined by the overwhelming
bulk of her poetry in which nature is the expression of a dreadful fate.
Finding no way out of her anxiety – her aporia – through a pure
language, poetry became a kind of sophistry, a practical ‘wisdom’ with
which to extricate herself – an expedient.
This type of mundane ‘knowledge’ is not Platonic: it does not
fulfill the requirements of anamnesis,
which suggest that knowledge is recollection of transcendent eidos,
ideas, to which the soul had full access before birth.
Platonic philosophy is based on an unproblematic conception of time as
teleological series of events through which one may return to an originary
moment. In contrast, Stanley was
forced to deal with time in an alternate manner because of her destabilising
anxiety at fate. She wrote of a
history which was pulled into collision with the body, its nervous
palpitations, desires and weaknesses. The orderly historical description of history was refused,
and a disjunctive syntax disallowed the hierarchy of cause and effect.
Recollection is impossible: alternately glassed over or frozen, the
difficulty of remembrance troubles subjectivity itself.
It requires consideration of Self
and Other in the second section of this work.
fears time in terms of the separation it marks between self and other, for its
threat to the fragile bonds of love. Yet
this is also understood in terms of herself: she seeks herself backwards but
always finds an impenetrable distance, the erasure of self by a devouring
nature. The poetic daring of her
numerous challenges to the institutions of history and gender (as we will
discuss) suggests also an oscillation between the roles of passive victim and
Husband, hunter, slayer. Her
emphatic gender division into the female as battered object and the male as
killer in ‘Death of Procris’ not only opens
the possibility that the description of killer is that of the poet who slices
into meaning herself, but suggests
it. A consideration of the
masking and gender reversal in the story of Procris from which this scene is
taken disturbs the conclusion of the poem.
The destruction of bodily union is linked to the encroachment of a
destructive, fateful nature – to the inevitably fallen
condition of man. Guilty of
bearing her children into this condition, for Stanley poetry often functions
as invocation, supplication or prayer, always also conscious of its own
concrete existence, the slipperiness of words which will undermine such hope.
many of those eccentric to culture, Stanley is presciently aware of her time
and the erosion of the bonds of gender. On
one level, she partakes in the first stage of the feminist project; she
identifies herself and speaks, asserting her identity, notably in the many
sly responses to her Husband’s poetry in Starveling
Year. Yet this dialogue
between Husband and Wife is only the
first stage – for such an unproblematic sense of intercourse presupposes the
ritual of marriage itself, as the universal which flows through it, brings the
speakers to perform gender, allows them to be understood by each other.
Talking is a secret marriage. Language
requires that women perform a female self in order to have a place from which
to speak. To write narrative is
already to be made into the wife. The
second stage of disruption to bourgeois possession in marriage is perversion,
the salty, worldly, poetic corrosion of the transcendency of self and love
which has been central to the reading of Stanley’s work.
The foregrounding of mute necessity, that which possesses us
demonically before we sell ourselves to each other.
is the troubled awareness of mute necessity.
In ‘Sestina’, repetition is exposed in the dual function it had for
Stanley: as conservative, of tradition and identity; but conversely, as
de-familiarising, making one ‘forget’ in the sense that one might forget
during a seizure, a shock. Repetition
unsettles the meaning of words and removes the feeling of being at home in
them. It is the process of the uncanny, of possession by something
demonic and implacable. As the
poem progresses, the repetition of impossibly lengthy vowel sounds begins to
slow the writing until time itself is bloated.
Thus we approach the time of the melancholic, the time of the
insomniac, the time of those for whom the festival of life proceeds but leaves
them horribly unmoved. This
melancholy vision of life from which meaning is drained, or the anxious vision
of nature as a devouring machine, is anti-romantic:
that is to say, it is the direct opposite of the romantic vision of a
harmonious union with nature. But
the two are linked – recto and verso. Stanley’s
utilisation of modernist technique was not her only trait.
Her violent relationship to nature invoked a series of texts which
stretched back into the previous century.
Yet her use of the capitalised Nature, a usage both ironic and creating
resonances with a literary tradition, was forbidden by her publishers.
the denial of the Archive.
If melancholy and ascesis already predisposed Stanley to mute
suffering, the blank face of canonical ignorance was what silenced her
completely. She was forced to
deny her genealogical link to the previous century – along with her
matrilineage, including her publication with Hyde in Marris’s anthologies.
Thus, the potential of the work was dulled: its meaning limited.
Why could the institution not tolerate this tiny cut (‘N’) in its
side? Precisely because critics
such as Smithyman were at the time attempting to redefine, delimit, the canon.
Smithyman sought to claim Stanley for his side in his struggle to usurp
the stranglehold of the poets of a previous generation.
Bloody desire, not the empiricism of the scientist, initiated the
authority of the archive to imprison its secret authors beyond memory.
strange position of a female writer in relation to the symbolic order
relegates her to a position of inherent eccentricity.
She enters into a dialogue with Hyde and Frame excluded from any order,
a dialogue in which each may find what they have in common is the sense of
being somewhat outside the Human (Stanley’s dread full separation, her walls
of glass and ice, Frame’s feeling that she ‘must be frozen inside with no
heart to speak of.’) The impact
of Stanley’s work was blunted by the continual insistence of critics that it
was a poetry of womanly acceptance. This
erased the gift of anxiety and exclusion the critical establishment had given
her. Yet this was the gift of her
bitter logic, of her philosophy. Eccentric,
she was like Frame, champion of the lame: breaking down the history of the
west by inserting into it the fits and stings of her own body.
Moreover, by their work, Frame and Stanley advanced the inner illogic
of modernism – it is not exactly the gaps, but the lapse which makes poetry.
Poetry is inherently lame.
archeological project of tracing the reproduction of Starveling Year is the necessary response to the archivist who
covers up the strategies of his collection by claiming that it is natural
(‘the best’) and that he has all there is.
The slim volume: Starveling Year
is the only published collection of Stanley’s poetry. Her entire body of work is just a little cut in the
establishment, and to make matters worse, the compiler of the updated, 1994
edition of Starveling Year added
only fourteen more poems when there were nine additional published works, five
poems up to proof stage and three which she had prepared as typescripts,
thirty-one in all. All of which
her editor had access to. The
rhyme and reason of Mary Stanley is a ‘bitter logic’ – words from an
is positioned on the boundary of this thesis, as an appendix, because of its
position in working with Stanley. It
is not part of reading Stanley’s
poetry. The ‘fallacy’ of
limiting the meaning of poetry to the author’s biography was fully realised
by Stanley’s male contemporaries, yet consider this comment by Bob Chapman
on why he only included three of Mary’s poems in his 1956 Oxford Anthology,
and why she was ignored by Brasch:
There was what was in Starveling Year, and I thought I’d got the very best. One of the problems with selecting Mary was that you needed to know her life to fully understand what some of those poems were about. They were so much related to her domestic circumstances and the tragedy that lay behind with the war. You looked for the most transparent group. I don’t think Charles Brasch knew that background. You had to know their current circumstances to grasp all of what she was doing in some of those poems. But I took the ones which had the same themes but in their most accessible form and which were also, in my opinion very fine poems.
Charles Spear, Twopence Coloured (Christchurch, Caxton Press, 1951)
G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Trans. A.V.Miller (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1977)
Mary Stanley, Untitled (‘Our rubble years go over like a flight of birds…’), MS held in University of Auckland Library, MSS & Archives Vault 113
Mary Stanley, Starveling Year (Christchurch, Pegasus Press, 1953)
Robert Chapman, Interview with Maryann Savage, 3 June 1997
© Maryann Savage