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Mary Stanley

about Mary Stanley

Noble is burial

 Maryann Savage

 Introduction, Wound Logic: The Invincible Necessity of  Mary Stanley. MA thesis, University of Auckland 1998.  



             Deep peace!  Yet there was panic terror shut inside; 
             The bronze bells rolled and reeled in flowing tide. 
             Against that shock time buckled to resist… 
                                                                   (Charles Spear.  ‘The Prisoner.’ 9-11)  

These 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.  

Why 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.   

‘How 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).   

Stanley’s 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
             she had no more left, and thereby made so many starvlings.
                                                                      (J. Smith v. 157, 1652)

            An irreligious man is always a starveling.  
                                                (Holland 331, 1861) 

            Our hearts are too poor and starveling … to find room for all these   
            thoughts and feelings. 
                                                                      (Hare II 190, 1841-9) 

            The book-sellers, who gave him occasional, though starveling,  
                                              (Irving 362, 1850)

 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 hydra-headed rises by my bed 
            turning his knife of grief 
                                                        (‘Two Sonnets for Stephen’: 11-13) 

Hegel, the dialectician, the champion of the negative, wrote  

            The life of the Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself
            untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains
            itself in it. It wins truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself …
            Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying
            with it. (19)

Stanley did not spiritualise the negative into a teleology.  

                                  To dream an end 
            is not enough after the bitter logic 
            of events.  
                             (Unpublished.  9-11) 

Her 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 
            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.  

Melancholy 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.  

Both 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.   

History: 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.   

Stanley 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.   

As with 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.   

Melancholy 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.   

This is 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.   

The 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.   

The 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 unpublished typescript.   

Biography 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.  


This thesis is an argument against that position.  Yet biography is part of an answer to the question concerning the ‘outside’ of Stanley’s work: that is, to the question of why she published so little and gave up so soon.  This is not a personal question, but a political question about social and poetic institutions, and the biographical appendix is in this sense an adjunct to the final chapter which seeks to pervert the boundaries of the aesthetic and the social ‘outside’ – hence its position, alongside the appendices which concern the bitter logic of her publication. 



Works cited: 

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


Last updated 11 December, 2002