new zealand electronic poetry centre


Mary Stanley

about Mary Stanley

Mary Stanley: ‘we here are islanded…’

Peter Simpson

Originally published as ‘One Slim Volume: Mary Stanley’, Listener (16 September 2000), 46-47


Mary Stanley (1919-80), whose sadly brief and truncated career as poet is celebrated at this month’s Going West Books and Writers festival at Waitakare City in Auckland, is one of the most poignant figures in our literary history. When she died Stanley had been silent as a poet for more than 20 years; her single slim volume, Starveling Year (Pegasus Press, 1953) was long out of print and almost forgotten. Her career seemed to bear out the gloomily prophetic symbolism of her poem ‘The Wrecks’:

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

Shortly before her death, though, came the first sign that her star would rise again. Her work figured prominently in Private Gardens (1977), edited by Riemke Ensing — the first anthology of poetry by New Zealand women — and her reputation has since grown steadily, especially among younger women. A new edition of Starveling Year from Auckland University Press in 1994 (to which 14 new poems were added — virtually all her uncollected work) was widely admired. She is now regarded as perhaps the most significant New Zealand woman poet between Robin Hyde and Lauris Edmond.

Stanley differs in important respects from women poets of her own or earlier generations such as Blanche Baughan, Ursula Bethell, Eileen Duggan, Robin Hyde, Ruth Dallas, and Janet Frame. All were single women not blessed or burdened with marriage, motherhood (except for Hyde) and domesticity. Stanley on the other hand was married (to the notable poet Kendrick Smithyman) and the mother of three boys — all born during her most active years as a writer. Much of her writing was firmly grounded in domestic circumstance, for example, her best-known poem, ‘The Wife Speaks’:

Being a woman, I am
not more than man nor less
but answer imperatives
of shape and growth. The bone
attests the girl with dolls,
grown up to know the moon
unwinds her tides to chafe
the heart. A house designs
my day an artifact
of care to set the hands
of clocks, and hours are round
with asking eyes. Night puts
an ear on silence where
a child may cry. I close
my books and know events
are people . . .

The complex demands and responsibilities of the woman artist who is also a wife and mother have seldom been so succinctly and incisively articulated. In the late 1940s such concerns were refreshingly novel as material for poetry, though remote from the national mainstream, then preoccupied largely with issues of geography, history and identity.

Some have wanted to cast Stanley in the role of victim, her creativity crushed by the patriarchal culture of the time and place, and — married as she was to a prolific and more widely recognised poet — sacrificed to her husband’s career. While there are elements of truth in this scenario — male poets did rule the roost in the 1950s, and resentment of the male oppressor is a vein in some of her poems (usually treated indirectly through metaphor or myth) — the whole truth is more complex and equivocal. Factors other than marital dynamics and domestic demands contributed to the shutting down of Stanley’s creativity.

Smithyman was Stanley’s second husband, her first, Brian Neal, having been killed in World War Two, cut down by a sniper’s bullet in Italy in 1944 only months after their marriage. This grievous loss continued to haunt her, as suggested by ‘Record Perpetual Loss’ and other poems:

Lighter than dust the remembered kiss is lost
forever on the lip of chance . . .
                                          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.

Smithyman’s first book, Seven Sonnets, published in 1946, the year of their marriage, was virtually an epithalamium (wedding song), and for several years, against the bleak backdrop of war and its aftermath, husband and wife carried on a kind of intimate dialogue in their poems. Stanley’s poems such as ‘Waking, the Rising Wind’, ‘Per Diem et per Noctem’, ‘Sestina’ and ‘Put off Constricting Day’ — by turns, ardent, witty, tender, and (increasingly) troubled — are among the finest poems about the complexities of married love I know of.

A further crippling blow to Stanley’s well-being came when soon after the birth of her first child in 1947 — in the midst of her strongest creative flow as a writer — she contracted rheumatoid arthritis, a disease which affected her with increasing severity, eventually necessitating amputation of some of her fingers. Her poems of motherhood are full of tenderness and joy but are shot through also by a mood of fatalism and dread. The first of ‘Two Sonnets for Stephen’, for example (which supplied the title of her book), migrates rapidly from maternal happiness and solicitude to anxiety and guilt:

Dear second-born whose narrow head was end
and apex of a winter 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 . . .

As a poet Stanley favoured tight forms and half rhymes (as above), intricately scored with vowel and consonant sequences and packed with verbal ambiguities — a kind of astringent lyricism.

During her most productive years the Smithyman family lived on Pine (later Herald) Island in the upper Waitemata harbour where Kendrick taught school. In those days — before a causeway was built — it was literally an island, a circumstance exploited for symbolic effect in one poem:

Cut off by tides we here are islanded
also by time and graver circumstance…

Time and the graver circumstance of grief, illness, unhappiness, frustration, and a deeply innate philosophic pessimism combined eventually to silence this exacting, intelligent, refined and subtle poet. Her output — around 40 poems in total — was small but of consistently high quality. It is worth recalling Ezra Pound’s observation that in the eyes of posterity a few good poems may count for more than voluminous works.



Last updated 26 November, 2002