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Mary Stanley

about Mary Stanley

Review of Starveling Year 

A. W. Stockwell

From Landfall 26, June 1953, pp. 139-40


The title of Mary Stanley’s first collection scarcely does her poems justice. To a reader coming fresh to her work, it might suggest no more than yet another record (sensitively written no doubt, for otherwise it would not have appeared in the Pegasus Poets series), of spiritual undernourishment and frustration. But such anticipations are happily belied by the poems themselves.

          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.

"Yet I in plenty fear…" The phrase is significant, for the strongest impression left by her verse is not one of deprivation, impoverishment and
despair, but rather of rich personal experience and poised fulfillment.

This is specially true of the love poems, which are among the most immediately attractive in the book. The concluding images of "Night Piece", for example, beautifully convey the mystery and wonder of love’s fruition, where love is firmly rooted in physical passion.

                                                     We heard
          a voice over the northern sea, and hinds
          in the enchanted wood. The fable blinds
          the beggar prince, cages his golden bird.
          Not here, in any angel, lyre or rose
          I find the touchstone phrase but in the kiss
          that knocks along the blood and, wordless, knows
          its way of tears and holds dumb hands to bless.

In other moods, in "Waking, the Rising Wind" and "Sestina", she expresses in equally moving lines the ultimate pain of romantic love; she knows, that is, of the individual privacy and separation of lovers, which precludes appeal or escape, and which no passion can penetrate or bridge. But this knowledge, in turn, is countered by devotion and the joy of what union is possible.

As a group the love poems are very varied; in theme and treatment each is different from the rest. "Threefold Prayer" counsels forbearance; in "Per Diem et Per Noctem" unselfregarding love is triumphantly evoked. When appropriate she can write with delightful wit. "Put off Constricting Day" begins easily and colloquially, rising through a note of half-humorous self-assertion to an admirable climax. A similar lightness of touch is displayed in "Householder".

Some of the poems are addressed to the writer’s children. With the example of other poets in mind, who have attempted to speak fondly of children in verse, one is inclined to approach this group with trepidation, but May Stanley’s sure tact enables her to succeed where Swinburne, for instance, so embarrassingly failed. "Puer Natus", which begins

          My little son, lie down to sleep,

and ends

          whose curls I cover with my kiss,

is written tenderly, yet without the slightest trace of sentimentality. But her attitude to her children, and to human nature in general, is much less simple than any of my remarks so far would suggest. It is in fact the traditional Christian view, focussed through twentieth century psychology. She sees her one-year-old child as

          Heir to our sins
          and acts, to generations locked
          in the secret sperm.

Though he is not apart, yet separate

          His need still spins
          a web of love not knowing a kiss
          also betrays. His grief which wears
          these easy tears later is sealed
          in the wound’s core to go unhealed.

She herself has seen Icarus fall beside her door
                                                not beautiful,
          envy of angels, but feathered
          for a bloody death.

The experience of suffering and pain is fully explicit in "Record Perpetual Loss", where she grieves at the inadequacy of grief itself; but it sounds an undertone, as well, in almost every poem.

To her, everyone in his innermost being is both Caliban and Ariel; consequently it is no surprise to find that the last two poems of this volume, "Cut off by Tides" and "Address to Adam’s Heir", which make her most general statements about human nature, are couched in specifically religious terms. In the first of these, she doubts even love, the assurance of which is so powerful in earlier poems; she finds comfort only in the possibility of atonement.

It is hardly to be expected that every poem in a first collection will be uniformly successful. Sometimes the fluidity of Mary Stanley’s utterance is inclined to be impeded by images which are too clogging, and occasionally the nerve in her verse becomes numb – but briefly and rarely. She doesn’t aim at startling effects, but in her best poems she speaks in an individual tone. Not the least of her poetry’s attraction is the personality which it intimately reveals. Poetry of her quality, written from a woman’s point of view, is sufficiently rare to make it doubly welcome in this country.



Last updated 02 December, 2002