Poetry Shelf ANZAC poem: celebrating Lorna Staveley Anker, NZ’s first woman war poet


Ellen’s Vigil


Benjamin Isaac Tom

Passchendaele Ypres and Somme

        three ovals float

        on the cold wall

plastered whiter

         than their bones,

young, khaki’d

         their bud-tender eyes

         premonition filled.



Her three boys gone,

      transplanted seventy years

      from Lurgan’s linen

no longer counts crops

      in season

but digs diligently, delicately,

      digs down

              further down

      her spade searching

              her garden for

      three lost sons

      Thomas Isaac and Ben.


Lorna Staveley Anker


from Ellen’s Vigil Griffin Press, 1996

(The poem also appeared in The Judas Tree, 2013 and is published with kind permission from the Lorna Staveley Anker Estate)



I discovered the poetry of Lorna Staveley Anker in The Judas Tree, a selection edited by Bernadette Hall  (2013, Canterbury University Press). The collection claims Lorna as New Zealand’s first woman war poet. She was born in Ōtautahi, Christchurch in 1914 and died in 2000. Her father died of throat cancer when she was two and her mother took in boarders to survive. Three of Lorna’s uncles were killed in WWI and her mother, Elizabeth suffered terribly. From childhood Lorna endured a lifetime of crippling nightmares, night terrors. She married Ralph Price Anker, a student she met at teachers’ college; they had four children and adopted a fifth. Lorna began writing and publishing in the 1960s, but her first collection, My Streetlamp Dances, did not appear until 1986. Two further collections appeared in her lifetime: From a Particular Stave (1993) and Ellen’s Vigil (1996). I so loved the posthumous volume, The Judas Tree, I reviewed the book on my blog. 

Shortly after the review appeared, Lorna’s daughter, Denny, sent me a copy of Ellen’s Vigil and again the poetry resonated. Much later I found myself in the Turnbull Library doing research for Wild Honey and listening to various audio tapes. I was completely captivated by an interview between Lorna and Susan Fowke (from the Gaylene Preston Productions Women in World War Two oral history archive managed by Judith Fyfe).

There were many occasions when I was profoundly moved in the Turnbull and this was one of them. I was writing a book that engaged with the work of almost 200 poets and that required a very different focus to a book that considered a single poet or perhaps even ten. However sometimes a particular poet held my attention; I got lost in the maze and astonishments of unpublished writing, letters, interviews, diaries, scrapbooks. In Lorna’s case, to hear the poet speak was a special thing indeed. Gaylene has kindly given me permission to share some gems from Lorna on being a poet but I do encourage you to explore the oral history archive Gaylene has helped assemble.



Lorna’s father sometimes wrote poetry, ‘particularly couplets’ for her mother and her mother ‘s meals ‘were a poem’: ‘she’d pickle nasturtiums and we’d have caper sauce with our mutton’. I can just picture the kitchen: ‘The shelves in the pantry would be shiny with rows and rows of goods.’

The poem ‘Ellen’s Vigil’ stems from the time Lorna’s grandmother went digging for her war-dead sons in her garden. Lorna said in the interview that her grandmother was ‘grandmother to all mothers and wives who had lost their beloved men – she was a symbol for me.’ Knowing this amplifies the ‘buried’ grief. Lorna had lived with her grandmother and grandfather for a period from 1921; her grandmother, we hear, had favoured imagination rather than ‘strict discipline techniques’.

Lorna suffered from an eye defect which hindered her reading but at the age of 52 she began writing: she said it was strange to have a slim reading history when then, at the age of 52, ‘out burst all this language and poetry’. In her introduction to The Judas Tree Bernadette muses on events that perhaps prompted Lorna’s poetry writing in the 1960s (the death of her son Staveley aged 21 and the fact his daughter was adopted out by the birth mother) and the way she began publishing after the death of her beloved husband (1983).

She recounts an incident where her poetry was rejected as middle-class rubbish: ‘I came home and I wrote out of indignation and rejection, passion, fury, disbelief, and it was the mildest poem the most restrained tender poignant poem about the death of affection’. Writing was often a physical thing for Lorna: ‘a fusing in my head’, ‘a rush of blood’.

Lorna shared a number of things on being a poet that stuck with me. She didn’t call herself poetic ‘but being poetic means you have a different print out’, and when you write poetry ‘your mind is going sideways’.

Lorna’s family helped publish her collections while Pat White, David Howard and james Norcliffe offered help and assistance with her debut collection. Two of her poems were published in Kiwi & Emu (1989) while Lauris Edmond selected her essay, ‘Has the Kaiser Won?’ for Women in Wartime (1986).

I recommend taking timeout in the archives and listening to the interview, tracking down Lorna’s individual collections and perusing the book that Bernadette assembled with such love and care. To return to the poetry with her autobiography, to remember the impact of war upon her well being and later her writing, to consider the way words flooded out when she was older rather than younger, is to enrich reading pathways through her work.


From my review of The Judas Tree

Lorna’s poems reflect a mind that engaged with the world acutely, wittily, compassionately. There is a plainness to the language in that similes and metaphors are sidestepped for nouns and verbs. These are poems of observation, attention, reaction, opinion, experience. The starting point might be the most slender of moments — and the poetry opens out from there, surprisingly, wonderfully.

In the first section (and indeed the largest section), war makes its presence felt; from the pain of departures, to the pain of the wounded, to the ache of loss. At times Lorna filters a poem through the eyes of her young self (for example, trying to make sense of Armistice Day). At times a concrete detail makes the poem more poignant (‘her spade searching/ her garden for/ her three lost sons’). In ‘Arie’s Tale’ the detail that renders the pain sharper is the ‘tyreless rims.’ In this poem the dead are carried away on a bicycle that makes such a clatter it is the hardest thing to bear (‘He felt it wasn’t respectful/ to his customers’). Lorna’s war poems stretch in all directions — they never forget the life that goes on and they never forget the heartbreak and loss that are etched indelibly. One of my favourite poems, ‘V.E.Day … and Neenish Tarts,’ moves beautifully between these two opposing but entwined forces. From the darkness of battle (now over), the poem moves to the grandmother dancing on the bed (as warm flesh weaves/ pink circles/ under a nightgown’; and from there to ‘Let’s have Neenish tarts for tea’ (this is cause for celebration). This first section of the book is a terrific addition to New Zealand war poetry because it casts a light on women at war (even when they remain in the kitchen).


‘Vision of Escape’, a poem by Lorna

Canterbury University Press author page











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