Janet Charman has written ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?’, a scintillating essay on Mary Stanley for Women Studies Journal. She raises questions about Mary’s exclusion, particularly from Allen Curnow’s anthologies, and equally importantly opens the scope and complexity of Mary’s poetry. I am reminded of how much Mary’s poetry offers and how good it is have her placed within our sightlines.
This is must-read critical thinking – just as Mary Stanley’s Starveling Year is must read poetry. Interestingly I could not access the book cover easily on line as it is now out-of-print ( it was re-issued by AUP in 1994, the first edition appeared in 1953).
You can read the full essay here. This year marks a hundred years since Mary’s birth.
Two tasters from Janet’s essay:
‘In August 1946, aged 27, Stanley married again. Her second husband was a fellow poet, Kendrick Smithyman. In ‘Put off Constricting Day’, another poem from Starveling Year, she celebrates sexual desire, but also reveals the ambivalence with which the husband of this piece responds to his passionate wife. It is transgressive material for a woman artist of any period – work every bit as ‘adult’ as Allen Curnow, writing of his high expectations of New Zealand artists, could have wished (Curnow 1945, p. 26; 1951, p. 25). On these grounds alone, Stanley should have been a shoo-in for inclusion in Curnow’s 1960 Penguin anthology. A number of Stanley’s poems had appeared in various local and overseas journals, and in 1946, three of her poems won the Jessie Mackay Memorial Poetry Award. This meant her publishing record and critical notice were equal at that time to fellow newcomers C. K. (‘Karl’) Stead and James K. Baxter, both of whom Curnow’s anthologies go out of their way to include and praise. She was also part of a thriving writerly milieu in Auckland, where she and her husband knew Curnow personally. Not surprisingly, a four-page sequence of Smithyman’s poetry was included in the second edition of Curnow’s Caxton anthology (1951), a representation Curnow then tripled to 12 pages in his 1960 Penguin volume. But Mary Stanley is conspicuous by her absence from all three of Curnow’s collections. What is more, Curnow snubs the publication of Starveling Year in his Penguin introduction with his concluding note that, ‘Nowhere in the last decade have there been any poetic departures worth mentioning’ (1960, p. 64).3 That can only have been salt in Mary Stanley’s wounds.
Family is likewise at the heart of Stanley’s ‘The Wife Speaks’, a poem I read out at my own mother’s funeral. In this piece, clocks whose faces have ‘asking eyes’ mutely question how ‘The Wife’ who winds their hands now spends the time they tell (1994, p. 23). But despite her unfulfilled ambitions, she accepts that she must close her books, because hers is a setting in which even ‘Night puts/ an ear on silence where/ a child may cry’ (p. 23). To meet her children’s needs, the poet must be hyper-vigilant; her underlying desire for a change in her domestic circumstances is stifled by the horrors that she anticipates any such change could produce. Her longing to express her audacious creativity is self-rebuked by the image of Icarus fallen, ‘feathered/ for a bloody death’ (p. 23). The brutal eloquence of the poem thus subverts its ostensible theme of wifely self-abnegation.
I read another of Stanley’s poems at the funeral of my mother’s closest friend. ‘Householder’ (in Starveling Year) embraces the covert hedonism of a Kiwi summer and expresses delight in nature’s exuberant will to misrule. The pines planted around the house usually afflict it with an inveterate chilliness, but once immersed in lazy seasonal heat, the poet glories in a chill made subversively sensual. Stanley’s ability to capture a timeless cultural mood is evoked in other poems too. ‘Sonnet for Riri’ (also in Starveling Year) is an expression of full empathy for a stranger – an emigrant, a refugee. So painfully relevant to the post-war period, this poem could not be more current today.
The dangers that patriarchy and its unacknowledged phallocentric discourses continue to represent for woman-identified artists are epitomised by the critical marginalisation of Mary Stanley’s life and work. However, the acuity of her poems also suggests that it is now time to consider her not as a solo, sacrificial, and silenced victim, but as somebody whose (pro)creative sensibilities can be a touchstone for any artist determined to treat feminine-generativity as both inspirational and unhidden. What is more, to encounter and share Mary Stanley’s poetics on these alternative Matrixial terms employs a model that collegially recognises the writer herself as a she-Hero.