The Judas tree, Lorna Staveley Anker, edited by Bernadette Hall, (Canterbury University Press, 2013), 108 pgs, $20.
What makes it possible to reach back into history and publish a collection of a little known poet’s work, as opposed to one of their contemporaries? American essayist Tom Bissell, writing about trying to resurrect forgotten writers and the fragile nature of reputation survival, says ‘What determines a work’s longevity is in many cases an accumulation of unliterary accidents in the lives of individuals years and sometimes even decades after the writer has gone unto the white creator.’
In the case of Canterbury poet Lorna Staveley Anker (1914–2000), a reason for choosing her work is signalled in the book’s media release, which promotes her as New Zealand’s first woman war poet. The Judas tree editor, poet Bernadette Hall, states: ‘The reason she is so significant is there is no other New Zealand woman poet who has written about the First World War.’
Another essential link is that Hall, who lives in Canterbury, knew the poet and had read her her work and was interested enough after her death to investigate her archives and suggest a project to Canterbury University Press. Now we have the Judas tree, a collection both about two world wars, and a wide variety of personal concerns and social issues. The sense is of a lively individual thinking about and processing her life and times through poetry.
Staveley Anker began her involvement with poetry in her fifties. It’s suggested that the sudden death of her son Staveley and loss by adoption of her first grandchild, may have been key factors in her starting to write. During her lifetime three books were published, two by her family and one through McBrearty and Associates, and her work was included in anthologies, including war anthologies and Canterbury-based publications.
Unsurprisingly, the collection begins with Staveley Anker’s war poems including three poems drawn from memories the First World War. These poems centre round a child’s view of the nightmare figure of the Kaiser. As with many of the poems in this collection the setting is robustly domestic. Armistice (11.11.1918 New Brighton) begins:
‘What is wrong?
All the aunties are crying
then laughing with my mother
If I stand on the green sofa
I can see through the curtains
people’s heads bobbing past
and such a noise…’
By the end of the poem the vignettes of the celebrations have darkened and grown nightmarish as the frightened child sees a man dragged along behind the cart with a rope around his neck. The grown-ups reassure:
‘He’s only the wicked Kaiser,
and he’s a straw dummy!’
In the following poem the straw dummy has morphed into the odd job man Kaiser Bill whose door to door solicitation is blighted by his German connection:
‘So fortunate rounded on Kaiser Bill
He was quietly put away.
Only the children missed his songs,
‘Our Emperor’s gone’ – they’d say.’
In the third poem, Child’s Cry in the Storm (1918), Kaiser Bill becomes a nightmare figure at the end of the bed, while the storm rages and the mother, who should be a figure of reassurance, is pictured as ‘… praying, and stumbling and sobbing alone/Is my frightened, helpless mother.’ The final stanza makes clear that 80 years later Kaiser Bill in his blue dungarees is still an object of night terror and the mother’s comfort is still missing.
It’s a bite-sized view of a figure from history that points to the psychological effect of war in one person’s life.
Other poems emphasise how war feels to those at home, or make the home connection for those who’ve been to war. Probably most visible was Ellen’s Vigil which was included in Kapiti poems, as well as two other anthologies, and selected to be interred in the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior along with other special items. The poem begins:
‘Benjamin Isaac Tom
Passchendaele Ypres and Somme
three ovals float
on the cold wall’
The second stanza moves to their elderly mother Ellen who hasn’t recovered from the loss and now:
‘…digs, diligently, delicately,
her spade searching
her garden for
three lost sons
Thomas Isaac and Ben.’
It’s a short poem, and like much of Staveley Anker’s work focused on a single insight, but through the image of the woman with her searching spade successfully conveys the emotion of overwhelming loss.
Featherston (December 1939) deals with newly enlisted boys racing back to the farm after a feverish last fling ‘before their substance, is added to Egypt/Guadalcanal and the River Plate.’ Other poems highlight the emotions involved in saying goodbye. There are stories from men who’ve returned from the war, often with practical ending that functions almost like a punch line — the sense is of a storyteller with a wry take on events. The Scent of Hay is a re-telling of a ‘crowd-stopper’ story where Charlie and his pals drift off to sleep in a French haystack that reminds them of being back on the family farm. They only just make it back to roll call in time for their names: ‘No one was keen to discover/what happened at a court-martial/when the charge was ‘desertion’.’
The strength of the work is in the insistence on the domestic and individual, and in clear-eyed story telling – like hearing family stories about a horrific world event that has rolled through everyone’s lives.
The second and third parts of the book cover a wide range of subject matter; topics range from family and Canterbury history, personal reflections, observations about progress and events, and a great deal else besides.This collection of Stavely Anker’s work emphasises shorter poems and the exploration of a single insight or observation, with a strong reliance on adjectives and the use of spaces between words, to take the reader into the heightened emotion of the poem.
But the sensibility is far from sentimental, and there’s often a pungent sense of humour which brings things down-to-earth in final stanzas. In Vision of Escape the driver of a car asks the poem’s speaker : ‘what is poetry?’
The reply, which you suspect has some irony in it, is:
snug in this warm
Venetian glass goblet.’
The debate between the driver and the poet continues, and just after the poet has created a particularly fanciful image, the poem ends:
you stall the engine.’
Staveley Anker’s awareness of social issues and the role of words is seen in the poem Yet More Words … (for John Summers). The poem begins by taking aim at ‘That welfare guy/in neat buff trousers’ whose words fall into the ‘passive lap’ of a ‘woman-husk’. It then moves to the plight of foster kids, and a ‘sombre raven in the Square’ who is pro-Police/pro-Empire/pro-Raven and whose words are pictured as ‘black bats’. Against this stands the image of a ‘Soft-haired, soft-tongued’ poet whose ‘…mildness hides Gaelic fire’. Then in a reference to the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter: ‘A peanut King gains power …’ — and the poem finishes with one of the more memorable endings of the collection:‘Every headline is grit in the eye.’
The book is enhanced by a well-researched introduction by Bernadette Hall which profiles Stavely Anker’s life, gives a picture of her as a vigorous person engaged by poetry, and a sense of the Canterbury literary environment at the time when she was writing. You can also see Hall’s hand in the careful sequencing of the collection, where the pairing of poems and the flow throughout makes for fluid reading.
I found reading this book rather like spending an afternoon in a café with animated companion, the discourse not especially innovative, but wide-ranging and carefully crafted, so that, in the end, it’s time well spent.
Perhaps the last word on how this book came into being best belongs to Bernadette Hall: ‘If Lorna hadn’t keep all those manuscripts, letters, rejection slips and the few acceptances, along with diaries, invoices, photographs, menus, playbills, if she hadn’t danced in the grass at the Canterbury Poets picnic at the Groynes all those years ago, praising my husband’s legs, his “beautiful calves”: if she hadn’t been such a beautiful presence; if I hadn’t been invited to speak at her funeral; if I hadn’t suspected that the subversiveness of her conversation might be reflected in some hidden-away manuscripts; if she hadn’t brought up her daughter to be as fearless as she was, this book would never have come into existence. I’m proud to have been part of its making.’
MARY MACPHERSON is a Wellington poet and photographer. Her poems have appeared in many print and online journals and the joint collection Millionaire’s Shortbread (OUP). Her latest publication is Old New World a book of photographs about change in small town New Zealand (Lopdell House Gallery).
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