Nationality: British. Born: Burslem, 5 March 1941. Education: St. Anne's College, Oxford, 1960–63, B.A. 1963; Southampton University, M.Phil. 1967. Awards: Hawthornden fellowship, 1987; winner of Skoob Index on Censorship Competition, 1992; National Poetry Competition prize winner, 1992. Address: Casa di Scrittori, 40 Debden Road, Saffron Walden, Essex CB11 4AB, England.
The Honeycomb. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1989.
Little Egypt. N.p., The Brotherhood of Ruralists, 1991.
Sighting the Slave-ship. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1992.
The Ice-Pilot Speaks. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1994.
The Wound-Dresser's Dream. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1996.
Parable Island. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1999.
Recording: Words from Jerusalem (videotape), British Broadcasting Corporation, 1995.
Translator, with Ase-Marie Nesse, The No-Man's Tree. Guildford, Surrey, Making Waves, n.d.*
Critical Studies: By Patricia McCarthy, in Agenda (London), 31(2), summer 1993; in Poetry Review, 84(1), spring 1994; by John Burnside, in Poetry Review, 85(2), summer 1995.* * *
I first encountered the poetry of Pauline Stainer at the adjudication of the Stroud International Poetry Competition in 1981. Her poem "The Honeycomb" was awarded second prize, and it was obvious that she had been robbed. "The Honeycomb" was clearly the outstanding poem on offer that day, and so I found deep pleasure when some years later her first collection was published with the title The Honeycomb. Why did it take so long? It is a story of poetic injustice, although Stroud did make amends in 1984 when it awarded her first prize.
As an example of the extended use of an image, "The Honeycomb" is a small masterpiece. It begins,
They had made love early in the high bed,
Not knowing the honeycomb stretched
Between lathe and plaster of the outer wall.
The poem then continues to throb with the activity of the bees in their comb: "their vibration swelled the room." This, together with the voluptuous sweetness of the honey "in the virgin wax," parallels the lovemaking in the room, leading to a beautifully apt conclusion:
Now winters later, burning the beeswax candle,
Could he forget his tremulous first loving
In the humming dawn.
As an introduction to the writing skills and the sensuous use of language in Stainer's poetry, "The Honeycomb" sets the tone.
Since then, however, this direct style has developed into a more oblique one. In "The Ice Pilot Speaks" we find an extended presentation of a series of coded messages lit with brilliant flashes of vivid imagery—
on the seabed
mouthing the Titanic
—or, in a scene of a visceral hell—
Loki is bound
with his own entrails
but who will wear
this smoking scarlet?
From this the reader is expected to construct a cumulative vision and sense. The method works beautifully in such poems as "Leper at Dunwich" and "Kinga Chapel" and is superb in "War Requiem," where the effect is electric:
against the flicker
of the crematorium
disrobing in the shower room
But in the longer "The Ice Pilot Speaks" I feel that Stainer demands too much of her readers. The clues are too teasing and demand too esoteric a knowledge. It is as if the reader is witnessing the flickerings, however brilliant, on the walls of a Platonic cave of the mind, offering only a glimpse of a higher reality.
Stainer's strength is in her powerful visual imagery. It is not surprising that this often expresses itself in poems about painters and paintings. In her "Turner Is Lashed to the Mast" she catches the very essence of his art:
makes the wind visible,
how the sea strikes
like a steel gauntlet.
She does the same for Stanley Spencer in "The Infinite Act":
the disciples shoal
along the malthouse wall,
principalities and powers
smoke their bayonets