Poems by Katherine Mansfield

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Reviewed by Simon

Katherine Mansfield is, of course, best known for her short stories – and rightly so; for my money, she is the greatest short story writer I’ve ever read (though I’ve yet to read her favourite, Chekhov). What I didn’t realise, until Michael Walmer sent me a copy, was that she also wrote poetry.

First published in 1923, in the year Katherine Mansfield died, and dedicated to her cousin Elizabeth von Arnim, many of these poems went unpublished during her lifetime. Those that did see the light of day (or the pages of journals) were published under pseudonyms – including one which pretended they were translations from an obscure and imaginary Russian poet called Boris Petrovsky. These were the sorts of deceptions that one could put into effect in the days before the internet! So… is there a reason that they weren’t much-feted in their day?

Well, I have to confess that I started the collection with a sinking heart. Some of the early poems are almost unbearably fey. ‘Little Brother’s Secret’ is perhaps the vilest offender:

When my birthday was coming
Little Brother had a secret:
He kept it for days and days
And just hummed a little tune when I asked him.
But one night it rained
And I woke up and heard him crying:
Then he told me.
“I planted two lumps of sugar in your garden
Because you love it so frightfully
I thought there would be a whole sugar tree for your birthday,
And now it will all be melted.”
O the darling!

With her prose pen in hand, Mansfield might have turned this into something mesmeric and sharply observational. In a poem, a line like ‘O the darling!’ is pretty unforgiveable – but Mansfield’s poetry suffers from the same fate as her short stories: they are published in chronological order (with the wise exception of verses she wrote as a child, which are kept to the end). This certainly makes sense, but also means that the worst pieces come first. I would argue that far and away her finest stories came in the last couple years of her life – and the same seems to be true of her verse. ‘Little Brother’s Secret’ was written when she was only in her early 20s.

As the years go on, we see greater glimpses of the observational talent that made Mansfield the genius she was. I think I most liked ‘Camomile Tea’, where Mansfield suggests more than she says. Hints and subtlety were the hallmarks of her stories, and we see something of them here:

Outside the sky is light with stars;
There’s a hollow roaring from the sea.
And, alas! for the little almond flowers,
The wind is shaking the almond tree.

How little I thought, a year ago,
In the horrible cottage upon the Lee
That he and I should be sitting so
And sipping a cup of camomile tea.

Light as feathers the witches fly,
The horn of the moon is plain to see;
By a firefly under a jonquil flower
A goblin toasts a bumble-bee.

We might be fifty, we might be five,
So snug, so compact, so wise are we!
Under the kitchen-table leg
My knee is pressing against his knee.

Our shutters are shut, the fire is low,
The tap is dripping peacefully;
The saucepan shadows on the wall
Are black and round and plain to see.

I don’t think anybody would suggest that Mansfield was a great a poet as she was a short story writer, nor is it (I imagine) Michael Walmer’s intention in reprinting this collection to suggest that she should be reconsidered as a poet. But it is a very welcome (and good quality) addition to a Mansfield shelf – adding context to an understanding of her craft, and seeing how her genius with prose can compare and contrast with the way she used words in verse.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

Katherine Mansfield, Poems (Michael Walmer: South Australia, 2016). 978-0994430649, 89pp., hardback.

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