Maura Stanton Critical Essays

Stanton, Maura

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stanton, Maura 1946–

Stanton is an American poet. The poetic landscape of her work is characterized by a nightmarish imagery where the boundaries of inner and outer reality merge. Her poetic language is powerful, her images vivid, and the tone of her verse is often bitterly ironic.

[In Snow on Snow, with] her experience recollected in irony, her often bitter tone, oblique narratives, and grotesquerie, Stanton sounds somewhat like Sylvia Plath with a flat, midwestern accent. And like Plath, she is obsessed by an ambivalent sense of perfection. The retrospect of her "childhood of frown & circumference/locked on a prairie without history,/without oracular words like 'Prague' or 'Jew'" transforms its dominant fact into her controlling figure; the blank banks of snow that promise both a stillness that freezes "the tumult of perception," and the terrible beauty of death…. [She] has layered her confessional excerpts with effective dramatic monologues—both imaginative and allusive—that vary the volume's tonality. Both sustain a similar thematic concern: the inability to sort motives from consequences. We are not lost in experience, but from experience…. Stanton is strongest when she combines her fabular instinct with her persistent anxiety. The sequence-in-progress that concludes the book, titled "Extracts from the Journal of Elisa Lynch," is quite a brilliant and moving account of multiplying alienations…. [Stanton's] discoveries seem inadvertent, or are too often distanced into parable. But there is a stronger, more obvious skill at work here than among the recent Yale Younger Poets, and when Stanton settles into herself and maneuvers her inventions to reveal rather than reduce, she may well prove a major poet. (pp. 96-8)

J. D. McClatchy, in The Yale Review (© 1975 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1975.

A comparison [of Maura Stanton] with Sylvia Plath may be alarming yet it is, I think, inevitable: [in Snow on Snow there] is the same imperilled hermeticism, the same wizard capacity for transmuting an inner nightmare (of frigidity, metamorphosis, explosion) in a coherent but exotic complex of images, often under the aspect of the mythopoeic memory. At incandescent junctures, the always beautifully integrated poem threatens to consume itself in its own tranquil fury; it never does: the crisis, dire and insupportable, finds its agonized, mollifying musical resolution….

The best of these poems must have emerged from lavas of stress, cooled into order by a ruthless act of will and by a vital unconsciousness that provides the poet with bizarre visions revealing, as in one place she expresses it, "catastrophe in all its moral delight." Curiously, there are level patches, to put it less than cleverly, where Miss Stanton is in the territory of Richard Hugo, most notably in "Going Back." Cadence as well as substance is coincidentally kin. (p. 593)

Vernon Young, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1976 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Winter, 1975–76.

Maura Stanton's Snow on Snow is a strikingly mature first work, full of eloquent, spontaneously lyrical pieces which combine bizarre Freudian fantasy with a sharply realistic intelligence. The complex and inventive imagery flows too fast to cloy, and though the craftsmanship isn't obvious, most of the poems are unobtrusively shaped and controlled beneath their apparently random surfaces. (p. 80)

Terry Eagleton, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 17, No. 1, 1975–76.

It does not matter too much whether [the] psychic events [in Snow on Snow] happen to a fictional protagonist or a stand-in for the author. Fairly steadily, the fictional or mythic voices sound credible, "personal," and colloquial, as in the fine poems retelling fairy tales and biblical myths; and the autobiographical voice speaks in a clear line of family resemblance to the mythic. These like, but differently named voices, weighted by similar catastrophic experiences of violent loss, change, and entrapment, nonetheless move us by their urgencies, by their richly varied history and language. (On the richness of the language in general I cannot suppress a small note of impatience. At times the style could stand a little thinning: especially of adjectives like shocked, fierce, strange, wild, and amazed, those little bricquets which tend not so much to heat a line as to over-cook it. (p. 151)

In new extremities of being, self painfully learns a setting loose from self. As Maura Stanton, the "normal child," or as Ophelia, or some fairy tale person, Stanton habitually tests, extends, and amplifies the fields of experience beyond autobiography, or the more automatic forms of self-record.

The complex changes rung on her basic counters—brain, whiteness, stone, skin, water and air—create a literally fluid balance of tone. It seems in keeping, then, that so many of the voices of the poems are also fluid, or ambiguously split in point of view. Irony may be comfortable to this poet because it can straddle value possibilities; because it supports a boundary-sitting consciousness always testing the thought of crossing over. Stanton's most successful poems are frequently revisions of myth, ambiguously poised black comedy where the bite of the retelling is downward and satirical. (p. 153)

Helpless hostility, or an amiable malice, characterizes many of the Stanton protagonists…. In the characteristic fluidity of Stanton's medium, she acts fatally, in doubtful climax. In "Job's New Children" what cosmic good or cosmic evil intends is equally rinsed with absurd intention. As Job inspects the recent deliveries of good fortune, he is made to say:

           But the seed's wrong.
           These children aren't gay but holy—
           like that fish born
           miraculously to a starving woman
           who still died, unable to eat.

But the irony is not intrusive, or mechanically bivalent. Partly, because a thick gritty clutter of autobiographical objects keeps it from ideological transparencies; partly from the wide span of primary sources culled for materials; and partly through a fresh netting of symbolic clusters, the book—alive, irregular, and as comfortably caught as an electric eel—still keeps its conspicuous distance from either the easy or the predictable. (pp. 154-55)

Lorrie Goldensohn, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring-Summer, 1976.