Stephanie de Montalk
Th Fountain of Tears (2006)
This factually-based novel/poetic narrative imagines the events behind The Fountain at Bakhchisaray – Alexander Pushkin’s 600-line poema of the impossible love of a Tatar khan for a Polish countess held captive in his Crimean harem. The story is concludes with my own free translation of Pushkin’s verse tale. The year is 1752. Young Polish countess, Maria Potocka – abducted from her father’s estate by Tatars during a slave raid into eastern Poland and carried in a cage to Bakhchisaray on the Crimean Peninsula, languishes in the harem of the palace of the Tatar khans. She keeps a verse journal and works at a tapestry. She will soon die. The year is also 1821. Alexander Pushkin – banished to Bessarabia, Southern Russia, for writing inflammatory political poems – is restless and depressed: a victim of government censorship, and also of his secret, unrequited St Petersburg love for Sofia Potocka (from the same wider family as Maria). An unexpected meeting with Sofia in Odessa causes him to recall his recent visit to the khan’s palace, where he saw a fountain of tears – a monument to a khan’s unrequited love for a concubine, said to be Maria Potocka. The interrelated stories of the captive countess and the exiled poet take place in alternating chapters, on a single day in Bakhchisaray, and between midnight and dawn in Odessa, respectively. They explore links between distance, imagination and memory against a background of exile, death and the events that conspire in the making of a poem.
Cover Stories (2005)
In 2003, while in Poland promoting the Polish translation of Unquiet World, and researching The Fountain of Tears, I slipped on the marble floor of a hotel bathroom and injured my pelvis. This accident goes unmentioned in the poem, ‘Warsaw’, but the story of a later trip to France for surgery relating to the injury is told in part II of the book. Many of the other poems are concerned with seeking relief and healing in the imagination and memory, under cover of distraction or reflection.
How Does It Hurt? (2014)
How Does It Hurt?, is a memoir of chronic pain––a condition which, despite advances in the science of pain and alleviation of acute or temporary pain, remains little understood and poorly communicated, while silently reaching epidemic proportions. The narrative brings visibility and a measure of clarity to the lived experience of continuing physical pain. In particular, it confronts the paradox of writing about personal pain, notwithstanding pain’s resistance to verbal expression, and reflects on the ways in which other writers have lived with and written about pain; those writers include Polish poet and intellectual, Aleksander Wat, English novelist and social theorist, Harriet Martineau, and French novelist, Alphonse Daudet who believed that for victims of incurable pain, literature is ‘a solace and relief [...] a mirror and a guide’.
Unquiet World: The Life of Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk (2001)
Poet, private printer, pamphleteer, pagan and pretender to the throne of Poland, Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk (1903-1997) — born in Auckland, New Zealand, and domiciled first in England and then in France — was one of the great eccentrics of the twentieth century. Unquiet World tells, for the first time, the full story of this fascinating and fugitive figure. It examines his difficult childhood; his role as a robe-wearing poet and polemicist; his way with women; his splendidly vituperative communications with his ‘enemies’; and his extraordinary obscenity trial in London, in 1932, for publishing (simply typesetting) a couple of translations by Rabelais and Verlaine, and a bawdy poem of his own intended for his circle of friends. The trial – during which he was supported by many of the leading writers of the day, including Leonard and Virginia Woolf – opened with Potocki in a cloak swearing by Apollo and intoning a pagan oath; the outcome was six months in Wormwood Scrubs prison: a sentence described by W.B. Yeats as ‘criminally brutal’. Rex v G.W.V.P. de Montalk – still cited in textbooks on criminal law – illustrated the extreme lengths to which obscenity law could be stretched, and established, for the future, the defence of public good. More than a biography, Unquiet World also provides insights into the literature of obscenity, the complexities of censorship, fringe right-wing politics and private press publishing. Above all, it is a personal memoir of a poet cousin who left New Zealand to follow ‘the golden road to Samarkand’, but never completed the journey.
Animals Indoors (2000)
These poems, set at home and abroad, balance the mundane with the mythical. Children grow up. A Russian sailor abandons his ship in Timaru. A prospective handyman lays rite-of-passage concrete steps on a hillside. A bystander in court bemoans the ‘lunacy’ of jury trials. Edward Barnes gets himself into a ‘hell-hole’. A surgeon’s body leans against his coat. Carpets are purchased in Afghanistan. The trunk of an oak tree runs away from its roots. An amah sweeps an ancestral grave in Hong Kong.
The Scientific Evidence of Dr Wang (2002)
Dr Wang makes narrative sense of the alchemy of everyday life – that puzzling domain of hearsay, fact and opinion – and in accordance with his status as an expert witness, he presents his testimony with clarity and precision. And his evidence is that, as long as the world is as round as an orange, ideas will form, words and stories will follow, and wonderful things will happen. But will his conclusions give rise to complaints? Is his treatment of political issues too lengthy, his vocabulary too plain, his view of life too moderate and optimistic? What of grief and loss? The outer limits? The gulf between Olympus and suffering man?
Vivid Familiar (2009)
A book of journeys, at its centre a long narrative poem, ‘Feathers and Wax’ (a nod to the flight of Daedalus and Icarus from Crete) in which a housebound poet is taken away by an airship that arrives at her kitchen window. Other poems examine notions of distance and belonging, dislocation and restraint. They speak of the immigration of the early European settlers of New Zealand who replaced storms at home for equally harsh storms in their land of scape; and the present-day ‘pilgrimages’ to locations of ancestral origin that mark New Zealanders as a much travelled people. Illuminating these explorations, are the ‘vivid familiars’ that anchor identity and sustain roving spirits.