Stephanie de Montalk

Stephanie de Montalk (1945) is the acclaimed New Zealand author of four books of poetry, a novel, a study and memoir of pain, and a biography-memoir of New Zealand poet and eccentric, Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk.

Stephanie was raised in the Far North of New Zealand, and later in Wellington where she and her husband still live. A former nurse, documentary filmmaker and member of the NZ Film and Literature Board of Review, she came to writing late, in her fifties, as family and work commitments lessened. Since that time, her writing has appeared in literary journals in NZ and abroad, been read on Radio NZ, and frequently achieved 'best book' status. She has also been the recipient of multiple awards, notably: the 1997 Victoria University of Wellington Prize for Original Composition ('Notes Along the Cool Edge of a Page', poetry);

the 1997 Novice Writers' Award in the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Awards ('The Waiting', short story); the 2001 Jessie Mackay Award for the Best First Book of Poetry at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards (Animals Indoors); a 2015 Nigel Cox Award at the Auckland Writers' Festival (How Does It Hurt?, a study and memoir of chronic pain). She has an MA (Dist.) and a PhD in Creative Writing (VUW). In 2005, she was the Victoria University Writer in Residence. From 2003, when an accident during a research trip to Warsaw caused the onset of intractable pain, her work has explored states of isolation and constraint: concerns that informed her PhD.

Animals Indoors

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

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?

Cover Stories

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.

Vivid Familiar

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 escape; 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.

Poet's Corner

My three-part poem, 'Solatium', produced for TV1's Poet's Corner, is shown with the permission of 3rd Party Productions. In this enactment comprising 'Solatium 1', 'Solatium II' and 'Night Note', I visit a seriously ill friend in hospital.

Five Poems

Chapbook, designed and hand-printed at the Rita Angus Cottage, Wellington, by Brendan O’Brien (1999).

The Intransigent Traveller

Chapbook, published to coincide with the launch of Animals Indoors, designed and hand printed by Brendan O’Brien in the Rita Angus Cottage (12 July 2000).


Unity Books observed: 'It is a necessary, profound and instructive book for which there has not been a precedent - by that we mean there is nothing else like it and for which there has been a yearning gap. Like the writer Atul Gawande, de Montalk looks at science and medicine and human suffering and contemplates humankind. She does this through the lens of literature and through her own harrowing experiences. She writes paradoxically about a state that is "beyond words". In a year where there are no national book awards we could not let this book go unrecognised.'

How Does It Hurt?, is a study and 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'.

Below are a collection of interviews and audio reviews

1. Hurts like hell interview
2. Review with Mary McCallum
3. Narating pain review

"The pine tree leaning over the Kumutoto Stream rocked. Its crown, the highest in a stand of three, moved from west to east, brushing the clouds, gathering light from behind. Its foliage, high and low, rippled equally. I watched it sway through binoculars from my bedroom window. Framed the stumps on the mid-section of its trunk. Searched unsuccessfully for nests. Elongated the waving branches until there was stillness between them, and the city hill on which the pine stood became a mountain. Taoist Masters believed in the efficacy of trees, in their ability to absorb energy out of the earth and universal force from the sky. The more strongly rooted the plant, they claimed, the higher it extended to heaven. Plum trees were said to calm the mind, maples to disperse ill winds and lessen pain, and the tallest trees, notably pines, to be best for healing, especially when growing near running water.' (From Chapter 3, 'At the End of the Mind, the Body'.)"


Unquiet World:
The Life of Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk

Niespokojny Swiat: Zycie Hrabiego Geoffreya Potockiego de Montalk

'I was subjected to such a boycott as is unheard of in the annals of world literature. The whole thing [Potocki's obscenity trial and imprisonment] had a most unfortunate effect on my life. It extinguished my career as a poet.'

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.


The Fountain of Tears

'The task of the poet is not to describe what actually happened, but the kind of thing that might happen according to probability or necessity [...] For this reason poetry is something more philosophical and more worthy of serious attention than history.'

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.

The Fountain at Bakchisarai, 1953

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