Memoir a subtle and all-consuming pleasure


Bluff-based Dunedin poet Cilla McQueen captivates with the first of her poetic memoirs.

Cilla McQueen: beautiful account of life. Photo: supplied
Cilla McQueen: beautiful account of life. Photo: supplied

Cilla McQueen 
Otago University Press


the poem requires me/ to make available a private space/ where not to think/ but allow myself/ to float in language/ as if it were water listen/ a poet needs her dreamtime

Former Poet Laureate, Burns Fellow and longtime stalwart of New Zealand poetry with 14 collections among other projects to her name, Bluff-based Dunedin poet Cilla McQueen captivates with the first of her poetic memoirs, in a slant light.

Beautifully titled, beautifully depicted, this account of her life, like earlier poetic stories and poems, weaves together local and foreign landscapes; art and feeling and sensations; biography; and slants of the past as she can recall it through pieces of memory.

Her story begins in Birmingham, England, in 1949, where she spends her first six months, and which thus sets up a continual pulling rhythm between England as the template and the new world of the Antipodes: an/ opposition, answering back, something contrary, even disobedient./ Antiphonal. Antimatter./ Indeed it was thought that we were upside down

The wild New Zealand landscape, particularly our local coasts around Otago Harbour and the peninsula, is at the heart of her work, and her partner Ralph Hotere's.

Through their artistic depictions we crave a yet endlessly more real relationship with our land: Clean air; sea-sound; birdsong; poplar; jasmine; kowhai; tall white/ daisy; the harbour changing all the time through blue and grey and/ sandy gold

Early winter morning/ bracken rosehip shingle/ water stepping green to blue/ below trout ripples intersecting/ settling to glass/ before the breeze gets up

Sensations are vivid, immediate, fully sensory. So too are McQueen's personal memories as she traces her childhood years with her three siblings, including her physicist brother, Malcolm, who encourages quite a different perspective from her purely artistic vision.

She recounts the trials of Sunday school, of ‘‘bouffant beehive'' British school hairstyles and being teased for the ‘‘greengage'' school uniform; of the worshipping of then Burns Fellow James K. Baxter and his intriguing coffee group discussions over black coffee and thin brown cheroots; of single motherhood and then marriage to Hotere, and the early years raising daughter Andrea.

One of the strongest themes running through McQueen's work is the elusiveness and beauty of the act of writing itself: of its physicality and what it expresses. Her poetry had first been sparked by the personal mode of diary-writing. As a child she discovers a facility in recognition/ of the letter and its sound, that clarity/ of type on paper like the sharpness/ at the edge of sleep to a time when she can rejoice/ in the flow of thought from eye to pencil-tip,/ mind skimming the edge of sense -

Pleasures to her are the instabilities and chance juxtapositions which can render meaning unstable, causing language to wobble and turn into nonsense; language and imagery as malleable, playful, modulating. Likewise is the relationship to the past and to personal history, from her parents' understanding that history asks you/ to find out where you've come from,/ the ancestral characters who compose your strand/ that weaves through time

Throughout her tale we dip into frequent and amusing encounters with local creative identities. These individual vignettes build up a detailed impression of earlier Dunedin scenes and the interactions that help form a person. McQueen's slant is quiet and illuminating; a joy to be familiar with and privy to these depictions.

I trace the spider-line I've left behind/ through times I've lived,/ anchored at particular points,/ aware of the delicate nature of this operation,/ remembering my place in the past.

In a slant light is such a subtle and all-consuming pleasure. There is delight in its portrayals. So many images stand out; so many link the delicacies of the present and the past and illustrate the often quite random experiences of an individual and the accumulating layers of happenings and remembrances.

- Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

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