Jack Ross, ed.: Poetry NZ Yearbook 2017 (March 2017)
Cilla McQueen. In a Slant Light: A Poet’s Memoir. ISBN 978-1-877578-71-7. Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2016. RRP $35. 135 pp.
Cilla McQueen: In a Slant Light (2016)
Which brings us to Cilla McQueen’s In a Slant Light: A Poet’s Memoir. The title is, I take it, a direct doff of the hat to Wordsworth. Both seem agreed on the existence of an entity called ‘a poet’, whose existence must somehow be accounted for, if not necessarily celebrated.
McQueen’s life has certainly been an interesting one. Readers fond of literary gossip might well pick up this book to find out about Ralph Hotere, to whom she was married in the 1970s and 1980s, or Hone Tuwhare, or James K. Baxter, or Ian Wedde, or any of the other poets and artists she’s known and spent time with.
For the most part they’ll be disappointed, though. Just as Wordsworth fails to fill in the salient details about his close friend Coleridge as a modern biographer might have done, while attempting to account for the growth of his own poetic consciousness, so McQueen gives the events of her life almost as notes to self: dated by year, and arranged in end-stopped verse paragraphs. This account of her first experience of love-making, for instance:
Separated from my girlfriend‘Surrender at dawn’: that’s certainly a salutary slap in the face to those expecting prurient details. But I think it’s not so much the sex as the people who intrigue us most. ‘Ross’ never really comes to life as a character, perhaps because he is one — an actual person with an important but mostly off-stage role in McQueen’s life.
I go with tall, brown-bearded Ross
To this tobacco picker’s hut:
Surrender at dawn.
We fall in love, both for the first time. (p. 57)
From time to time the memoir expands to include one of her early poems. On page 111, for instance:
I write ‘Timepiece’. Mum suggests I send it to the Listener. They publish it; I’m shy to see my poem in print and visible to everyone.‘Timepiece’ remains a marvellous poem. But I’m not sure I’ve learnt much more about it from re-encountering it here.
To be honest, In a Slant Light puzzles me a little. It seems at the same time so circumstantial and yet so diffuse. The author certainly records feelings of self-doubt, but no significant failures or downfalls are recorded. When poems are entered for competitions, they win; when prizes are awarded at school, they go to her (‘I leave school / elated, with awards: Shakespeare bust, Dux’, p. 57). Is this meant to sound satirical? It seems deadpan. Why, then, the urge to put it all on record?
I can’t help feeling that a prose memoir would have had to go deeper, to have made more of an effort to explore the complex penumbra of motives and feelings underlying these sunny uplands.
I certainly respect McQueen’s decision to skate over things which she wishes to keep for herself: but what is it, exactly, that she means to share with the reader? Any reader of my age will find many chimes and echoes from our own experience of a Kiwi childhood, but I can’t help feeling that isn’t quite what one might have expected from the author of that luminous early book Homing In. The individual lyrics included remain the strong highlights of McQueen’s latest book.
Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017. ISBN 978-0-9941363-5-0 (March 2017): 298-99.
Poetry NZ Yearbook 2017