Helen Watson White
In a Slant Light: A poet’s memoir by Cilla McQueen (Otago University Press, 2016), 134 pp., $35
When Dunedin firm John McIndoe in 1982 published Cilla McQueen’s first volume of poetry, Homing In, I can remember what a splash it made in the (then) small pool of homegrown poetry. On the back cover were listed those already established as ‘McIndoe poets’: Ruth Dallas, Elizabeth Smither and a good dozen male writers, plus editors of anthologies which probably contained women’s work in a similar proportion.
Some of the poems having already appeared in Islands, NZ Listener, Otago University Review, Parallax, Poetry New Zealand and Fleur Adcock’s Oxford Anthology of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry, this wasn’t the first public appearance of McQueen’s work. But it was a significant achievement. Homing In earned its author in 1983 not just PEN’s Jessie McKay Award for Best First Book of Poetry, but the NZ Book Award for Poetry, being judged co-equal with Allen Curnow’s major collection You Will Know When You Get There.
There’s always been a newness about McQueen’s writing, a sense of wonder about life and the art that – without obvious effort – can make the ordinary seem extraordinary. In the poem ‘Bookworm’, collected in The Radio Room in 2010, she quotes Martin Martin, describing in 1716 the primitive inhabitants of St Kilda, the McQueens’ ancestral home:
Writing was most astonishing to them;
They cannot conceive how it is possible
for any mortal to express the conceptions
of his mind in such black characters
upon white paper.
Without fear of overstatement, I can say that some poets astonish me by the simple act of writing, and McQueen is one of them.
Yes, I’m a simpleton. Those of us who value simplicity have realised, however, that the lyric poem is not only a contraction but an expansion, like a stone dropped in a pond sending ripples out as far as the (often ill-defined) edge. A stone/poem is a unique compression of bits of aggregate, which is not simple in itself; the arcing out of the ripples/meanings is not simple or predictable either. McQueen’s memoir begins with an openness to wonder and surprise that shows how she means to go on: ‘On 22 January in Birmingham, England, after an arduous birth / I opened my eyes and looked around. / The nurse remarked, “She has been here before.” / I was a newborn point of view.’
In a Slant Light, sub-titled A poet’s memoir, covers the years between 1949, when McQueen was born, and 1985, when she took up the Burns Fellowship at Otago University, leaving her daughter and husband Ralph Hotere at their shared home in Carey’s Bay in order to write full-time on her own.
On the very first page the book declares itself to be a work of craft, a poetic fiction. Although many of the short and long stanzas, divided from each other by an unobtrusive mark, may contain prose sentences, most are laid out as lyrics with definite ends to the lines. Some are clearly prose poems, but the difference is barely noticeable. Why does this matter? Taken with the sub-title, and coming after an apparently factual prose poem, the fourth item says it all: ‘Snaps, tableaux – can’t be sure about the authenticity of memory, / but by my lights it’s all I have to go on.’
The memories are fragmentary, and so are the poems within the whole. Links are made, but not necessarily with adjacent verses; while the voice, throughout, is very close to ordinary speech, we often – in fact, usually – hear something that is observed, removed, not what someone would say:
It is the done thing to have a crush
on one of the serene, aloof prefects. (1961)
With its mixture of prose relation and lyrical suggestion, the writer’s narrative technique here is quite like her Berlin Diary (1990) but quite unlike the semi-poetic Edwin’s Egg and other poetic novellas that she produced in 2014. The difference is the presence of that authorial voice and ‘point of view’: this is art, but also autobiography.
The usual story-telling tense within families (and other groups) is the past. This is taken up quite naturally, replicating the oral handing-down of stories that may or may not be true: ‘I tried the magic trick of pulling the tablecloth out / from under our plates of tomato soup. This didn’t work.’ The past tense is also often useful for lyrical summations:
We had two grandmothers to love:
Australian Florence and English Muriel,
whose scents were lavender and fresh linen.
While the names of countries and persons are factual, the associated scents are a matter of individual association: the author as grand-daughter/poet, looking back, is there in every line.
The present tense, on the other hand, brings past happenings into the now we re-create as we read: ‘Arthur Street School. My brother’s there already among the big boys. Stiff new brown satchel, straps and buckles, lunch in a brown paper bag, new pencil case.’ (1954)
Sections are headed by the year, which helps a fragmented narrative cohere into a personal history. It is more than just that, though, as the mature person makes reference to the wider world into which she grew. In that the main mode is retrospective, it is McQueen the author of fourteen volumes of poetry, holder of various fellowships including a Goethe Institute Scholarship to Berlin (1988) and QEII Arts Council Scholarship in Letters (1992), the nation’s Poet Laureate (2009–11), whose perceptions are brought to bear – ‘in a slant light’ – on the shaping incidents of childhood, adolescence, and beyond.
The experiences, nevertheless, still hold their first-felt immediacy as she recalls learning to read (‘at last I was riding this bicycle / all by myself’), to draw and to write (‘the nib is more demanding than the pencil’), to float (‘a curious feeling’) and to swim (‘I rhyme the Municipal Baths in Moray Place / with Runcible Spoon. The air is full of echoing shrieks.’) There is an early love of dance (‘Light as whipped egg-white, / how desirable a crisp tutu!’) and of theatre:
Quick minds mesh like music
in flurries of invention
… what say …
for dress-ups there are some dresses, a coat,
a pink satin ballgown, pink satin petticoat (1957)
At the age of eight, having ‘finished all the reading books’, and alongside party games like Musical Chairs and Statues, plus her father’s readings of ‘How Horatio Held the Bridge’, Cilla is given her introduction to art of a different order: ‘Like a draught of adult liquor, Oliver Twist has a profound effect on my world-view.’
When in 1960 her mother, who has an Oxford MA, takes a job teaching French at Columba College, Cilla and her sister ‘change schools suddenly’, and become ‘greengages’ in the college’s forest-green uniform of ‘kilt, jacket, white blouse, hat, brown shoes, / stockings, gloves’; ‘uncertain, eleven’ she arrives prematurely in Form 2. Her elder brother Malcolm is a strong influence: ‘To this day,’ she wrote early in the piece, ‘he bends my ear on quantum physics.’ Now, as he grinds a lens for a telescope out in the wash-house, ‘tired of homework’ she visits him there: ‘He tells me about the solar system, comets, stars.’
The entire family accompanies their father when he goes on sabbatical leave to the UK, again by ship as Cilla had travelled with her mother and siblings as a child. Part of the northern summer is spent in France, part in an old farmhouse near Evesham with ‘an orchard, a henhouse full of stinging nettles, / a sundial, a priest’s hole …’ and upstairs a TV to watch The Black and White Minstrel Show.
Poems are introduced at various points in the narrative, most of them already published in the 1980s volumes Homing In (1982), Anti Gravity (1984), or Wild Sweets (1986). New to me is a delightful unpublished poem describing ‘the loop and clasp, whirr and attack’ of the Singer sewing machine used to make her first dress in 1963. Such activities come second, of course, to the main preoccupation of a poet in the making: ‘Reading all the time, at school, at home, in bed, / reading walking home from school along Highgate / so engrossed in Janet Frame I bump into a lamp-post.’ Further, ‘Reading Virginia Woolf in English class / I recognise this stream of consciousness / from Faces in the Water and The Edge of the Alphabet …‘ (1964)
These are the formation years. While there has always been intellectual discussion around the table at home, now she branches out while still at school and, ‘stagestruck’ in 1965, begins drama lessons with the Careys at the Globe Theatre. Contact lenses, West Side Story, the Mashed Potato, Mary Quant and Seventeen magazine: the 1960s are rendered in amusing detail, getting serious as McQueen is captivated at university by French language, literature and philosophy. By 1966 she remembers finding Waiting for Godot ‘a parable of great simplicity’.
Independent at last, she expresses her rather belated rebellion by taking up smoking – extravagantly, and with style. And sex. ‘Mum is all for women’s liberation, social and intellectual, not sexual’ – but Cilla’s still living at home. First love Ross takes second place while she plays a key role, corseted in black lace, in Genet’s The Balcony (‘I like this risqué costume’) and embraces James K. Baxter after an impressive reading of his poetry ‘one rainy Sunday afternoon’ at the Globe.
It’s not poetry she’s heading for but theatre, professional acting if she can. She can’t, however, falling pregnant to Ross when staying the night with him after a champagne party:
So instead of being a feckless arts student
I have to face adult reality …
everything’s changed …
Shotgun marriage arranged. (1968)
The story of the pair’s attempts to live like hippies in other parts of the country leads back to Dunedin, where Cilla plans to undertake further study with the aim of a teaching job. She does this alone, in the end, with help from the university crèche ‘blessed by the student mothers’. (1970)
The story shifts gear three times very swiftly, with her pregnancy and marriage, the birth of daughter Andrea, and Ross leaving; then at the end of 1970 Cilla the soon-to-be French teacher meets artist Ralph Hotere, Frances Hodgkins Fellow at Otago the previous year, who has himself lived in France. ‘We talk all evening about Dada, Surrealism, Picasso, Matisse, Miro.’
Her response to his 1971 gift of a painting summarises, in a way, their next fourteen years together: ‘He’s thirty-nine, a worldly man to me at twenty-two – we fall in love and then love deeply, explore the space between us, / talk for hours, touch, learn each other’s minds.’ His cottage in Forth Street, with its ‘dark-painted wallpaper’, housed ‘paintings and drawings everywhere, Ellis, Hanly, McCahon, Smither, Harris. / Many female nudes drawn in ink and pencil. Nervy, telling lines.’
While Cilla teaches at Columba (English, French and Latin), Ralph ‘goes every day to the new studio at 2 Aurora Terrace, Port Chalmers … Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much money in art. / I am thankful for my teaching job.’ There are gatherings at home and, for Cilla, at the Globe, as she resumes acting in contemporary plays; they share musical tastes and many artistic and writer friends. When Ralph’s mother dies, ‘He and Hone Tuwhare go to her tangi at Mitimiti … I read Pounamu, Pounamu, / start a correspondence course in te reo Maori. / Ralph’s working on a drawing series / incorporating proverbs referring to the land.’ (1972)
Baxter dies the same year as Ralph’s mother, Ana Maria; then composer Antony Watson dies, and Charles Brasch in 1973. This memoir documents more lives than one – and more issues than art and literature: McQueen reflects some deep cultural shifts made by her society, and specifically the arts community, in the course of the book, from the campaign to save Lake Manapouri to the recovery of history from a Māori viewpoint, the re-valuing of natural and built heritage, the campaigns against a proposed aluminium smelter at Aramoana, and nuclear testing in the Pacific.
The couple, once married, shift with Andrea to Carey’s Bay and in 1975 Cilla starts a new job at St Hilda’s, although she is as busy as ever in extra-curricular ways: ‘Sewing, cooking, knitting, spinning, reading, / acting, visiting, making jam, bottling fruit, baking bread … / My focus was on him – his work intrigued me – / I was fortunate to take part.’ (1974)
Cilla’s own writing (and drawing) begins to enter the mix in the 1970s, inspired in part by the poetry of other women: ‘Fleur Adcock, Janet Frame, Elizabeth Smither, Lauris Edmond, Fiona Kidman, Rachel McAlpine, Jan Kemp.’ (1976) In her role as editor of the PPTA Journal, Lauris Edmond publishes Cilla’s first poem in print, ‘A Letter from the Department’, while Ralph works on his richly complex ‘Godwit/Kuaka’ mural incorporating ‘ancient Māori poetry’, a commission for Auckland Airport: ‘We respect Ralph’s work as if it were a senior member of the family. / It takes precedence.’ In a separate single-line stanza, an admission: ‘I have to look carefully to find myself among all this.’ At age 28, writing becomes the poet’s ‘daily occupation’. ‘Songs for a Far Island’ taps into the long history of her father’s family on St Kilda: a ‘rich poetic source’. (1977)
More travel in 1978: the family of three go to Europe to take in ‘as many art galleries as possible’, and for Ralph to visit his brother Jack Hotere’s grave in Sangro, Italy. In Avignon Cilla’s pen starts to flow in a new way; on their return, ‘memories stream out like bubbles on a breath’. (1979)
In 1981 McQueen makes a ‘concrete poem with stamped words, black ink on paper’ called ‘Crystallography’, in collaboration with Mozart Fellow Chris Cree Brown: ‘We read it as a score for voices, record an electroacoustic work.’ And, as a Springbok Tour demonstration moves along George Street, she’s taping the sounds on a Sony cassette recorder, ‘in the entrance alcove of the pub / at the bottom of London Street, eyes closed, / concentrating inside my headphones’. The prize money won in 1983 by her first collection, Homing In, buys ‘exciting, expensive’ equipment for more experiments with sound.
You can trace the inevitable result of the writing process by many signs and clues along the way: the end result was always going to be more writing, in 1985 as Burns Fellow and thereafter as a full-time professional poet. Before Homing In, McQueen read from a folder of her unpublished poems at a jointly organised poetry-reading series at the Fortune Theatre, a gathering of poet colleagues and friends providing a safe place for launching. Living at Carey’s Bay on Otago Harbour and holidaying, as the McQueen family had always done, at Frankton, Lake Wakatipu, produced poems from times and places that had already proved, like family history, a rich source of inspiration. After Homing In came Anti Gravity, and then she was away …
HELEN WATSON WHITE has been a theatre critic and reviewer since 1974. A Dunedin-based writer, she has published articles, short stories and poetry as well as art, opera and book reviews.