Poeta, Selected and new poetry by Cilla McQueen
Dunedin: OUP (2018). RRP: $39.95
Hb, illustrated by the author, 296pp
Reviewed by Janet Charman.
What’s in a name – or the making of one? Well, if forgotten, nothing at all. The American critic Jane Marcus, writing on the topic of patriarchal ‘forgetfulness’, suggested that:
[Virginia] Woolf may have stumbled on the reason that great women have disappeared from history. It is in [university] colleges that the ‘proper upkeep’ of names is practiced, with plaques, and monuments and statues […And] the young men who write the histories of their fields seem to be adept in generation after generation at burying the foremothers, and like the mythical Antaeus, building monuments to their fathers. (Marcus, p 12).
Historically barred from the academy, women writers have never been able to presume their creative work will be recognized as the defining aspect of their identity. Always pre-eminence is given to their role as wife, as muse, or mother. It is her implicit acknowledgment of this systematic creative erasure that sees Cilla McQueen’s latest volume of poems – new and selected – take as its suggestive title a tricky masculine noun, one found in several European languages, which also carries a paradoxically feminine ending. Or should that be a feminine beginning?
Etymologically speaking, ‘Poeta’, the supposedly gender neutral Italian word for poet, has its origins, via Latin, in the Greek poētēs, a variant of poiētēs: ‘maker’, from poiein – ‘create’. In short, to my mind, McQueen’s title is an assertion of her poetics as descendant from an originary specifically feminine generativity – to which she is heir.
In her black and white full-length cover photo, she stands, front-on and centre before a plastered-white and pattern-stamped hearth, a grand, multifaceted fireplace mirror above her. Its borrowed view gives a glimpse of a gothically ornamented interior. But this is neither a shrine nor a palace, because beneath the poet’s feet is a carpet whose unfashionable florals speak less of Persian romance than of faded New Zealand wool futures. Hybrid imagery for a hybrid text. The poet’s bovver gurl Doc Martens, strictly laced to mid-calf, proclaim her occupancy of a secular and public – although not necessarily European – space. Above this raffishly staged figure floats the text’s pastel title, like a horizontal halo. It’s as if here McQueen, with a disarming half-smile, is inviting the reader to ignite the heat and light of her poetics for themselves. At the same time the book’s solid hardback production abjures anything ‘precious’ in its content. This could tempt a reader to not only peruse it over the teacups, but down the beach, or pub; on a yacht, round the Barbie, or in the bath.
Sam Hunt, as so often noted, has worn his poet-troubadour costume – winkle-picker shoes and Foxton straights – for as many decades as he has been in the public eye. It’s not so readily acknowledged that Cilla McQueen has rocked her ‘principal boy’ leggings & sexy boots for just as long and with equal splendour. But on her this androgynous attire is substantially more transgressive than Hunt’s. It is a statement of serious aesthetic intent. She presents as a woman who has adopted a severely no-nonsense public persona. The impression she made early on in the marvelous self-portrait on the back cover of her 1986 Wild Sweets was, in all its defiant bomber jacket desirability, a perfect foil for the candour of the work contained in that collection. The luscious simplicity of Jenny Cooper’s cover design perfectly complemented the contents. Wild Sweets was a crucial text for women of my generation. It was a signal to many of us that the time to write the wrongs of the past had well and truly arrived. Its narrator’s sexual autonomy was palpable, as epitomized in “Blink”: ‘Saturday morning in the motel room/ […] when such a handsome man turns up in a taxi/ I nearly fall off my balcony.’ (McQueen,1986, p 21). The poet’s entitlement to reveal desire and her expectation that such expressions deserve to be celebrated – always heady, never dumbed down – was explicitly linked with her art practice. Perhaps most directly in “A Lightning Tree”, which vowed ‘to earth my dangerous love through poetry’ (McQueen, 1982, p 14). These two works don’t make it into Poeta but McQueen’s grafting of her sexuality into art is represented there in the tempered rather than tempestuous poem “Request” (2000), in which she insinuates herself creatively, not into a relationship with a lover, but into the landscape: ‘Let my fingers that have touched poetry, / become vines of the white clematis/ wreathing sentinel trees.// Let storms unknot me, where the lightning/ coils into the rock.’ (McQueen, 2018, p197).
In her introduction McQueen describes the structure of Poeta as a series of rooms. Its eleven sections each contain a diverse sampling of work from her fifteen previous collections. Scattered throughout the text there are also fifteen previously uncollected poems, with six of these, in the form of word clouds, together at the end – a sequence she wrote in response to print-maker Marilynn Webb’s 2018 Southland exhibition ‘Five Decades in Murihiku’. However, McQueen’s insistence on re-inscribing her past work eclectically in Poeta (albeit each piece dated and linked to its site of first publication) was for this reader not about entering the comfortably appointed dwelling places and curated displays implied by her ‘rooms’ analogy. Instead it’s about coming to terms with her unsettling matrixial appropriation of a Māori conception of time.
In this paradigm, poet and reader, with backs turned away from the unknowable future, can experience the past as simultaneous with the present. Enjoined to sample a life and history in which events that happened centuries ago, for instance on the island of St Kilda (from whence hail McQueen’s ancestors on her Australian father’s side) are placed in adjacency, and on equal terms, with events from several decades – days, or even seconds ago. A graphic representation of this cultural borrowing from tangata whenua can be seen in one of McQueen’s sectional ink and pencil illustrations. The swooping koru motif ‘Rain score 2’ (McQueen, 2018, p134), is a spiral form I read as a metaphor in Poeta for the continuous and contiguous unfolding of the past – whether near or distant – right alongside the present. History (herstory) understood as an adjacent encirclement, which is only ever an arm’s length away, no matter how long ago it happened. Unfortunately the ten additional McQueen illustrations here speak more to each other than to the sections they introduce, perhaps because the smallness of these reproductions makes for a loss of nuance.
European thinking, with its aspirational expectations of time – as structured in linear form – is also given its due in McQueen’s oeuvre. In the seven teasing lines of “Cracks”, (which doesn’t make it into Poeta) the poet reframes an instance of profound fracture as a thaw event. In this she acknowledges trauma while looking beyond it, as if towards a new season: ‘like when you can/ see the future/ becoming, exquisitely’ (McQueen, 1986, p 19). For me, this seemingly slight poem distils in compressed form what it is like to face an unstoppable, transformational event with – perhaps utterly misplaced – optimism. The concentration it asks of the reader has a deeply solacing effect.
It is the demure intimacy I find in this poem and so many others in Poeta, which for me informs McQueen’s characteristic voice. I use ‘demure’ here for its modern meaning of tantalising reserve, but I also have in mind its originary etymology of ripeness and maturity. These persistent themes, of lightly expressed tensile strength and resilience, are perfectly exemplified in Poeta by the new poem “Report on Experience” from 2014.
In this piece the narrator’s surgical trauma is pointedly directed to serve her art. The poem’s title echoes that of John Mulgan’s World War II volume of essays in which he gives an understated account of the tragedy, in his time, of war and fascist oppression. The phrase ‘Report on Experience’ also registers the anguished disillusionment of Edmund Blunden’s identically titled poem of World War I. But in appropriating these historically freighted words to articulate her narrator’s experience of an involuntary breast surgery, McQueen also makes a link to the fact that Mulgan’s wife, Gabrielle, was metaphorically also ‘in the wars’, since during the period her husband was away fighting and writing Report on Experience, she was obliged, like the narrator of McQueen’s poem, to undergo a mastectomy – with all its attendant shock and pain. Are we to ignore and forget her experience? Not if Cilla McQueen has her way.
The anesthetist asks McQueen’s narrator to ‘count down’ to the anesthetic by chanting aloud one of her own poems. But, strangely, this keeps her awake. Then, at the close of three short, disjunctive stanzas, she reawakens to her surprise at ‘shy pride in being amazon’ (Poeta, p 161). This poem is, for me, the steely assertion of a cultural ‘warrior’ – that if it’s up to her, whatever else she might lose, her art will not be denied.
Poeta also contains four pieces from In a Slant Light, a Poet’s Memoir (2013). Jack Ross’s 2017 Poetry New Zealand review of Slant presumed this title was: ‘a direct doff of the hat to Wordsworth’ (Ross, p 298). But his assumption of McQueen’s homage to that famously free-spirited rambler’s description of the ‘Slant watery lights, from parting clouds’, ignores the remaking of this imagery several decades later in the acerbic stylings of housebound Emily Dickinson, who said: ‘There’s a certain slant of light/ Winter Afternoons – /That oppresses, like the Heft/ Of Cathedral Tunes –’. Dickinson’s further evolution of this trope’s intimations of mortality came in the renowned ‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant’. It is these Dickinson references which I find resonant in McQueen’s title, In a Slant Light.
That Jack Ross attributes McQueen’s naming of her collection to a revered canonically recognized male, at the expense of a more compelling feminine voice of origin reflects for me the conundrum with which an artist like McQueen is faced as she formulates this retrospective of her work. I read her memoir intentions in Slant as an attempt to distinguish herself truthfully, but egotistically, in the best sense, from those of her male peers whose patriarchal precedence will serve to marginalise and silence her, a fate she also seeks to sidestep in the refusal of linearity found in Poeta.
This collection rejects hierarchical precedence by structurally subverting chronological precedence. McQueen, who in Te Wai Pounamu has been at the centre of a milieu of significant aesthetic creativity, must of all people be alert to the reality that in time her links with so many notable male artists, in particular the canonically recognized painter Ralph Hotere, may come to overshadow her own work. These two were married for several decades. But will his growing reputation result in the critical neglect of McQueen’s extraordinary art and writing? If we acknowledge the historical erasure of women as the generic fate of female artists in patriarchy, the answer must be yes. We only need to look to the narrowly averted loss in recent history of the poetics of Eileen Duggan, Robin Hyde, Jessie Mackay and Mary Stanley to see that no woman, however well-recognized in her lifetime, has any reason to be sanguine about her critical legacy. Women’s recognition in culture and society remains precarious.
I agree with Jack Ross that many readers will be drawn to In a Slant Light because of the artistic milieu in which McQueen has moved for all of her adult life. But, despite McQueen’s longstanding friendships with, for example, Marian Evans, Joanna Paul and Marilynn Webb, whose relationships with the poet Slant affirms in telling detail, it is not these female artists who feature as a draw card for the attractions of this volume in Jack Ross’ estimation of it. Rather, he singles out four prominent male artists for their links with McQueen and expresses overall uncertainty about the intent of In a Slant Light. For him this volume ‘puzzles a little’ as to exactly what McQueen wanted ‘to share’. (Ross, 2017, p 299). But, could the problem here be that in patriarchy it must always be a cause of frustration when a woman who is in a position to offer plentiful anecdotes about the famous men she has known instead advances her own art, as at the centre of her life and times?
Paula Green has responded to Jack’s expression of critical puzzlement towards Slant by characterising it as ‘a poignant book, ripe with possibility and the portrait of a woman poet emerging from the shadows of men.’ (Green, 2017)
To fulfill that sense of continuing promise, which I find equally apparent in Poeta, can I hope for a collection from McQueen that will situate her mother’s people in her oeuvre, with the authority she has brought to her account of the extraordinary origins of her father’s side of her story?
It is her breakage poem, “Cup of Tea”, which I look to as having already entered into just such a culturally ‘broken’ conversation as, in McQueen’s terms, a form of thaw: ‘My mother’s sugar bowl … Tea of tar and smoke. Tea of green … A china bell, a silver spoon … whirl a pool, lip a fine warm rim …’ (McQueen, 2010, p 21).
Green, Paula Stuff, 05.00, Mar 19, (2017): Poetry New Zealand Yearbook, 2017, edited by Dr. Jack Ross. Retrieved from: https://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/books/90449236/book-review-poetry-new-zealand-yearbook-2017-edited-by-dr-jack-ross
McQueen, Cilla (1986) ‘Wild Sweets’, John McIndoe
McQueen, Cilla (2010) ‘The Radio Room’, OUP
McQueen, Cilla (2016) ‘In a Slant Light: a Poet’s Memoir’, OUP
McQueen, Cilla (2018) ‘Poeta’, OUP
Marcus, Jane, (1996) ‘Virginia Woolf, Cambridge and A Room of One’s Own: ‘The Proper Upkeep of Names’’, Cecil Woolf, London.
Ross, Jack, (2017) ‘Cilla McQueen, In a Slant Light: A Poet’s Memoir’, Poetry NZ Yearbook, Issue # 51, MUP, pp 298-299.
Janet Charman’s poetry collection, ‘仁 Surrender’, (OUP, 2017), chronicles her writing residencies in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Her monograph ‘Smoking: The Homoerotic Subtext of Man Alone, A Matrixial Reading’, Genrebooks, Dunedin, (2018), is free to download at: http://www.genrebooks.co.nz/