Bill Sewell: Subtracting the magic

Crik’ey: New and Selected Poems 1978‑1994
Cilla McQueen
John McIndoe, $19.95

It is just 12 years since Cilla McQueen burst into the literary world with her collection Homing In. In that time she has published five volumes of poetry, of which no less than three (Homing In, Benzina and Berlin Diary) have won the New Zealand Book Award. She also quickly found her way into the anthologies, and now, with the appearance of these selected poems, she has an undisputed place in the canon of New Zealand literature.

The appearance of a selected poems presupposes both that there is an adequate body of work to select from and that the poet has a sufficient popular following to justify recycling so many poems. Perhaps that is why there is a tendency for publishers to tack on a bracket of new poems as a kind of insurance policy. In McQueen’s case the publisher need not have worried: there is an ample body of work, and she has wide popular appeal; but the new poems are nevertheless welcome.

A selected poems offers the poet (and/or editor) an invaluable opportunity: to “spring clean”, to sort out the enduring from the ephemeral, to make a statement about the shape of the oeuvre. This has to be a frustrating and sobering process, because some poems won’t fit the shape which the poet discerns or would like to impose; while others fit but don’t really ignite as poems. And when all is said and done, even major poets achieve only about a dozen poems without which the world would be the poorer. It’s not much to show for a lifetime’s work and that is why the business of selection can be so delicate.

Some poets, of course, go about the process of selection in a bloody‑minded way, excising early work or established favourites, and concentrating only on the more recent (and to the poet) more interesting work. But most indulge their readers. Cilla McQueen belongs, I am glad to say, in the latter category. In fact, she has been pretty even‑handed about her choice, having had the good sense to be generous to Homing In and more niggardly only with anti gravity, her second collection of 1984. The result is that in this volume there is no shortage of poems which I was pleased to encounter again; poems which had retained their freshness but which had at the same time matured in the interval since I had last read them, to the extent that they revealed new depths.

Cilla McQueen’s work has an immediate appeal, which she exploits well in live performance. The secret, I believe, lies in that sense of breathless wonder and astonishment which she conveys, like that of a small child who has discovered something extraordinary on the beach and just has to tell her mother. Or it’s a bit like discovering that you’re in love. The title poem tries to capture the latter experience, and it provides a very apt title for the collection as a whole, since the exclamation “crikey!” is above all an expression of astonishment. More than that, it also epitomises Cilla McQueen’s often irreverent and informal use of language:

I can’t think straight my words spin off

in sugar and spice

god you’re nice …


Of course, such a use of language also carries risks. Occasionally, when she runs out of inspiration, it allows her to lapse into the facile or resort to word lists which stab wildly at achieving an effect (as in “Wink” or “Wild Sweets”).

Allied to McQueen’s sense of wonder is her fondness for fancy and fantasy. She looks at the world and alters the focus, with startling and often very funny results. Perhaps the least subtle example of this mode of perception is “Revolution” (formerly entitled “Pink Neon Revolution”), in which she adopts the child’s anarchic speculation ‑ and, if we’re honest with ourselves, that of many adults too ‑ of what a world without clothes would look like (“righteous people with squashy bums/ and all shapes and sizes of floppy tits…”). This flight into whimsy is a habit which McQueen has never abandoned, evident from “Timepiece” and “Saturday Afternoon in Provence” in her first collection, to the very beautiful “How to Make a Wind Harp” and the wickedly surreal “The Dream of Jenny Shipley” in the new poems. Dreams, in fact, provide the stimulus for much of her work. There is also a “Roger Hall Dream”, for instance, and many of the entries in Berlin Diary are a chronicle of dreams. This makes good sense, because dreams offer ready access to fantasy and the world of imagination.

But it is too easy to become distracted by the playful side of McQueen’s work. That is only a veneer which occasionally she decides not to peel away. It is the way of seeing which it embodies that counts. Of course, it can be subversive in a political sense, but that is often part of the veneer. More important, it is subversive in the sense that it de-stabilises the boundaries between fantasy and reality, imagination and the mundane, poetry and the prosaic. It exposes a structure to the universe which is essentially dualistic. It also serves as the generator for some extraordinary imagery.

To take the imagery first: at its best, it has that ability to capture the moment in a way that is totally novel yet stuns the reader with its familiarity:

Growing is holding up your enormous green

arms to the light and water, being

hauled upwards by the sun

(“Vegetable Garden Poem (i)”)


the water moving very gently its reflections sideways

shirrs and slips into rippling lines

the flank of a hillside

wavers and breaks

and a million droplets of sky dance and settle again

into mercury.

(“Hoopers Inlet”)

So “true” can such imagery be that I remember a particularly well‑executed example wring a collective gasp from the audience at a reading in Dunedin about 10 years ago. Of other New Zealand poets active today only Lauris Edmond can match this facility.

Such imagery does not always appear simply in flashes, but can be sustained, developed over the course of a poem. An instance of this is the third and longest piece in “Labour Weekend 1981”, an early poem in which McQueen pursues the idea of life hanging by a thread into the many lines, wires, webs and cables which tie together the world. It is an ingenious poem and daring in its ingenuity because the subject‑matter is one which does not normally bear too much cleverness. Yet it is also intensely moving in the awareness it engenders of the links between all living things, the most certain of which is death:

I hope I get the

quick shears, not slow bony fingers

unravelling the shadow‑shroud

that’s over all my summer days

until she’s dead.

As fresh and evocative as her imagery is, however, and as sparkling and fluent her language, her poems would be much less rich if they were not informed by the personal philosophy which her way of seeing reflects. What is this philosophy? I mentioned earlier the sense of duality which pervades her work, but perhaps “duality” is the wrong term, because there is a third element which interposes itself between the two dimensions which always seem to be in opposition to each other ‑ that is what McQueen refers to as the meniscus. This rather unattractive term is a recurring image which acquires the weight of a symbol. It makes its first appearance in “To Ben at the Lake” but is also found in later work such as “Bump and Grind: Spinal Fusion” and in Berlin Diary. The dictionary tells us that the meniscus is the curved upper surface of a liquid produced by surface tension. It symbolises the skin, therefore, the barrier, sometimes permeable, sometimes impenetrable, which keeps the two dimensions apart. When it fails to hold chaos can ensue; and in much of her poetry McQueen is concerned with exploiting the tension thus created, or, as she puts it in “Rock Poem, Carey’s Bay”, “balancing at the interface, tiptoe on a point/ between the world and dream”.

It is fascinating to follow this notion through the body of McQueen’s work. It appears in many guises and explains in part her preoccupation with physics, for example ‑ although I do not profess to understand the implications fully. The subatomic world of particles, neutrinos and quarks has an instability which delights and stimulates her:

here come the colours

to settle on our lips and eyes

and rainbow lighting all the edges

the boundaries are unstable

trust love not logic

(“Quark Dance”)

In “Benzina” she takes a subject as unlikely as the benzene molecule and personifies it into a character who is fortunate enough to have ready access to both sides of the meniscus: “She has a binocular point of views: each side of her brain / enjoys a subtly differing perception. / Benzina flows both ways.”

In 1988 McQueen spent some months in Berlin, in the period just before the events began which culminated in the reunification of Germany. Berlin Diary is the record of her time there. Though it contains poems and poetic fragments, it also tends towards narrative prose as it explores the German past, the poet’s own past, the contrasts between the two islands which she inhabits: one the city surrounded by a hostile neighbour, where she is a temporary dweller, and the other the South Island of New Zealand, her true home. But she is also much concerned with the layerings in time, the tensions between them, and the way in which they rupture periodically. The whole book is permeated with imagery of division and transference ‑ often mirrors, doors and windows, but especially the Wall between East and West Berlin:

Look! The Wannsee itself is divided in two! Invisible boundary, indicated by buoys. The Wall goes through water. Division between two halves of the brain. Yet water flows through the boundary whatever the current will.

The Wall (die Mauer) becomes then yet another variation on the meniscus.

All this explains McQueen’s determination to “see straight”, signalled early in “Vegetable Garden Poem (i)”. It is only through close observation that the poet is able to become aware of the shifts which permit the movement from one side of the barrier to the other; and to break through that barrier is a means of entering the world of the imagination and of poetry:

Out or in or simply looking quite through

as if cut glass or tears more likely (but

not sad) oh heavens no a great delight this

seeing it differently, knowing the boundary

between one vision and the next.


So it is this unique way of seeing, coupled with an inventive and individual handling of language, and exquisite handling of language, which makes Cilla McQueen into an important poet. And her influence is clearly visible in the generation of poets who have followed: both Jenny Bornholdt and Vivienne Plumb show traces of that unmistakable McQueen voice. But the publication of these selected poems invites the reader to consider her development as a whole and whether she has been able to sustain the momentum she generated in her first collection. Unfortunately, the verdict has to be that she has not.

A perhaps facile but nonetheless telling illustration of this faltering progress is to compare the very first with the final in the volume. “To Ben at the Lake”, the archetypal “meniscus” poem, ends confidently with an image of something substantial, if only provisional:

You and I have lots of

golden sticky clay on our

gumboots ‑ the world

is holding us up

very well, today.


In contrast, “Poem for the Wind” describes a vicious domestic spat and the futility of poetry in response to it, concluding with an image of something both insubstantial and fleeting: “the wind / that whips the language from my mouth.” Does this suggest a serious poetic crisis?

Another, and this time very subjective, way is to count up one’s personal favourites and find that the majority of them still congregate in Homing In. Certainly, there are strong poems amongst the later work, such as “Recipe for One”, “Otherwise”, and “How to Make a Wind Harp”; but the subsequent volumes together do not really contain enough truly memorable poems to form the enduring backbone of more than a single collection.

Yet another way is to consider the language, which in the more recent work rarely retrieves that vivid immediacy of the earlier poems. It has become flatter, almost bland. Contrast the Aramoana section of Berlin Diary with “Low Tide, Aramoana”, for instance. The flabby timing and loose syntax of the former only betray the fact that she got it so right first time. But the most conspicuous evidence of the attenuation in her language is found in a comparison of the original with the new version of that masterful imitation (in Robert Lowell’s sense) of Villon, “The Legacy”, which so successfully marries the political and the lyrical. Where the original in its concluding stanza reads:

Item, to the unaccustomed air

of evening in late summer

when jasmine enters the skin

and there’s a seville orange

marmalade moon above

the water, I leave my

aeronautical soul, to be dispersed

among the world’s component

molecules, like wine poured on the sea.

It now reads,

Item, to the gentle air of evening in late summer

when there’s an orange moon above the shining harbour

I leave my soul, to be dispersed among the molecules

like wine poured on the sea.

In the new version she has managed to subtract (though, fortunately, not entirely) much of the magic, music and the syntactical tension, by altering or removing certain adjectives and ironing out the lines. But she should have known better than to meddle with a winner.

It is hard to say if “Poem for the Wind” really betokens a poetic crisis, and the evidence of one poem is surely insufficient. It is also unfair to expect a poet to return to her earlier style forever. That would be stultifying for both poet and audience. But I at any rate did come away from Crik’ey feeling that after her debut McQueen lost something of her verve and direction. Her newer work shows her experimenting with prose, as in “Eggs” and “Mrs Mooney’s Poppy”. Perhaps poetry is no longer enough; and perhaps even the familiar haunts of Dunedin and its hills and beaches are no longer enough. She has long experimented with other artistic media, and perhaps now she is feeling her way towards a new mode of literary expression and other subject matter. It will be interesting therefore to await her next publication, and discover whether she has managed to find another world which will “hold her up” so well, however provisionally.

Bill Sewell is a Wellington legal researcher and poet.

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