Otago University Press, $24.95,
Not long after Cilla McQueen moved to her new address on Liffey St, Bluff, she booked a place on a tour of the Tiwai aluminium smelter, the chimney of which dominates the view from her verandah. In “Tiwai Sequence” she describes in detail the workings of the plant: to turn bauxite into aluminium requires an operating temperature of 970 degrees and the same amount of electricity as Auckland does. Prevailing westerlies supposedly blow the residue of harmful substances out to sea, but as McQueen notes wryly, the westerly “is not the only wind we get in Bluff”.
This is one of several extended sequences in Markings, McQueen’s first collection of new work since 1990. It places the poet and this collection in a very specific geographical location, in the shadow of a national landmark we’ve come to take for granted. However, it’s what lies beneath the surface that interests McQueen: what is the palimpsest over which the smelter was built, over which we create our daily lives, our habits and routines?
By far the longest sequence is the centrally-placed “Autoclave”, which describes another kind of smelting. The familiar territory of much of McQueen’s earlier work, especially in her first collection, Homing In (1982), is the Otago Harbour. For some time she lived on the Otago Peninsula, in a house known as The Flounder Inn:
The tide was out when the Flounder Inn burned down
so the fire engines couldn’t even pump seawater.
McQueen lost nearly everything – pets survived along with the poet, but manuscripts and photographs went up in flames, as did a lifetime’s accumulations: gifts from friends and family (“the smooth blue vase my sister made / before she went to Bali”); “the huggy Brickell bowl I used for baking”; “a kauri table, honey-coloured, silky to the fingertips” on which lay “a Spanish table mat, / bought in Madrid.” In “Autoclave” she visits the house again in her mind: “Memory settles like ash” as she makes a mental tour of the house – she remembers how the door key fitted her hand, the layout of the rooms, the touch of wood, the way the light fell.
Outside the weather changes,
tides flow in and out according to the moon,
the rhythms of the beach uninterrupted.
Only the house is gone, no trace –
the land remains the same.
The same sort of intense heat required to make aluminium scorched out the poet’s past. However, in a recent interview in Grace magazine, McQueen observes that it wasn’t a totally negative experience: “It was a material loss, but my mind must be such that it picked up some significances, real or imagined, that were in it. Sometimes in life what appears to be a loss on the surface might actually be richer than that.” Like the child in Rumpelstiltskin, she made gold out of the straw of loss; this latest volume is part of that hard-won magic.
Also familiar to readers of her earlier work will be the enduring link that exists for McQueen between her own life lived on the rocky promontories of Otago (and now Southland) and the wild, windswept islands of St Kilda in the Hebrides, where her ancestors lived: “This Ile is circulit on every syde with roche craggis”, as she quotes a 16th century commentator. The only manuscript to survive the fire was part of a diary she wrote while in Melbourne researching her ancestors. So isolated were they that smallpox, measles and pneumonia killed over half of the emigrating St Kildans before they reached Australia. In Melbourne, where the quarantine station was, she writes, “I visited the giant autoclave / in which clothes and luggage were fumigated”. In the same sequence she writes of the equally devastating effect disease had on Maori in the 19th century, quoting from contemporary accounts by local tribesman Tuhawaiki: “In a few months most of the inhabitants / sickened and died. Whole families on this spot disappeared / and left no one to represent them.”
At the end of this long sequence, she draws these threads together – her own loss by fire, the dross from the aluminium smelter, the cleansing of the remnants of her ancestors in the migrant station, the near extinction of local iwi (to which she is linked by marriage) and the starting again:
The price I paid for Liffey Street
was the Flounder Inn and all my possessions.
Fair enough –
a kind of autoclave.
An autoclave is a “closed vessel for sterilising equipment”. Though you’d never call it down upon yourself, there’s clearly something liberating about this sort of material loss. McQueen isn’t being Pollyanna-ish; there is grief here but also a quiet, understated joy at having had the past so thoroughly scoured clean.
Underlying all this is the enduring presence of the land itself. Although she’s not so well known as a visual artist, this book also contains ten black-and-white landscape drawings by McQueen, many of which accompany poems with the same names. There’s a scratchy, minimalist energy to these drawings, executed sometimes with whatever she had to hand: “a twig, dry grass / a piece of the pithy red stalk of the flax flower.” She makes no effort to romanticise these bleak landscapes; they look cold and forebidding, inhabited only by a few birds, a straggling power line, a dark wash of trees. And yet McQueen manages to convey the startling beauty and grandeur of these places too, both in line and word (“accidents of ink” she calls them). In the beautiful “Request (after Te Rakitauneke)” she expresses her longing to finally merge with the land:
Set me on the mountain
at the world’s head, facing the horizon,
to be scoured with salt and slaked with rain.
Set me to watch the whale’s path,
the sun rising, the faraway islands.
Let my fingers, that have touched poetry,
become vines of the white clematis
wreathing sentinel trees.
Let storms unknot me, where the lightning
coils power into the rock.
For better or worse, McQueen will be remembered among other things for the furore, if that isn’t too strong a word, over the publication of “Dogwobble” in The Listener in the mid-1980s. Doggerel to some; to others (and that includes my 10-year-old son who still chuckles over his copy on the bedroom wall) a wonderful piece of rhythmical nonsense that captures perfectly the goofy, lolloping world inside a dog’s head. McQueen can still write in this vein too, although it comes as a bit of a surprise to read the doggy “Two Biscuits on a Stump” after working through the trauma of the Flounder Inn.
McQueen’s dog actually gets the first look-in at the start of this book. “Pirate and the Mirror” describes in six short lines the dog’s indifference to a mirror, ending:
He walks behind, forgets
the image thin as ice.
Placed pivotally as it is, the dog’s insouciance, its lack of concern about its own image and the technology that creates it, serves as a foreword; it also shows the poet watching something elemental and recording it on another substance “thin as ice”: paper. Her poems and drawings, like the wealth of possessions she lost in the fire, are weightless and insubstantial when compared to what endures: the land, memory, myth, instinct.
Pirate gets the last word too. McQueen’s shares with him her solitude, described so often in these poems with turbulent skies and sombre landscapes as backdrop, while her fisherman husband is out in all weathers battling “black sky and freezing rain”. In the last poem she describes herself and the dog as they sit looking out the window:
Writing ripples from my fingers –
in a digital age they are
serenely analogue. …
We like the paths that snake
through the crouching bush behind the hill,
the coastline stretching taut
and fine as the hide of a fawn
pinned out on pinex, covered with a paste
of kerosene and baking soda
curing to vellum.
Thus she ends with a metaphor about the infinite potential of the writer – the blank parchment – which must be purified and scoured, a process that echoes the trial by fire she describes earlier in the book. While there are overtly political messages in this book too, especially about the dross from the aluminium smelter (“this was the site of a Maori toolmaking factory”) piled up in a warehouse in the main street, Markings describes what are essentially personal journeys – from Otago to Southland, from one house to another, from one hemisphere to another. But they are personal journeys fitted into a larger matrix where tragedy and loss give way to a new kind of peace and understanding.
Elizabeth Crayford is a Wellington reviewer and poet.