Poetic truths, Helen Heath

In a Slant Light: A Poet’s Memoir
Cilla McQueen
Otago University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781877578717

When I read Elizabeth Knox’s personal essays The Love School, in 2008, I finally realised that a writer’s past is whatever they say it is. I was exhilarated by this belated epiphany; it opened up so many possibilities and provided a philosophical foundation for me to write my début collection of poetry. Of course, poetry (or poetic narrative-memoir) is not always fully confessional or autobiographical, even if the narrator tells us it is. In our postmodern world, the Lyric “I” is not always singular. We know memory is unreliable and malleable. We know that the old singular “Truth” becomes multiple truths, which can provide more insight into a life than the singular. In a Slant Light opens with Cilla McQueen’s first “memory” at six months old – being held up to the window to see snowfall. This leads us, the readers, to expect parts of this memoir to be imagined, or at least to contain memories reclaimed from family stories. My expectation was that this strategy would lend many possibilities to the narrative of her life.

McQueen’s memoir is written as poetry fragments and includes some previously published and unpublished poems. The form of fragments on the page does successfully reflect the way we recall memories in snippets. This is a clever but problematic conceit, as it doesn’t allow for in-depth exploration for the reader encountering an extended sequence of poetic vignettes. But how do we shape our lives into an interesting narrative? This is the point at which anxieties about “Truth” come in for writers. About 10 years ago, Norma Khouri and James Frey wrote “memoirs” that were later revealed to be fiction, creating a huge public outcry. People have a hunger for facts. I believe creative writers have a responsibility to get the facts right. However, at the same time it is our role to invent and create. We walk a difficult line between the Truth with a capital “T” and “poetic truth”. When we describe our writing as non-fiction, we create a contract of trust between our readers and ourselves, which inevitably must be broken at some level. So, what role should the imagination play in non-fiction?

We can’t put a whole life in a poem, or even a whole book. Selecting a narrative thread from a life is a form of artful manipulation and therefore immediately departs from “The Truth”. As Ursula Le Guin points out in The Wave in the Mind: “Excellence in non-fiction lies in the writer’s skills in observing, organising, narrating, and interpreting facts – skills entirely dependent on imagination, used not to invent, but to connect and illuminate observation.” McQueen’s memoir feels authentic and, in later life, brave, but lacking in interpretation. This isn’t to say that there is no enjoyment to be had in reading; her love of language is obvious and wonderfully playful. There are some pleasing sensory moments that bring excitement such as this childhood moment in Brisbane:

Bushfire smoke-scent, taste of sugar cane,
scent of rainforest paths, the scent of rain
on cool wide leaves, sun piercing shade.
A fireball rolling down the road like thistledown

But, in the next stanza, this is muted with a scene that could have come out of a C S Lewis children’s book:

Prickly tobacco scent in Dad’s tweed sportscoat,
black with green flecks, plaited leather buttons.
I believed that I saw smoke-rings puffing out his ears.

While this is sweet and probably true, it also feels clichéd. Especially alongside moments such as: “Mum lies on a tartan rug / guarding the thermos and sandwiches”; Janet and John readers at school; Felicity the doll going to the “Dolls’ Hospital”; aniseed balls and sherbet – haven’t we heard these dreamy, nostalgic, 1950s stories so many times? These childhood moments often feel flat and take up half of the memoir. I wonder if the book suffers from its structure; perhaps McQueen tries to fit in too much with entries for each year. From her writing, it appears McQueen had a golden childhood. At times, this seems too good to be true, and too boring for us to care either way. Perhaps I’m being too harsh. I had a conversation with another writer recently who bemoaned the current fashion for redemptive autobiographical tales. “Why can’t a personal story just be shit?” she asked. “Not everyone gets the privilege to triumph over adversity.” Indeed! And, conversely, must a childhood be traumatic to be interesting?

What the first half of the book does do is set up a juxtaposition for the second, adventurous, half of the memoir. The book hinges on her pregnancy at the age of 19, which forces her to “face adult reality” and a “shotgun marriage”. As she says: “it being the sixties, there was a scandal”, but she quietly gets on with her new life and finds joy in motherhood, even if her marriage doesn’t last – no small achievement. I feel full of admiration for her humble make-do and the memoir finally takes off. There isn’t redemption so much as a blossoming. McQueen is at her most enthralling when she writes about the creative process; I greatly enjoyed reading about the events that led to her writing poems such as “To Ben at the Lake”, which sees the beginning of her recurring poetic relationship with the meniscus. She touches briefly on the influence of her brother (a physicist) on her science poetry, an area of her work of particular interest to me, and I could have read much more in this vein.

The quiet monolith standing over McQueen’s creative life was her partner, the esteemed artist Ralph Hotere. She has only positive, fond memories about their time together, but acknowledges: “We respect Ralph’s work as if it were a senior member of the family. It takes precedence.” McQueen crosses paths with some of the great creative New Zealanders of this era. There’s a lovely vignette where she enthuses about poetry to James K Baxter, and he kindly encourages her. She’s inspired by Bill Manhire, Hone Tuwhare and Fleur Adcock, to name a few. It’s hard not to get swept up in stories of this heady creative environment and it is fascinating to hear the interdisciplinary influences on McQueen’s work and the various genres she creates in, from dance, to music, and sound installations. She hangs out with potters like Barry Brickell, goes out to make cool political graffiti with Hotere, makes sound recordings of the Springbok Tour demonstrations. It was a productive and boundary-pushing time.

What raises this memoir up above many others of her generation is that, in some ways, just its writing is a political act – in that it prioritises McQueen’s less famous, female, and often domestic narrative over that of the golden boys of the New Zealand art world. Things really start to get interesting when McQueen begins to truly appreciate the other creative women around her. To claim space and time for her own work, rather than make more cups of tea for Hotere and his mates. It is refreshing to hear more about the women in the creative group McQueen finds herself amongst. We begin to get an insight into how difficult things must have been for women artists during this time. It’s brave. Sadly, this only happens near the end of the book, which winds up in 1984 when, at 36, her writing life has just taken off. The mentions of her creative relationships with women are so fleeting that I was frustrated by these brief gestures, which left me wanting more depth, and with more questions than answers. What is she avoiding by skimming over the deep connections in her creative life? Was she afraid to fully claim the stage as a real artist in her own memoir? Perhaps this is the point McQueen is trying to make – that there are no answers? – that her creative life truly began when she stepped out of Hotere’s shadow? Perhaps I missed the point. Perhaps these are the risks one takes when writing memoir as poetry. No one will be offended by this memoir but, at the same time, I wanted more.

I sincerely hope we get another installation for the second half of her life and, perhaps, it will contain more in-depth moments as her creative life expanded.

Helen Heath is an academic and award-winning poet.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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