In A Slant Light, a poet’s memoir by Cilla McQueen

(OUP, 2016)

Review by Barbara Bailey

New Zealand South Island poet Cilla McQueen has published 14 volumes of poetry and won the New Zealand Award for Poetry three times. Her most recent publication is Edwin’s Egg. She has written other poetic novellas and was New Zealand’s Poet Laureate 2009–11.

In A Slant Light is a beautifully written memoir. Poems and prose record the gradual unfolding of a full and creative life from birth to McQueen’s 35th year, 1984. Personal memories are traced through school days, university, time spent with James K Baxter, who was the Burns Fellow at the time, as well as single motherhood, and marriage to Ralph Hotere.

There is delight in the portrayals of events in the poet’s life, rich as it is with layers of happenings. There is also a strong sense of a New Zealand life in this collection.

The poet was born in Birmingham, England and relocated to New Zealand as a baby, with regular trips to Australia (the birthplace of her father) and to England (her mother’s birthplace.) Her visits to England as a child made deep impressions and generated a sense of the author being different.

In this nostalgic recall of a lifetime of memories, Cilla McQueen has written an account of becoming a poet. Evidence of the beginning of this path is shown in school memories:

I like spelling and vocabulary, am annoyed when
‘fatigue’ and
‘physician’ trip me up.

Writing stories in cut-in-half exercise books,
my hand more fluent page by page,
as much for the joy of writing as for the plot,

When in early childhood she destroyed a next-door neighbour’s seedlings, she admits,

I did lean over the fence, I did
pick all those little seedlings out
of their yielding soil one by one,
because I liked the sound.

She discovered the expressive joy of writing through diary-keeping but relies on memory to enrich her poetry. As she remarks in In A Slant Light, ‘Snaps, tableaux – can’t be sure about the authenticity of memory, / but by my lights it’s all I have to go on.’ Literal and metaphorical images in her freeform poems rely on McQueen’s memory, with vivid descriptions of land, sea, air, native trees and birdsong.

I am a few years older than Cilla McQueen and though our families were quite different, there are parallels in this writing that are exact: sea-side sandwiches, porcelain inkwells, sewing lessons, paper patterns and stitching dresses on a Singer sewing machine, jazz records and jazz clubs. Highlighted incidents evoke memories and make this writing easily accessible.

Mum lies on a tartan rug
guarding the thermos and sandwiches,
ham and tomato

Chain, double-chain, satin, feather, daisy,

In needlework we learn stitches required
to work a sampler,

For the church social I make my first dress to a simplicity pattern, in
crisp dark poplin with red roses, cut out on the dining-room floor
and sewn on the Singer.

                                   We listen Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass,
Charlie Byrd, Milt Jackson, Django Reinhardt,

At Art College in England in the late 50s, I believed that the way we all dressed was individual, very special and unique but here is McQueen, in New Zealand, donning the same beatnik-style gear.

                                black sloppy-joe, pale lipstick,
a rope of beads, mini-skirts, black tights, boots.

McQueen’s university life was liberating, the initial years fraught, and with her involvement in Drama Society productions taking a lot of her time. It was at university she lost her virginity. She became pregnant, then married. The marriage was short-lived.

Her description of the Drama Society’s Green Room also evoked memories of my own ventures into college theatre productions:

In the Green room at Allen Hall, into an echoing oubliette
between stone walls, empty beer bottles drop with glassy crash,
Beside the window, the chaise lounge where many students kiss.
Relationships arise among the cast, endure or fade when the season’s over.

It is also at university that McQueen meets James K Baxter, who gives her a newly-written poem, a statuette and a silver medal of the Virgin Mary. She became involved in conservation protests, one of which centred on opposing the building of a Bluff aluminium smelter.

Meeting and marrying the artist Ralph Hotere generated a pivotal change in her life. Through her time with Hotere, she found her voice as a poet. Of Hotere’s painting, she writes, ‘In the shadowy hallway hang three paintings that seem completely black.

‘When the light slants in from the front door I see that the matt canvas is textured with words in thicker paint, black on black…’

Absorbed by Hotere’s work, she becomes distracted from her own creative path. Of her time with Hotere, she writes:

Layer on layer of Ralph’s works
cloak me.

Were I to lift them gently away with tweezers
in all their dark seductive textures,
might I find myself in my spare time
doing what, apart from appreciating, facilitating?
Sewing, cooking, knitting, spinning, reading

The slant on McQueen’s life is engaging. She dared to write at a time when women poets were in hiding. The memories of her life make absorbing reading.