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‘lovely swans of art’

in a slant light — a poet’s memoir
by Cilla McQueen (Otago University Press, $35)
Reviewed by Ruth Brassington

My pen’s a wand I dip into magic liquid –
memories stream out like bubbles on a breath

SlantLightCoverCilla McQueen: Poet Laureate, Burns Fellow, Honorary Doctor of Letters, Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement – put these and her other awards in a list and we could make a “found poem” for McQueen. But her work is her own and this memoir not only tells her stories but is filled with poesy and, occasionally, shopping lists.

Diary-keeping forms the basis of much of this memoir – as with earlier poems – and we are led gracefully through the waves of her life as she sails through both rough and smooth waters. Some of us can identify with some of her young memories: I, too, am from a time when “Books and radios are all”. Childhood naughtiness was sometimes worth the adults’ disapproval — I share her pleasure at pulling out the neighbour’s seedlings one by one to hear the sound of each plant’s withdrawal; the “prickly tobacco scent in Dad’s tweed sportscoat”. And:

In the large lead shoe X-ray machine
at the back of the shoe shop, our skeletal
feet appeared at the press of a button.

As we are told on a plaque on the writers’ walk in Dunedin’s Octagon, “English-born Cilla McQueen spent her formative years in Dunedin.” Actor, teacher, multi-media artist, mother, wife, collaborator and loner, with poesy struggling to emerge, the adult McQueen felt “halfway between a straightforward French teacher and something else … a new part of my personality, asking to be heard. Sometimes I feel like the Ugly Duckling surrounded by the lovely swans of art”.

The “lovely swans of art” included a veritable Bloomsbury coterie of artists, musicians and writers in Dunedin at that time, including Marilynn Webb, Ralph Hotere, Marian McLeod, Joanna Paul, Bill Manhire, Jack Body, Gillian Whitehead, Jeffrey Harris, Bill MacKay, Hone Tuwhare and more.
I like her poet’s observations of artists at work, especially artist-photographer Di Ffrench,

focusing her zoom lens on a large white
bowl of water on the floor.
Stillness in the room
deep concentration.
Shutter click.
She’s photographing the meniscus.
Developing interest in the skin of water.

This “meniscus” sends non-scientists searching with their fingers for the meaning of the word; McQueen’s poems use such scientific terms mainly as a shock and a prod to think a different way, to see a different way. But in a slant light is mainly straightforward, rather like chats with a friend or neighbour about what’s been happening – in the world, as well as in the poet’s life. I’ve heard McQueen read, and her voice weaves through time and events from her birth in 1949 through to the 1980s; I hope we hear some more.