Monday, May 2, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“IN A SLANT LIGHT – A Poet’s Memoir” by Cilla McQueen (Otago University Press, $NZ35)

Recently a poet, who had written at some length about her early life with her parents, mildly rebuked me for drawing what she thought were wrong inferences about her relationship with her mother. Duly chastened, I replied that I was only going on what her long poem had itself said or implied. If a poet chooses to be confessional about very personal matters, it is very hard for readers not to draw conclusions about the poet, the poet’s friends and family and the poet’s life in general. This is the danger (or, if you prefer, the courage) of confessional poetry. Write about yourself in such detail, and risk having the world chattering about you rather than about your work.
I am saying all this at the top of this notice, because what was true of that other poet is doubly true of Cilla McQueen’s In a Slant Light. Let me say at once, before I pass any other judgments, that I found In a Slant Light accessible, thoroughly enjoyable, and revealing a strong and sane personality. But it is highly confessional, so you will certainly end up having some opinions on Cilla McQueen and friends.
This handsomely produced hardback (with ribbon bookmark) is exactly what its subtitle says – a poet’s memoir. Divided into what amount to chapters, its free verse takes us from 1949, when Priscilla McQueen was born (to an English mother and an Aussie father) in a hospital in Birmingham in England; to 1984, when she was trying to free herself from other influences and striking out on her own as a poet.
In between is all her childhood, remembered vividly – some time in Australia; travelling to New Zealand in a Sunderland Flying Boat; her family settling in Dunedin; childhood naughtinesses; getting addicted to reading at an early age; a couple of return journeys (by ship, of course) to England with her mum and siblings, to live with relatives; and girlhood dreams of being a ballerina, compromised by a back injury and a dodgy spine thereafter. McQueen’s family appear to have been supportive in the young girl’s and teenager’s crises, even when she was going wild and slightly rebellious. Maybe it helped that she liked high school, was a bit of a whiz in the humanities subjects, and ended up as college dux.
But ‘varsity years were rather more fraught at first. Losing her virginity at about 17 (I assume that’s what “surrender at dawn” on p.57 means) resulted in a pregnancy and what she calls a “shotgun wedding” and a youthful marriage. This didn’t last but it did produce the daughter of whom she is very proud. Then there was her fascination with drama, in Dunedin centring on Patric and Rosalie Carey’s Globe theatre and involving a large cast of bohemian thespians. McQueen records with relish her undergraduate enthusiasms, but she is not so self-regarding as not to notice how privileged her life was in some respects in those days. As she remarks self-deprecatingly, she lived “in a happy, ignorant, opinionated / undergraduate bubble.” (p.66) Nor is she naively impressed with all of the arts-and-culture crowd, for as she later remarks: “Sometimes it seems to me the art world contains / but few true thinkers  / and many hangers-on.” (p.127) There were the pains and struggles of balancing being a single mum with studying and having to earn a living. And there were the protest causes she became involved in  - especially the conservation one of opposing the building of an aluminium smelter at the Bluff. And there was her ache to produce something distinctive of her own. The literary and acting world of Dunedin was a great solace, but a real turning point was meeting (and eventually marrying) the artist Ralph Hotere, in whose work she became absorbed. In fact, she implies, she may have become too absorbed in it, as it took her some time to find her voice as the prolific poet she has been since those days. In a Slant Light fades out in 1984, when the poet is 35, still married to Hotere, and with her first volumes published. While In a Slant Light is mainly a memoir written from the perspective of old age, McQueen interpolates the texts of six or seven poems written nearer the times her memoir records.
All of the above simply gives you the “bibliographical” view of the book by telling you what it contains. It does not really tell you how In a Slant Light achieves its effects or what notes and themes it strikes.
As a personal response, I admit that I was often absorbed – especially in the book’s earlier sections – with what I would call the purely nostalgic aspect. Cilla McQueen and I are of the same generation – both baby-boomers – she being a few years older than me. Therefore I often nodded my head at specific indicators of the times (the 1950s and early 1960s), which I recognised from my own childhood. I mean things such as the names of radio serials, and the type of foods consumed and playground games (stacks-on-the-mill etc.) and shop-visits like this:
Bronze penny fills my hand,
silver threepence as thin as a moon.
Farthings are remembered by the shopkeeper….
I come in the widening space, approach
the glass counter, the sweets in bottles and trays
all shapes and colours, pink cachous, sherbet,
licorice, acid drops, pineapple chunks,
aniseed balls, a paper twist for a halfpenny.” (p.17)
Like McQueen, when I was a kid I travelled with my family, by ship, to England and back. I remember, as she does, such things as the King Neptune ceremony for kids as we crossed the equator, and the strange like-but-unlike-home sensation that England produced. Like McQueen, I also remember my first shocked childhood reaction to the following public event:
One morning in the kitchen
making toast for breakfast
we hear on the Bell radio which sits
on the shelf beside the yellow venetian blind
above the sink, a news flash:
the assassination of President Kennedy.
There’s anguish in the reporter’s voice.” (p.47)
As an Aucklander, I can even key into some of the experiences McQueen had in Dunedin as a student. Like her – dammit, like all arty students at the time – I had the iconic meeting with James K.Baxter, though in my case it was in the last year of Baxter’s life, in a student cellar, and I was miffed when he refused to answer my earnest student question about how he set about writing his poems. (McQueen records him telling her young self not to bother reading the poetry of Allen Curnow. Interesting.) Retrospectively, and when I consider the student loans in which my own children have to be entangled, I can also endorse her student memory:
Nobody pays university fees.
We are given a fantastic education
by Aotearoa New Zealand.
We develop an independent manner of speaking.” (p.60)
Like her, I have had some career as a high-school teacher, and like her I remember from the 1970s:
Chalk-skreeek paroxysms….chalk dust….
carbon paper, cranky copiers, Banda, Gestetner,
inky machinery, paper, time divided by buzzers and bells.” (pp.85-86)
But while such nostalgic recognition is great fun, it isn’t what McQueen is essentially on about.
She is fully aware that memory itself is a faulty thing, although, paradoxically, she finds that keeping diaries – as she used to do – is no help, because diaries too often flatten experience into mere series of external events and miss the inwardness of experience. Only the memory one still has can turn the past into poetry. As she remarks early 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.” (p.7)
Of course memory is related to how we see things – both literally and metaphorically – and a good part of this book refers to the sense of sight. McQueen did the self-portrait on the book’s cover and it emphasises, most appropriately, the poet’s eye-glasses. (Again, I share an experience with her – we both had the childhood awkwardness of having defective sight diagnosed a little late). Vision is related to the book’s title In a Slant Light, and is referenced a couple of times in the text.
There is a childhood memory:
 In Brisbane
my fingertips
touch dancing motes
in a slant sunbeam.” (p.8)

And there is an adult reaction to a group of Ralph Hotere’s paintings:
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….” (p.80)

The “slant” light could be the light of sunset (the poet getting old…). But it could also be suggesting that we all see things from a particular angle – just as the light falls from a particular angle, which heightens and emphasises the contours and flaws of things, as well as exposing significant reality.
This connects with the essential subjectivity that is part of being a poet. More than nostalgic recall, more than thoughts on memory and vision, In a Slant Light is Cilla McQueen’s account of becoming a poet. An early childhood memory indicates this path. She is told off for reaching over the fence and destroying part of a neighbour’s seedling nursery and she admits:
I did lean over the fence, I did
plick all those little seedlings out
of their yielding soil one by one,
because I liked the sound.” (p.12)
This is the poet in embryo.
Later there is the proto-poet’s sheer fun in playing with words:
Behind this curtain, on a table, is a typewriter –
not supposed to be touched
but I can hardly tear myself away
for fascination with the letters
appearing on the blank sheet
representing language, meaning – mistakes –
            the incongruity of this serious machine
in my inexpert hands creating nonsense
as it casts up inky letters one by one.” (p.31)
The power of language is underlined in McQueen’s time acting on stage, and in such things as her account of Rosalie Carey, conducting drama classes with “agile enunciation… [which] renders the voice an instrument of music…” (p.83)
There is the realisation that sometimes poetry can be simply an escape from the quotidian:
I write for company and to sort out my emotions, dismayed at the turn my life has taken. With the help of my family and my studies I contain
the shock; reading Villon,
hoist myself out of the difficult present through the long-ago
consciousness of a poet.” (p.77)
There is also, and perhaps most painfully, the realisation that the poet can be distracted from her own creative path by absorption in the art of somebody else, even if that is somebody she loves:
 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,
acting, visiting, making jam, bottling fruit, baking bread…
My focus was on him – his work intrigued me –
I was fortunate to take part.” (pp.91-92)
This theme is developed later, rather more assertively. Talent, life and experience make her a poet, but so does choosing her own path and getting out of somebody else’s shadow.
This is the essence of In a Slant Light.
Of course much that is very personal is aired here, such as the early stages of her relationship with Ralph Hotere:
He calls me wet behind the ears.
I feel like a licked-by-its-mother-tongue wobbly-balancing-four-square newborn foal. I hope we might have a baby, but he says quietly, it’s unlikely.” (p.82)
Hard, then, not to feel sometimes that you’re eavesdropping on what isn’t really yours to know. But then Cilla McQueen puts this aspect of a poet’s being very well in a passage where she speaks of poets who affected her in student years:
            Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins
speak to my inner ear with lyric and sprung lines,
linguistic energy like Shakespeare’s
and something else – their own dear selves as poets
who have sat down to write with pen and paper.” (p.55)
In the end, this is what we get in In a Slant Light. Communion with a poet who has sat down and written and consciously decided to leave us with her own dear self.
I’ll probably get hammered by the usual suspects for ending my notice on this upbeat note – but I’ll leave it at that.

Querulous footnote: In the 1964 section of her memoir, Cilla McQueen speaks of being with her teenage boyfriend at the time and listening to, and enjoying, the music of many jazz greats, including Wynton Marsalis. As Wynton Marsalis was born in 1961, and would have been three years old at the time McQueen recalls, this is hardly likely. Marsalis made his first recordings in the 1980s. Truly memory is a fallible thing.

1 comment:

  1. Joanne Wilkes gave me permission to post here the interesting comment she sent me:Dear Nick

    I've not read the Cilla McQueen book, but it struck me that this Dickinson poem may be relevant to her title?

    Tell all the truth but tell it slant — (1263)

    Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
    Success in Circuit lies
    Too bright for our infirm Delight
    The Truth's superb surprise
    As Lightning to the Children eased
    With explanation kind
    The Truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every man be blind —

    Best wishes
    Joanne Wilkes