McQueen, Cilla

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McQUEEN, Cilla

Nationality: British and New Zealander. Born: Birmingham, England, 22 January 1949. Education: Columba College, Dunedin; Otago University, M.A. (honors) in French 1970. Family: Married Ralph Hotere in 1974; one daughter. Career: Teacher. Artist: individual shows—Bosshard Galleries, Dunedin, 1982; Red Metro Gallery, Dunedin, 1983. Awards: New Zealand Book award, 1983, 1989; P.E.N./Jessie Mackay award, 1983; Air New Zealand/P.E.N. travel award, 1984; Robert Bums fellowship, 1985, 1986; Fulbright Visiting Writer's fellowship, 1985; Inaugural Australian-New Zealand Writers' exchange fellowship, 1987; Goethe Institute scholarship, 1988; New Zealand Book award, 1991, for Berlin Diary.Address: P.O. Box 69, Portobello, Dunedin, New Zealand.



Homing In. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1982.

Anti Gravity. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1984.

Wild Sweets. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1986.

Benzina. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1988.

Berlin Diary. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1990.

Crikey (new and selected poems 1978–1994). Dunedin, McIndoe, 1994.

Recordings: Bad Bananas, Strawberry Sound, 1986–87; Otherwise, with Alistair Macdougall, 1989.


Harlequin and Columbine (produced Dunedin, 1987).

Red Rose Café (produced Dunedin, 1990).

Radio Play: Spacy Calcutta's Travelling Truth Show, 1986.


Critical Studies: "Pilot Small's Transport across the Meniscus: The Poetry of Cilla McQueen" by Ian Wedde, in Untold (Christchurch), 3, autumn 1985; by Maree Brown, in Landfall, 45(3), September 1991.

Cilla McQueen comments:

My work is concerned with duality, the theme of the meniscus, the borderline area between subjective and objective experience.

*  *  *

Stylistic changes have taken place in Cilla McQueen's poetry. The lyricism that tended to dominate the poems in her first volume yielded first to a pared-down, energetic, pop-inspired minimalism, then reemerged in Benzina with "beauty in spareness. / what is & what is not" ("Some Poets"). The distinctive aspects of her poetry remain: a painter's eye for detail and color, a sense of the dramatic, and a quirky sense of humor.

McQueen describes herself as "poet, composer and intermedia artist." This versatility has been combined with performance, for example, as poet and musician with a rock group. It also plays an important role in her writing through her fondness for visual patterns, references to pop culture, and synaesthetic imagery. In Homing In her "Words Fail Me" gaily knocks down artificial boundaries between the arts, as the poet's desire "to put into line what / the words are not fluid enough for" cause her to start

drafting lines on to graph paper
& pairing coordinates. I hope
that they can then be mass produced
in the form of sheet music which
can be sung anywhere.

The poem concludes with a visual pun on the inadequacies of language, paradoxical in its success:

   fail me she says
& proceeds to fill several more lines
with scribbled black biro words fail me

Visual patterns, which should be seen on the page to gain their full effect—dropped lines, half lines—are important structural features of many other poems in Homing In. "Low Tide, Aramoana" and "Weekend Sonnets, Carey's Bay" share this mimetic approach to seascapes and emotions, as does "By the Water":

Dark glissades to meet the
light     on reefs of air: I find you
dismembered in the landscape
among indolent hills
You disperse & are
gone again

The combination of sensual responses to landscape in "Words Fail Me" is the subject of "Synaesthesia," a much less visual poem in Benzina. Here, through the formality of rhymed iambic pentameter, the same boundaries are recrossed in a complex series of patterns and harmonies that are directed more toward the ear than the eye:

the eyes see patterns that the brain can sing
invisibly the music pictures sound
draws out the music inside everything
& sings the lines of light my hand has found

While experimenting with language and form, McQueen has also given her poetry satiric bite. "Living Here," one of her most frequently anthologized poems, pictures each New Zealander surrounded by a personal flock of sheep, "little human centres each within an outer / circle of sheep around us like a ring of / covered wagons." Gradually the human characters take on the characteristics of sheep, bleating "the safest place in the world to live," insulated but also isolated by their fleece:

We're calling fiercely to each other
through the muffled spaces grateful for
any wrist-brush
cut of mind or touch of music
lightning in the intimate weather of the soul.

The transition from whimsy is highly effective, its judgment softened just enough by the inclusive "we." "Living Here" also directs attention to the frequent images of electricity and lightning in the poems that succeed it, poems that deliberately try to leap the "muffled spaces" that inhibit communication.

Anti Gravity is a move in this direction, its title signifying McQueen's growing interest in the language of physics as well as her continuing attack on conformity. Gravity in one sense is successfully defied by the playfulness of her lines; gravity in its other sense can be less easy to defy. The stuntman in "That's Incredible" catches his falling parachute "with one second to spare," a second in which the poet speculates "where the quasars drill out to infinite distance" and "while the time ripples past in numbers." "Princess Alice the Incredible Lady Gymnast" meets a different end. Having "constructed a flying machine / of surpassing grace & lightness / out of shells & feathers & fishing-line," Princess Alice meets the fate of Icarus:

...a cloud of birds forced her down
in unfamiliar country
where a parliament of trees
condemned her for alienation from earth
& sentenced her forthwith
to dissolution
(now you
see her
now you

Poetry also being, as it declares itself, "anti gravity," McQueen discusses its creation in terms of similar danger in "No Poem":

I like the relationship between thought & paper
to get faster...
   the more you play around with words
the more they frighten you with the punch
they pack    like the images I cover my walls with
   have become unfixed scraps of reality
exploding on contact
which is why we seem to be picking
our way through a minefield just a few of us anarchists
white flags & mortars both ways across no mans land

This sense of danger pervades the shorter, sharper poems of Wild Sweets. "Wild Sweets" alternates conventional images of romantic love with violence and danger: "what I mean by / love? a terrorist incident / a torn artery an electric arc a / touch without fear." So too does "A Lightning Tree": "I have made of words a lightning tree / to earth my dangerous love through poetry." These and other poems carry the electrical charge of "lightning in the intimate weather of the soul." "Wink" and "Dreamscript 1" use cut-and-jump film techniques.

Benzina displays less of this kinetic energy. McQueen's voice here is generally quieter, more reflective, the lyricism that had been displaced returning with the brevity that had displaced it. Wild Sweets includes several poems of this kind ("Nuages," "Solstice"), Benzina far more. In "Under the Tree," "Silence," and "Rainlight" ("sun bows / mirrored colours / over / to join beneath us / to hold the water / calm in a bowl") their delicate stillness contrasts with a newer form of experiment, the prose poem ("Short Story, 1984") of short sentences and a dramatic use of punctuation.

But whether in pop or lyrical mode, McQueen could never be called a romantic. Even when grief and shock are her subjects, as in "Vegetable Garden Poem (1)," the emotions are buried in the middle of the poem ("a friend of ours shot himself / yesterday"), which ends with the poet "trying to write. / Trying to disappear." In "Some Poets" she sets out quite clearly what her poetry is not and, more importantly, what it is, for "Some poets,"

they get shit
on their shoes
& trail it everywhere
ragged impossible
ah so bloody romantic
still I wish
fuck wishing.
time for some
naked light!
beauty in spareness.
what is & what is not.

—Nan Bowman Albinski

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McQueen, Cilla

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