Nectar down the arm

by Sarah Quigley / 19 February, 2011
Cilla McQueen combines the bravura and passion of a born poet with the wisdom and tenderness of an experienced one.
Cilla McQueen's new book of poetry, The Radio Room, is deceptively small. A slim greyish volume, a wisp of a word-cloud, with one of the poet's own drawings straggling quietly across the cover.

Yet when you open it a magic trick ensues. Poems unfold one on the other, accordion-like, growing in resonance and beauty until your hands and your head are full to overflowing. Landscapes, language, loss; geography, history, the nature of time; word-play, word-pictures, real pictures. Somehow McQueen has managed to capture the entire world and fold it between covers.

This is her 11th collection, completed during her stint as New Zealand's current Poet Laureate - but one senses many of these poems have had a long gestation, slow-building over some years. Each is pared back and polished, reaching a state of perfect smoothness.

The natural world - stones, beaches, birds, trees - features prominently throughout the book. "One rock, another rock," begins Altar (Elements 1): "a flat rock on top." McQueen has a knack of stripping back the visual world to basics; only then does she build human meaning back into the poem.

One example of such poetic reduction is Tea Cup, which focuses on small domestic objects: a sugar bowl, a cup, a spoon. Yet how much emotion and how many allusions are compressed in its 10 short lines. A seemingly simple poem becomes a remarkable elegy, with luminous language and imagery redolent of life and death.

Human loss is a central theme throughout the book; glinting through the surface, then disappearing again, it is dealt with lightly but unflinchingly. Personal tributes can be tricky; in referencing a grief that's private, the poet runs the risk of alienating a reader. Yet when McQueen remembers Hone Tuwhare, she writes so vividly and directly that we feel we're in the room with the two friends: "Open your bright dark eyes/give precise instructions as to the location of the whisky bottle/on the kitchen shelf, and of two glasses./I bring them like a lamb./You pour a mighty dram."

Some of the most beautiful moments occur when the subject is New Zealand, as in Ripples, with imagery so strong it almost smokes off the page: "In the middle distance, wind-burned iron roofs chafed by macrocarpa." The lengthy poem Reprise laments the changes to our once untouched landscape, scarred by "damming, excavation, human/habitation, subdivision, pylons/pipelines, sewage ponds and cow-piss".

In the face of loss - human, natural, temporal - McQueen finds salvation in language. Often her work is about artistic endeavour itself: the desire to freeze time, the realisation this is impossible. In Hand likens the act of writing to an almost unconscious process: "A shoulder-twitch/sends nectar down the arm." Yet the poet is simultaneously aware of recording only "the meantime". Bellbirds sing their "green glass song", raindrops blur the page - and the moment is already, almost literally, fading.

The extraordinary ending to Wash is a perfect example of language mirroring its subject matter. Here the lines themselves begin to disintegrate, tearing like paper in the rain. Fragmented phrases - "damp translucent skin", "translation and thin", "fragile", "nerve", "bruise" - echo McQueen's preoccupations with ageing, endings and seasonal cycles. The poem concludes inexorably yet gently with the words "vanished intimacies".

Such a clear-eyed acceptance of transitoriness resonates through The Radio Room, booming and receding, singing, keening. This is an extraordinary book, combining the bravura and passion of a born poet with the wisdom and tenderness of an experienced one. Reprise opens with the query "Who are we now, who were we anyway?" McQueen, with her incisive, sensitive poems, comes as close as anyone can to answering the unanswerable.

THE RADIO ROOM, by Cilla McQueen (Otago, $30).
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

A post-mortem on Todd Barclay and Matt McCarten's fiascos
76497 2017-07-24 00:00:00Z Politics

A post-mortem on Todd Barclay and Matt McCarten's …

by Jane Clifton

In the catalogue of disaster, is a Todd Barclay worse than a Matt McCarten?

Read more
The Trump family's Kremlin connection
76655 2017-07-24 00:00:00Z World

The Trump family's Kremlin connection

by Paul Thomas

From “nothing to see here” to a Cold War-era spy story played out in real life, the Trump family’s Kremlin connection is a source of fascination.

Read more
The Journey – movie review
76661 2017-07-24 00:00:00Z Movies

The Journey – movie review

by James Robins

A van isn’t a great vehicle for a drama on how old enemies ended the Troubles.

Read more
Gaylene Preston on the difficulties of filming at the United Nations
76664 2017-07-24 00:00:00Z Movies

Gaylene Preston on the difficulties of filming at …

by David Larsen

Tracking Helen Clark’s tilt for the top job at the United Nations, Gaylene Preston documented the creatures of the diplomatic world.

Read more
Jackie van Beek puts the gags aside for The Inland Road
76815 2017-07-24 00:00:00Z Movies

Jackie van Beek puts the gags aside for The Inland…

by Russell Baillie

Best known for her comedy roles, Jackie van Beek takes a dramatic detour in her feature-directing debut.

Read more
Parisian Neckwear plays the long game, even as its centenary approaches
76427 2017-07-24 00:00:00Z Small business

Parisian Neckwear plays the long game, even as its…

by Rob O'Neill

Parisian Neckwear, founded in 1919, has survived depression, war, deregulation and a deluge of cheap imports. How? Just feel the cloth.

Read more
David Tamihere case: Key witnesses' doubts about murder of Swedish tourists
76738 2017-07-23 00:00:00Z Crime

David Tamihere case: Key witnesses' doubts about m…

by Donna Chisholm

Nearly 30 years after young Swedish tourists Urban Hoglin and Heidi Paakkonen disappeared in the Coromandel key witnesses say the mystery haunts them.

Read more
Modern slavery and tourism: when holidays and human exploitation collide
76728 2017-07-23 00:00:00Z Social issues

Modern slavery and tourism: when holidays and huma…

by The Conversation

With the advent of orphanage tourism, travellers think they're doing good. But they can often just be lining the pockets of the orphanages' owners.

Read more