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 that this is impossible - Sarah Quigley
About Cilla McQueen
Born in Birmingham, England, Cilla McQueen moved to New Zealand when she was four years old. She ranks amongst the finest poets of her generation, with honours which include three New Zealand Book Awards, the 2009 Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement and New Zealand’s Poet Laureateship (2009-2011).
“If this is the end of the world, then it’s not too bad”, writes McQueen in 'Weather'. Location anchors McQueen’s work. If, broadly, her end of the world is New Zealand, it is also, more specifically, her hometown – the country’s most southerly tip, Bluff in Southland. In her charting of its climatic and environmental changes and their impacts upon the manmade (“the wind is fierce, but the house stands fast” – 'Weather'), she speaks of the human condition in general: of what it means to live in synergy with the elements; of what it means to be alive not just at a geographical edge of existence but at Earth’s chronological closing too. In ‘Joanna’, this existential search is concerned with the worth of an individual life. In ‘To an Unknown Poet’, its focus is literary, the words passed between people across great distances, their meaning and emptiness. In ‘Warp’, the metaphysical exploration involves technology, memory and destiny, as the conclusion illustrates:
“To make battered oysters in a thunderstorm Retrieving my train of thought Pull just one string and the whole caboodle unravels”
Those “battered oysters” (like “the pikelets” in ‘Weather’) also exemplify McQueen’s sharp eye for particularly New Zealand detail, and the word “caboodle” demonstrates her rich use of language which her reading here further enhances. A tinge of a Southland lilt to her delivery, her voice delivers all the poems here with command and also with an acute awareness of cadence. Note, for instance, her reading of ‘In the Cleft of the Blankets’ in which she draws out the alliterative and assonant qualities of a line like “I cling as close to you as lichen”; or, in ‘Stoat’s Song’, the line “thrill to throttle shrill cadences”; or ‘An Imp’, the line “quick as a fist, a black spar”.
If her poems return to their preoccupation with the flexibility and inflexibility of time, listening to a poem like ‘Weather’ which ends, “We do what we must when it needs to be done in our own time which is of an elastic nature”, we understand that suppleness is also at the core of how McQueen constructs her poems. Their language has stretch, as do their forms. They contain, like calculus, a mechanical and geometrical capacity which is clear on the page and which McQueen is able to convey in her reading of them.