Cilla McQueen lives in Bluff, at the southern tip of New Zealand's South Island. A poet and artist, she has published eleven collections; those currently in print are Markings, Axis, Soundings, Fire-penny, and The Radio Room, as well as A Wind Harp (CD). They are all available from Otago University Press. Cilla was New Zealand Poet Laureate 2009-11.
Bump And Grind
Light rain. I lie underneath the tree’s soft umbrella. the birds sing counterpoint, four dimensions couched in the blipping flight of sparrows. the world and its immediate reflection, a self-excited circuit, a snake with its tail in its mouth. eyes in reflected eyes, layers of glass, a maze of strange and simple couplings. the world dreaming, a bubbleskin away from my fingertips.
in the silence, song buds. imagination flowers in bareness.
one day when I was sitting calmly in the garden, I suddenly slid into oblivion, then out the other side backwards. shaken, I looked around. my heart was pounding. everything seemed just the same as before.
surface tension holds yes apart from no, zero from one, the line between. when one becomes the other.
miles from where we started
speed of light, speed of sound, truth in fickleness, trees in the wind. slip out, dip out, slide sideways through the very surface of the mirror. Life’s tiny bright sliver, moment of balance when the forces are exactly equivalent. the kissing of the pair. voices twinning in a travelling cocoon. fusion, the bright bleeding crack
cliff-walking, trust of the rope. a good path shakes you along like a blanket. Balance flickers about an axis. o today the harbour is milky jade and the clouds are pearl grey, overlaid.
cicada saws and files away its filigree. events fabricate form. the world, dreaming itself.
what meniscus holds us apart? tangible reality, nimble time, elastic constants.
down to the listening dunes, the tiny pallisades of hearing.
seismographs register the jizz.
heavy and hot after rain. the crossing bells ring,
tangtangtangtangtangtangtangtang (bird whistle) and here
comes the train, a big one, grinding along all on one note,
the train is present (a close bird sings) and past, a light red
shift, clung clung, clung clung, over the
sleepers (a close bird sings) and brakes, wheeeeee wheeeeee,
till the bells stop, the bird continues, low rumble, fade out,
train faraway, slowly up the hill
and around the headland to Purakanui.
universal information, beamed right back. passage, molecule switches, flow both ways. melt the mirror. where did the absolute go? out with the bathwater? change is the only constant.
simple and strange, seeing it from both sides, dissolving in layers. inside the bubble. a serpent with its tail in its mouth, a chain reaction. light looping, endlessly.
in the daytime,
in the japanese maple
form growing in patterns out of the higgledy piggledy, the higgledy piggledy continuously changing form. and what is this fundamental particle? each more tiny than the last, a jot, a tittle, an iota, a smithereen, a scintilla.
I water the avocado. water fills the saucer its pot is standing in, slowly rising above the rim, held in by the curving meniscus. then the surface tension breaks in one place and it overflows. each rivulet has its own skin that contains its flow. In the house above the railway line, somebody is playing a jazz saxophone.
dimples in time’s swirling, black hole, white space, change
at that moment a heavy truck rumbles along the street,
two sparrows tussle over a crust
the man next door’s feet crunch on the gravel
a door slams, a voice calls “Goodbye Wendy”
Eileen’s washing machine spins to a climax
a thistledown lands on the kowhai tree
and the two sparrows are now
very close to me
on the bricks
now they forget me
and go up to sing in the leaves
sunlight feeds the garden
everything shines and grows
through the vortex and
out the other side:
From Benzina (1988). I wrote my way through a major spinal operation in 1985-6, finding, as many poets have, that the act of writing - by whatever possible means - is a good way to cope with pain. It frees up the poetry, too, being intimately connected to survival.
pop without trace
if you touch the walls
through the waterskin
like a gannet
trampoline kiss and flip
how birds fly up
Lola died on Wednesday.
From Wild Sweets (1987). A simple poem about the simple fact of a death.
he said, naughty girl, you must not
just do wacky language for the hell of it!
must not be flouted. respect our trivial concerns.
man’s work, how else will the structures survive?
thus spake he, how else will we conduct
sensitive and crucial negotiations?
weight! let us be noble!
wordfabric the tennis elbow and spreads out
whistlybliss! Hell! then a big
awful face says BITE THE ICECREAM
all the legs collapse
From 'Crikey' (1993) written in annoyance.
I visit my friend’s kitchen.
There are roses on the floor
and a table with pears.
Her face is bare in the light.
She smiles. She has hung
a curtain. I like the darkness
inside our Dunedin houses
even in summer, the doors
that open into the hall, the
front door that opens into the sun.
Her hands lay colour light
as lips on paper
with the utmost care,
in faith the soul may leave us
as the sun the hills,
effacing shadows with all shadow,
or the moon the sea, reflection
rippling into time between,
the space in the world that held her
From Homing In (1982) and Fire-penny (2005), these two pieces arose from a long friendship with the poet and artist Joanna Paul (1945-2003)
Oyster tang, a misty salty morning,
sky ridged like the roof of a dragon’s mouth
grazing on lilies –
I am thinking of far blue islands,
crosscurrents deep in the sky, paua under rocks
and bronze kelp swirling,
flocks of muttonbirds skimming the water.
The black wings beat and glide above clear green.
North-east over trees and houses,
the harbour and dark blue hills
far and clear, pylons striding westward
to the power lodes of southern lakes.
Above us, Motupohue,
staunch full stop at the end of the land.
Chilly and sweet,
sunshine in Liffey Street.
Clouds flee and gather, darkening for rain,
wind whirls around the black hill
and slams down on the town,
sunlight blares through bright between indigo clouds.
At the kitchen table
my pleasure is handwriting
in lissom superconducting ink,
in silence but for the fire and the fridge.
The wind sings.
The borer are eating the house in tiny bites.
I sprinkle an oven tray with flour
like stars, like snow, remembering
being newborn, held in arms
and carried to the window to look out
at snow and stars in sheer delight.
Slow rain prickles on the iron roof
and then the roof dissolves, storm-sluiced.
A thunderbolt cracks over us,
writes lightning on the sky.
The wind in eaves, in walls and windows
draws a sound from everything it passes,
a meditation within the sound,
a voice, murmuring.
Within the tall quiet house
built of the heart of trees,
a poetry of memory and time.
There is a listening quality
of silence in the house.
Amethyst light in the hallway,
the sky outside like a gull’s wing.
Currents of grief and laughter
flow through days changeable as weather,
chaotic, fruitful, resonant – laughter and grief,
anger and tenderness, shadow and sunlight
chasing each other across the landscape.
Their supple vines weave back and forth
through time and wind-pierced weatherboards
to hold us all in a creel of love.
things arrange themselves, patterns
evolve from chaos, times arch
from darkness into darkness,
etched by light, by love, laughter,
Time is place.
The house sleeps, flames whicker
in the Shacklock No.1 (Improved) coal range,
her warm cast iron heart.
Spare old house, archaic, threadbare –
surely in its oblique dimension
the soul does not desiccate
as the body does with age,
but burns the brighter for long life.
The wind sings, the house listens.
I write at the kitchen table.
The law of Murphy reigns –
that what can happen, will,
and consequences bloom like clouds
beyond their butterfly cause,
resolving and dissolving
as if they never were
except for memory,
a star at the edge of sight.
In Liffey Street
time dimples and spins
like the surface of water.
From Markings (2000). After moving to live in Bluff (Motupohue), in the far south of New Zealand's South Island (Te Waipounamu) I was adjusting to a more Maori-oriented life than I had known hitherto, and a new phase of education in language and local history.
takes my flesh
to your lips
from the earth
on my head -
my neck, your ankle
I cover you
feast of me
'No part of the gannet is ever wasted'
Make a spoon of my breastbone
and of my wings a feather broom.
My head makes a soft shoe laced at the throat
my beak a stout peg, to anchor the thatch.
Featherdown is your bed in the storm.
I give strength to your body
and brightness to your eyes -
your lamp is my clear oil flame.
From Soundings (2002). My ancestral links to the Scottish archipelago of St Kilda give me a feeling of connectedness with life in Bluff. I find parallels between this fishing community with its seasonal harvesting of titi (muttonbirds), its austere landscape and tightly-knit families, and that small St Kildan village perched on the remote island of Hirta in the Atlantic for more than two thousand years.
Flick of a sinuous body
in lounge suit. Teeth.
I find you deliciously musical,
O eggs, thrill
to throttle shrill cadences,
plumb your skinny holes!
Ah piteous nest
of silken flesh exposed
to my spry jaw,
soothe me and sing to me within!
Innocence drowns in my throat.
All the trees are empty.
Scarce leisure to preen the brows
of supple stoats, sated with song.
From Fire-penny (2005). Our native birds are being decimated by introduced predators.
Not the tin shed in the empty section
nor the immediate white cat with the patch
on its side like a hole,
but the imp in my eye his eye spat.
Imagination closed on it
quick as a fist, a black spar.
It queers my inner sight.
It cannot be dissolved by time.
From Fire-penny (2005). Funny how an impenetrable glance can engrave itself indelibly in memory.
Scribe a surface with a nib.
Represent in words a circle.
Inscribe (a geometric construction) inside (another construction)
so that the two are in contact but do not intersect.
Describe a membrane of supersymmetrical elementary particles.
Circumscribe a geometric construction around another construction
so that the two are in contact but do not intersect.
Ascribe beauty to truth.
From The Radio Room (2010).
Measure a black thread.
Roll one end between forefinger and ball of thumb
to a small knot tangle.
Thread the other, moistened by lips to a point,
through the eye of the needle.
Consider the hole in the heel.
Engage with the sock.
Mercury’s wing would fit.
There is no ironic distance between us, Sock,
for I must remove my glasses
to obtain a microscopic view
Is what I perceive as a void,
such as the void in Eridanus that intrigues me,
so from your viewpoint? Do you know
that you have nothing in you –
an unravelling place,
a shirking, Sock, of the looping continuous
cause that defined you, shaped your ideal,
but for the hole,
the void wherein there is no matter, not a skerrick?
I’d like to go to Eridanus when I die.
Meanwhile, darn it,
the steel tip needling in and out
between there and not-there, defines
edge where there was none, fell whereon
the latticework will be attached,
between the gutter and the house,
tautened the pragmatic architecture of spiders.
From The Radio Room (2010). I enjoy the way a poem can carry me from my earthly garden out to the far reaches of the universe, and back again.
With manuka brush and beech twig
I draw up into myself
the silver water and the blue-black mountains.
In writing, the action is forward, easy, practised.
The dream flows down through gates of language
in fluent handwriting to find contact with the world.
Drawing is otherwise - backward, not fluent,
incoming rather than outgoing,
drawing the outside into the dream within.
The right hand’s wrist twists in a peculiar way.
The left hand is clumsy and intuitive.
It takes an effort to hold and to direct the stick.
I begin to learn the landscape.
There is resistance in the line.
Accidents of ink occur.
From Markings (2000). When I don't feel like writing, I draw. It keeps the flow going and works in a different, but satisfactory, way.
Who am I, with bulldozed flanks,
my hoard that rises and falls as ships gorge on me?
Resembling mountains, I contain forests.
Forest after forest they come, and are emptied.
Wind sculpts their dark gold hearts exposed.
Who am I, half-killed by chainsaw, shyly returning?
Crowds of miniature oval solar panels, a green hoard
safe in my basket-case, proof against browsing moa.
Shorn by wind on the hill, you might take me
for the shadow of a hunch.
Who am I now, suspended in mid-air?
I have worked all night to manifest my idea
with all the means at my command.
I wait quietly at the centre of my idea.
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 2012. The view from my study window is of a busy port. Daily I observe the stockpiles of woodchips ready for export, the native matagouri trees on the hillside, the busy domestic spider population.
After a testing climb I reached the top.
But success was so dry, my carapace curled
around my segments
and my legs froze.
Not knowing where I had come from,
she tossed me out the window.
I was a slater of renown
I climbed ten stairs all on my own.
2013, a meditation on 'success'.
[all poems copyright, the author and Otago University Press]