Book Review: poeta, by Cilla McQueen

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_poetaThere are two things which I think make a great selected works collection and they are nothing to do with the metric foot or rhyme; they are much more prosaic. When I open a selected works of poetry I want to see initial publication information and notes. The poems don’t have to be in chronological order, thematic organisation is often more interesting, but I like to know where they fit. And I want the gossip behind the poems.  Cilla McQueen’s selected and new poems collection, poeta, wonderfully provides both.

Selected poetry books which collect and gather a poet’s work are important. They give new life to work which might be out of print and are great for those studying the poet.  They are however often lengthy, the poetry doesn’t necessarily propel you through the pages and I approach the reading of them more to discover the poet than the poetry. poeta is very much like this – what stood out to me most while reading it is the quality and length of McQueen’s career and her continuous experimentation with form.

From her first collection, Homing In in 1982, McQueen has constantly produced work.  The first decade of her career in particular seemed to be jam-packed, with work appearing in poeta from five collections printed during that time. This opportunity, fueled no doubt by McQueen’s own hard work but also by an ongoing commitment from her publisher at the time, allowed her to build a body of work and an identity as a poet. Reading poeta I found myself wondering whether a poet writing in New Zealand today could develop the same career and sheer body of work over their 30 years of writing.  New Zealand will be the poorer if the answer to that question is ‘no’.

McQueen’s experimentation and her desire for her poetry to embody all possibilities is clear in this collection. Older poems experiment with aspects like punctuation (or the lack of it) and building narrative, while the new poems clearly play with internal white space and the page. Though most poems are free verse and many are lyrics, you also occasionally see her mastering traditional forms.

McQueen’s poetry is rich in metaphor and image and ranges across many concerns and themes. Often strongly grounded in place, from Bluff to Berlin, poems such as ‘Living Here’ capture a New Zealand condition, an isolation and complacency which remains even if we are no longer ‘just one big city with 3 million people with / a little flock of sheep each so we’re all sort of / shepherds.’ ‘Crikey’ is an example of a fun love poem while ‘Fuse’ is a powerful political poem without being overtly angry. McQueen has the skill of taking poems in unexpected directions.

poeta is a book for those who enjoy deep dives into New Zealand poetry. But more than that it is a book whose very ability to exist creates reflection. How can we ensure that poets today can continue to flourish, to WORK, in New Zealand across a lifetime career?

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

by Cilla McQueen
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531281


Book Review: Only Two for Everest, by Lyn McKinnon

cv_only_two_for_everestAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Most, if not all, New Zealanders know of Sir Edmund Hillary and his successful ascent of Everest. What many, including myself, didn’t know, was that the events that lead up to that first ascent of the world’s highest mountain could have meant that a different New Zealander could well have stood triumphantly on the summit in 1953.

Lyn McKinnon has researched and written an excellent account of the early years of mountain climbing in New Zealand, and the young men involved. Two in particular were Earle Riddiford and Ed Cotter. Contempories of Hillary and George Lowe, they climbed with them in the Himalayas. Cotter and Riddiford, along with Pasang Dawa Lama, made the first ascent of Mukut Parbat in 1951. Hillary and Lowe accompanied them on the first part of the climb but turned back after deciding the summit was too difficult to reach. It was this climb which brought the New Zealanders to the attention of the Alpine Club in London who were in the process of organising a British Reconnaissance of Mt. Everest. An invitation was sent to the four climbers while still in the Himalayas, for two of them to join the party. On receipt of the telegram, a day and a half of bitter dispute divided the men and set in motion events reaching even into our time. Only two men could go and this is where the title of the book comes in.

The two men who did go were the members of the expedition who eventually summitted Everest. The two who missed out, Earle Riddiford and Ed Cotter, have their stories told at last in Only Two For Everest. Lyn McKinnon has drawn on private papers as well as published work, and interviewed Ed Cotter, the families of both men and many other contemporary climbers to set the record straight about these two extraordinary men, whose climbing achievements have been eclipsed by the prominence given to the man who reached the summit.

Riddiford and Cotter deserved to have their stories told and McKinnon has done them justice in a book rich in detail and photographs.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Only Two for Everest
by Lyn McKinnon
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781927322406

Book Review: Taking My Mother to the Opera, by Diane Brown

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_taking_my_mother_to_the_operaTaking My Mother to the Opera
isn’t just a series of poems; it feels like a whole story in its own right, collating the history of the poet and her family. Each poem follows on smoothly from the one before in a way that doesn’t shy away from tragedy, but is still subtle in its modest tone.

The collection begins with the narrator’s parents and their carefree lives. It is a sweet memory, but from the snags in description it is obvious that their untroubled lives will not last forever. In a beautiful piece of description, Diane Brown describes her innocent childlike belief that she can fly, thinking that “the sky is full / of clouds, but no one / is riding them, perhaps / it’s forbidden.” The poet inevitably understands that flying is the thing of dreams and this realisation is a marker of her growing up. Amongst this change, she wonders whether “Mum and Dad will lie on the sand, / holding hands like they used to”.

It also covers the complexities of family—the push and pull of expectation and want. You Can’t Eat Poems portrays the well-known story of the struggle between parent and child on career choice. The subtle direction of the narrator’s mother to push the poet away from her art adds complexity to both characters. The poet herself recognises that she must “hold my tongue and dig my poems in for winter” to make her mother happy. It explores what it means to be a daughter and the difficulty of aligning your own dreams to making others proud.

And there is the familiarity that comes with family too. There is the smell of home-baked scones and the taste of eating them with jam and cream. There is the string of words “I love you… like coming across / New Zealand mentioned in a foreign / newspaper when you’re homesick” and how we falter without these little reminders. Listening to My Father Read is a poem that tugs at the heartstrings and explores these things that are lost with age. As time passes, the family does not feel as strong as secure as it used to be, and the poet feels unstable without this support. In a heartbreaking moment, the poet’s father declares “You’re the light of my life… she’s (the mother) is the love; you’re the light.”

The many layers of history and background were at a depth that is not often found in poetry. I developed a real attachment to the poet and her life; the transition from the innocent child at the beginning blends into the grown woman at the end so smoothly. It explores the truth that comes from tragedy and how environment shapes our own responses later in life. A belief in flying may disappear with adulthood but Taking My Mother to the Opera proves that you don’t need to be in the clouds to see the light; there are sparks of love in the poet and her family even on solid ground.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Taking my Mother to the Opera
by Diane Brown
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781927322154