Cilla McQueen, Edwin’s Egg & other Poetic Novellas Otago University Press, 2014
When this little parcel arrived in the post I oohed and I aahed at the sheer delight of it. Cilla McQueen, who has a track record of very fine poetry, has written eight little novellas and Otago University Press has placed the eight beige notebooks in a gorgeous little box. Exquisite. Heavenly. You could read these in a flash but I have savoured and lingered and dawdled, and now that I have finished, I still don’t want to let go.
Novellas, yes. But also poetry, as every single line resonates in aural honey and semantic wonder. You track a narrative thread that buckles and hitches and loops and leapfrogs. The connections gather, the disconnections give joy and the gaps are beautifully fertile.
Each page of text is accompanied by a photograph from the National Library archives and each photograph acts as a springboard for the writing. The images are acknowledged in the back of each booklet. You can see what a haven the archives were for Cilla as these archival images are startling, witty, beautiful, nostalgic, astonishing.
You can read the booklets in four key ways. You can read the images, you can read each individual page of text (like a mini prose poem), you can read the whole sequence of novellas and absorb the connections, disconnections and gaps, and finally you can move back and forth across the luminous bridges between image and text. The latter is particularly rewarding. You are leapfrogged to your own private storehouse (memory theatre) of preserved anecdotes, objects vividly clear, snippets of conversation and memory shards. As you gather momentum in this extraordinary reading experience, it all builds to a magical, other-wordly narrative, bith visual and textual.
Cilla has not embarked upon a literal transcription of a framed scene into poetry or narrative. There are subtle and varied links, rebounding motifs and themes (especially the egg), humour, wit, economy. Sometimes it is like a jump-pad for free association but there is narrative glue at work here. These novellas holds together in a porous, elastic, lithe kind of way (if that makes sense!).
I like the way characters keep making appearances as though walking in from stage left or stage right: Edwin, Beryl, Eric, Doris, Digby. I love the way they spark with and away from the images and lay the seeds for their own, staccato threads.
I want to quote everything, but here are a handful of sentences that stalled me:
The more imagination grasps at an idea the greater the void created.
A man is so sudden , she thought.
He looked up at the sky’s blue eyelid, sealed by day and opening at night.
His yolk was warm amber in a white crucible.
Edwin gloomily sorted through the remains of his marriage.
No chance with this hip, Doris thought.
The novellas were part of the project Cilla undertook as NZ Poet Laureate (2009-2011) and were published in chapters on the Laureate website as ‘Serial.’ See here for details. Edwin’s Egg is unlike anything I have read in New Zealand literature– it dazzles, it lifts, it sets you loose in the theatre of the past and amidst the heavenly electricity of words.
Otago University Press page
NZ Book Council page
NZEPC author page
NZ Poet Laureate page