Listener – February 15, 2003
Two “southern women” poets: Cilla McQueen from Bluff and Kay McKenzie Cooke from Dunedin – their mug shots on the back of their books smile at me: McQueen, Celtic dark, quarter-mooned mouthed; McKenzie Cooke, blonde, strong-jawed and open-faced.
“Soundings” is McQueen’s ninth book (she received the New Zealand Award for Poetry in 1983, 1989 and 1991) and “Feeding the Dogs” is McKenzie Cooke’s first. McQueen is descended from a clan from St Kilda in the Hebrides, and McKenzie Cooke, born in Tuatapere and raised a Catholic on a Southland farm, is of Kati Mamoe; Ngati Kahungunu, Cockney and Northern Irish descent.
“Throw them the meat,/pale traces of fat clinging/to the wool of your gloves”. This image from “Feeding the Dogs”, which is dedicated to McKenzie-Cooke’s mother, Shirley, and in memory of her father, Don McKenzie, comes from the back section of the book, which is set in motion on a bus in Dunedin, with McKenzie Cooke (now a grandmother) listening to a condescending bus driver and “Two young females/flick words to each other./’Man, I think Jason likes you.’/’Doubt it. I think he’s a dick’.”
McKenzie Cooke is an astute observer/reporter of the everyday and the first half of “Feeding the Dogs”, without fat, goes about its business, living in the here and now, addressing friends and loved ones: “The words we speak, fall/into the phone, run by cable/undersea, and, bone-dry, reach/their destination: whorled, wide/ears, tender, eager.”
“Feeding the Dogs” also serves as autobiography and lays out McKenzie Cooke’s rural childhood in places such as Orepuki. Her father died prematurely at church one Sunday morning and “Old Scars”, which has to be read in its entirety, is a wonderful testament to him. After he died, mum and the six kids moved to town, but McKenzie Cooke’s heart never left the place. She declares in the poem “I love this farm so much I could pat it” (the title is her grandmother’s words): “I will always come back/And you never miss me/when I’ve gone”.
McQueen opens “Soundings”, illustrated with her powdery landscape drawings, with a sequence of riddles: “my bone takes/my flesh/to your lips”. Is she addressing a lover, or harping back to her bird-eating, English-colonised ancestors?
Perhaps both. “Soundings” travels from 1799, when Lord Brougham called the St Kildan character savage, to the present day, when, in Bluff, McQueen broods in the book’s final poem, “Meanwhile”: “my soundings/round/on my own/heart-springs,/ . . . From love and grief,/all I have learned/is Time.”
McQueen explores coloniser and colonised and her allegiance lies with the tanga whenua: “Soundings” is dedicated to her mother and her fisherman husband Stewart Whaitiri. As well as St Kilda musings, there are poems about the early settlers (“the white man outnumbers the shells on the beach”), her Dunedin childhood, and an evocative poem – commissioned for the Parihaka exhibition – about the traces of Taranaki Maori who were shipped to Dunedin and imprisoned in caves.
McQueen is plumbing the depths and “Soundings” is adrift with ghost ships. She rounds the book off with a sequence of poems that converse with Vice-Admiral Sir Richard Greynville, who handled the colonisation of Roanoke, Virginia:
I’d like to introduce you to my husband.
If you had come to claim this land instead,
his archaic people might have been as docile
as the Croation Indians were at first –
I think more likely they’d have eaten you
and stuck your head on a tall post
facing the direction whence you came.”
Angry stuff, though McQueen tenders with lines such as: “Weather-beaten cottages/tidy as fishing boats/holds Bluff’s warm heart.” I felt that, at times, McQueen (one of my favourite poets), overwhelmed her poetics with her politics, but as she says: “Loss of possessions is a kind of freedom;/loss of land is exile.”