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Ghosts Ships: Writing the Chimerical Past in Cilla Mcqueen's Soundings (Critical Essay)

JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature 2010, Annual, 28

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At the turn of the millennium, Cilia McQueen's Soundings (2002) looks back to the past. (1) New Zealand poetry has long been preoccupied with the pursuit of the elusive state Ian Wedde describes (recalling Brasch's lover of the gaunt hills) as 'consummation in location'. (2) This quest for cultural belonging in a place, for both Maori and Pakeha, has always involved adopting, adapting or rejecting imported conceptions of our heritage. McQueen's poetic career, beginning in the 1980s and culminating in a way with her appointment as New Zealand Poet Laureate in 2009, has coincided with the radical transformation of our literary culture by postmodern and postcolonial practise and theory. It is through the tensions between these two discourses, and particularly through emerging ideas of the 'settler' postcolonial, that I wish to read her representations of the past. By appropriating the hallmarks of nonfiction records (names, dates, quotations), by displaying thematic and imagistic coherence, and by tracing connections across space and time, Soundings, McQueen's ninth collection, appears to offer little response to the increasingly 'a-historical and ungrounded society' of global late capitalism. (3) It is this very groundedness of Soundings, however, heightened by the inclusion of McQueen's sparse pen-and-ink landscape drawings, which engages with questions of the legitimacy of historical knowledge in the local context. The collection represents the poet-subject as a 'field of historical influences' and therefore invites a biographical reading that uses genealogy as an allegory for world history. (4) I argue that Soundings undermines assertions of definitive historical knowledge by grounding history in place and the personal, and by uncovering the ghostly multiplicity of experiences behind the present. Yet by choosing to use the conventions of lyric poetry to do so, McQueen retains a sense of transcendence and depth, and so resists a narrow definition of 'postmodern' that foregrounds innovation or a complete break with what has gone before. (5) Some key tensions between New Zealand interpretations of postmodernism and postcolonialism emerge in three Landfall essays from the mid-1980s. Terry Locke's 'Trekking Beyond the Modern' in part sparked the debate when it credited the fresh, vigorous work of Charles Olson and The New American Poetry with healing modernism's estrangement from nature. Locke praised Parallax: A Journal of Postmodern Literature and Art, which featured McQueen's urgent, breath-borne verse, for bringing this invigorating avant-garde to New Zealand readers. (6) For Leonard Wilcox, however, this tendency towards 'antimodernism' was disappointing evidence that the scene in Aotearoa in 1985 had not trekked much beyond 1960s America. Rather than embracing the multiple possibilities of the 'new depthlessness', Wilcox's local variant of postmodernism looked back to a 'romantic pastoral ideal of original simplicity: immediate experience, transparent language, an aesthetic ideal of unmediated vision', a description that could also be extended to McQueen's work in the 2000s. Soundings might therefore confirm Wilcox's diagnosis. Yet his use of the adjective 'anachronistic' for such neoromantic poetry reveals how postmodernism remains vulnerable to its own 'breakthrough' metanarrative of a radical change replacing modernism with something better. (7) According to Simon During, New Zealand's resistance to this decentring upheaval emerges in part from a concern with articulating and defining local identities in the wake of imperialism. In this view, postcolonialism applies the postmodern scepticism towards grand narratives to re-centre postmodernism itself as 'neo-imperialist'. (8)

Ghosts Ships: Writing the Chimerical Past in Cilla Mcqueen's Soundings (Critical Essay)
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  • Category: Language Arts & Disciplines
  • Published: 01 January 2010
  • Publisher: University of Waikato
  • Print Length: 25 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: To view this book, you must have an iOS device with iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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