Edwin’s Egg and other Poetic Novellas, by Cilla McQueen (Otago University Press, 2014), 264 pp., $39.95
Reviewing Cilla McQueen’s recent collection of poetic novellas is a bit like trying to explain a rainbow to your colour-blind brother-in-law – it is difficult to find language capacious enough. At its most simple, Edwin’s Egg is a small collection of prose poems, of ‘poetic novellas’, compiled alongside archival images from the Alexander Turnbull Library. At its most complex, it is a Dada meditation on physics as a metaphor for poetry, an inquisitive probe into the relationship between text and image, an exploration of Russian iconography and the importance of eggs in our construction of a collective national identity. Which is to say, it is all of these things. And more.
Cilla McQueen started producing this collection during her time as New Zealand’s poet laureate, between 2009 and 2011. Edwin’s Egg began its life with the title Serial, a novella in eight chapters that used images from the collections of the National Library, and was first published (and is still available) online. Edwin’s Egg was produced this year in hardcopy by Otago University Press. If you haven’t seen and held the small package, I suggest you get yourself down to your local bookshop soon – a beautiful production, the eight novellas are printed with an eclectic assortment of high resolution colour and black and white images, on top-quality glossy paper, and collected in a small cardboard slip-case.
The novellas are numbered 1 through 8, and in a suitably whimsical fashion are given titles that equal their own playful and Delphic content, such as Hotdog, Higgs, Tête à Tête and Pleochroic. You can read them sequentially, or, it seems, you can dip in and out. Given their numbers, there is a serial-like quality to them, yet the content being so prismatic and ticklish it invites varied readings. You can mix them up, lay them out like a deck of cards, knowing that the numerical detail will lead them back to the original order again if need be. I initially read them from start to finish and then, in a decidedly random fashion, dipped in and out again, grabbing snippets of detail and narrative to either fill in some blanks or unsettle some of the connections I had made. Either way, the collection as a whole is not something you can go into with linear expectancy; while there are certainly structural devices at work throughout, this collection speaks more clearly to a surrealist tradition than any mainstream poetry styles of the last fifty years.
So, what are they all about? On the one hand, there are overlapping and kaleidoscopic details that carry through the work, a cabinet of curiosities, so to speak: Russian tsars, Fabergé eggs, crystals and gems and magnifying glasses, quantum physics and astrology, lavender and roses and lobelia and polyanthus and hydrangeas and acanthus, sparrows and seagulls and wrens and bellbirds, talking wheelie bins and water-blasters, lottery winnings and inflation, a few hints of romance and a touch of adultery, slowness and suddenness, Russia’s invasion of Georgia, Tchaikovsky and Alexander the Great, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, those two infamous Maries: Curie and Antoinette …
On the other hand, there are multiple layers of narrative occurring simultaneously, dual histories that sidle up against each other before pushing off in multifarious directions. We have a handful of characters that have a whole raft of backstory, which seems to hover behind McQueen’s poetic façade. There’s Edwin, of course, who is somehow related to Beryl who is apparently a ‘very good cook’ and who may or may not have had a fleeting romance with Roger. Then there is Walter, who finds the lottery winnings inside Digby’s mattress and celebrates his windfall by taking gruyère and pinot noir to share with Doris. Doris dreams about bush fires, and imagines ‘herself incinerated by roaring flames as tall as a hillside’. Eric the Red reminisces about ‘the Czar Alexander, with whom he shared a birthday’, and carries a Tolstoy paperback around in his pocket.
There is also something very curious and compelling happening at the visual level, the way the images inform or unsettle the text, and vice versa. In discussing the process of image selection, McQueen says that when working with the archivists at the National Library she would give them a general idea of what her next blog post (in the Serial series) would be about, giving key words or concepts, and leave it up to them to select the image. McQueen says she never intercepted this process, and allowed for randomness or serendipity to take over. At times the match is very literal. For example, the opening novella Higgs reads, ‘A cup of tea, make some scones for Eric the Red who might turn up tonight with his telescope’, and the text is accompanied by a deliciously wood-clad people-less interior, with a window, vase of flowers and in the foreground, a telescope (the picture credits name this image ‘Study, Sir Frederic Truby King’s house, Melrose, Wellington: photographic negative and prints of the Evening Post newspaper; no date’). Or, in Edwin’s Egg, where McQueen’s prose reads: ‘His yolk was warm amber in a white crucible. He dipped a soldier in and sucked it.’ The accompanying image is of a soldier eating (an egg?).
In other pieces the connection is arbitrary at best, furthering the surrealist quality of the work on the whole. In the second novella, Hotdog, we get an already surreal circa 1960s image, entitled ‘Couple with Frigidaire electric appliances in Wellington Botanic Garden’, further enhanced by McQueen’s humorous (and humouring) prose:
I didn’t undo the twists, Roly said.
Green moss on the concrete, pine
needles magnetised to the corners.
Daisies. She put the radio on the stone and
began gardening. It seemed the world
was igniting in small puffs, bullet holes
appearing in the Middle East.
While short snippets of the work may heighten the evocation of the Dada greats, I can assure those of you who like a more traditional lyric that there is plenty of that too. All the novellas are shot through with these ludicrously lyrical moments: ‘He looked at the sky’s blue eyelid, sealed by day and opening by night’ (from 6. Tête à Tête); and, ‘A man is so sudden, she thought’ (from 3. Birdie). And above all this, there is humour; there is a playfulness to McQueen’s writing that brings us right back to that basic pleasure, laughter. She’s having fun with words and ideas, and the joy of both her writing and thinking is, at times, palpable. If, in reading it, you don’t laugh out loud, you’ll certainly be forced to smile at some point.
It’s the ‘& other’ that makes this little anomalous collection shine. Edwin is in there, and there are lots of eggs, both physically and metaphorically. And indeed, these short pamphlet-sized pieces are ‘poetic novellas’. But there is an otherness that seems to be happening behind the scenes: the way the characters exist in our imagination; the way the language echoes beyond the page; the way the images slink up to the text and push the narrative into imaginative and playful territory, alongside the multiple narratives that undulate throughout. Edwin’s Egg and other Poetic Novellas is, as I expected, a delight on the eye, the ear and the imagination. It’s also kooky and weird and bloody funny and unlike anything else you’ll see published in New Zealand this year, I reckon.
Lynley Edmeades is a poet and PhD student. She lives in Dunedin.