Cats in Cilla McQueen’s ‘Markings’

Pirate and Lucille and Wombat

Markings is a collection of maps. The poems are the markings of record keeping, of laying out the land and laying out memory. At its core is ‘The Autoclave;’ a poem that crosses the globe back and forth across 18 pages. Journeying through a burnt out home in Dunedin to Madrid and the Mediterranean via objects lost in the fire, to St Kilda in the Scottish Hebrides, aboard the Priscilla to St Kilda in Melbourne Australia, and to Bluff where the anchor of the poem holds steady. It is a wayward map of memory and time conflated and interwoven. Throughout the journey is Lucille, a refined marmalade coloured cat. Two more cats, Pirate and Wombat bookend the collection.

The collection begins with ‘Pirate and the Mirror.’ He is totally uninterested in the mirror or its gold frame, despite his piratical name. Ultimately though, he is uninterested the mirror’s reflection and its ability to reflect. When he walks behind it he “forgets / the image thin as ice.” (5) It has no meaning. His attitude to the mirror guides the question of what we do with reflection, particularly when we reflect on a memory, one worthy enough to be kept in a gold frame. How accurately can we reflect upon a memory? What is a memory’s truth?

‘Pirate and the Mirror’ is immediately followed by ‘Lucille in Winter;’ she is the second cat to be found in Markings. She is thick furred and sleeping. She ‘might be dreaming of Te Rauone,’ a bay in Dunedin. She is dreaming and remembering of a place where she once lived. Unlike Pirate, she elegantly peers into the reflection for its memory.

The third cat, who appears in the same poem, is Wombat. This is the only poem in which all three cats appear, although it is clearly focussed on Lucille and the interactions between her and each of the other cats. Wombat “cleans his toenails with his tongue” in contrast to Lucille who elegantly “licks her white wrist.” Wombat “gazes at her absently,” while Pirate “pounce[s] around her, lunging with bared fangs.” (6) Each of these cats is clearly personified in their behaviour and ultimately symbolise very distinct reactions to the act of remembering. These three cats are the three faces of memory. Lucille is the face that remembers without intending, Wombat is the face that unabashedly picks through memory and Pirate is the face that oscillates. He does not ignore the past altogether but cannot seem to look at it. Pirate rejects the act of memory in ‘Pirate and the Mirror’ and reacts badly to Lucille who elegantly lounges in the act of remembering.

Lucille, the cat that remembers, appears in the middle of the epic poem ‘The Autoclave,’ and again nearer the end. Each time she is warm and comfortable; she’s  “curled up on the sheepskin” on page 26, and later

by the fire Lucille
little light
marmalade and white
purring into the flames
with her clean white front
like an unruffled duck (31)

Lucille’s character is extended by the knowledge that she survived the burning of the house. That she settles into memory having lived through it. “She is not afraid.” (31)Pirate and Wombat regard it diffidently.

In ‘Two Biscuits on a Stump,’ Wombat eats through his biscuits quick smart and goes after Pirate’s that have been carefully stashed. In carrying through with this notion of memory: it is Pirate who stores up the past with the expectation that he will return to it, but never does. He hides them away like biscuits. At the beginning of the collection, Pirate pretended such things did not exist. By the end of the collection he is starting to see the value in acknowledgment of the past. Wombat is unchanged; he eats them immediately. He is not bothered by the past, interested only in the present. That Pirate plays with his memories without experiencing them, means he never fully sees them, “Pirate makes a dash at the biscuit / Wombat gets there first” (59). The past is lost to Pirate, his delay in addressing it means an ongoing anxiety that he should have just looked at it properly before it was lost.

Having appeared in the very first poem, Pirate bookends the collection with his appearance in the final poem ‘Slinky’ in which “Pirate rests his chin on the windowsill / considering the sky” (64). After losing his catch of memories in the earlier poem ‘Two Biscuits on a Stump,’ perhaps Pirate’s attitude has become more like Lucille’s. A slow look at the sky as an overarching reflection of the land beneath it. The change in Pirate maps out how differently we can feel about the past. Lucille is almost lost in it completely; Wombat is little concerned by it. But Pirate cannot decide whether a foray into the past would be useful. His contemplation at the end here contrasts with his disinterest in ‘Pirate and the Mirror.’ The changes in his interaction, depicts a changeable attitude to memory and how situation colours not only the memory but our ability to face it.


Comments Off on Cats in Cilla McQueen’s ‘Markings’

Filed under Poetry

Comments are closed.