Reviewed by Sue Bond for M/C Reviews (June 2015)
I first encountered Jennifer Maiden’s poetry in an issue of Southerly magazine in 2010, and it was her long poem ‘The Year of the Ox’. The power of its language is startling and I realised this is not a poet afraid to state her poetic mind. The poem was included in her previous book, Liquid Nitrogen (2012), which won the Victorian Premier’s Award for Poetry and Victorian Premier’s Literature Award. These collections contain her long-standing characters, Clare Forster/Collins and George Jeffreys, and conversations between actual historical and contemporary people which allow her to develop ideas and present idiosyncratic and unpredictable viewpoints on political subjects.
For example, in an interview with Jason Steger in The Age in 2010, the following is recorded:
She pounced creatively when Julia Gillard told an interviewer of her admiration for Welsh socialist Nye Bevan. “I love it when one of these people says someone has inspired them because immediately you can write your poem from the point of view of the person who has inspired them. So I’m thinking of doing a Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Kevin Rudd.”
Some of these juxtapositional conversations occur as a series across books, such as Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt. In Drones and Phantoms a new series of conversations between Tony Abbott and Queen Victoria is begun, and a wry conversation between Tanya Plibersek and Jane Austen appears. The series featuring George Jeffreys and Clare Collins continue. I read her novel Play with Knives (1990) and discovered a rich background not only to this George and Clare series of poems, but to Maiden’s major themes as well.
George was a probation officer in the novel, and his charge was Clare, a teenage girl who, when nine years old, murdered her three siblings. It is one of the most disturbing novels I have ever read; no one is unambiguously either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but distinctly human with all the flaws that implies. The ‘problem of evil’ is one of her major concerns, not only in the novel but throughout her poetry in one form or another. While Clare has committed a shocking crime, she is not depicted as an ‘evil’ character, anymore than any other character, one of whom is responsible for gruesome serial murders.
It is particularly important to read back into her previous books in order to gain the most out of this recent volume and her poetry generally. And there is a large body of work, nineteen poetry collections, plus the novel.
Drones and Phantoms begins with ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Live Odds’; there are nine such poems altogether. This first has Labor scrutineering in a former illegal casino, ‘a rich man’s house for all poor men on earth’ (2). ‘Offshore’ is a brief poem beginning with Sappho and rolling with each phrase towards refugees landing on foreign shores. The next diary poem is ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Cosiness’ and mentions Frieda Hughes, Alison Uttley (the British writer of the Little Grey Rabbit series), Sylvia Plath, the Rosenbergs. She compares the domestic with the large scale political, noting:
… If you
slid out of line they electrocuted you
like Julius and Ethel, if you tried to
appease them with neat suicide, save
they burned out your nerves with power,
they spied that your heart misgave. (5)
Using a sharp contextualisation of the use of electricity to both kill (the Rosenbergs) and supposedly heal (suicidal depression), Maiden brought me up abruptly.
‘The Day of Atonement’ introduces the phrase ‘ethical insecurity’ with respect to the response by feminist readers to her unpublished novel Complicity: ‘I wrote/ many things which all, like me,/ are ethically insecure’ (6). I see this concern all through this book, linked with the problem of evil, of how we behave towards others, both human and non-human. The poem that gives the book its name, ‘Drones and Phantoms’, contrasts Julia Gillard’s concerns with what would happen to her hair if she drove a convertible and Barack Obama’s use of drones against the opposition.
‘Diary Poem: Uses of Ethiopia’ brings in the Pankhursts and their contrasting ethical development. But she begins with another reference to the response to the manuscript of Complicity to reinforce perhaps the ethical security/insecurity point. Ambivalence and ambiguity and uncertainty are not feelings that are encouraged in our society; confidence and certainty are regularly reported as being essential for the business world to function optimally. Maiden ends this poem with ‘Ethiopian/ art crowds back to me again,/ not radiating security smugly, lines/ profuse as anxious doves’ (10).
Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt, Jimmy Hoffa, Mother Teresa and Diana, Kevin Rudd and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama and others all are shown in their ethically impure states of being. There is humour here, too, such as in the Tanya Plibersek and Jane Austen wry exchange and sipping of Kevin Rudd’s tea (remember that?), and Tony Abbott and Queen Victoria:
Queen Victoria woke up near the embers
of a burnt-out gum, where Tony Abbott
dozed lightly in his capacity as Volunteer
Firefighter. Her copy of his publication,
The Minimal Monarchy proved a useful fan
for her. (22)
In the second of this series she has him telling the monarch that ‘inside me everything is war’ (25), which provides a rather apt description of the man.
Maiden’s discussion of Judith Wright’s poetry (‘Diary Poem: Uses of Judith Wright’) and politics and the balance between the two I found intensely interesting, given that Wright was so committed to the preservation of the environment and the fight for Indigenous peoples’ rights. Maiden met her twice, reading with her at an event in Canberra. She writes ‘the politics/ is overpowered if empowered by poetry, its/ successor, and which always slips the net’ (31) in response to Wright believing that ‘she’s won our “war” on politics’. It seems that the two poets had different ideas about the importance of poetry versus political struggle, but here, Maiden gets the last word.
Jennifer Maiden uses a number of her poems to comment on the response to her poetry, the most savage in my opinion being the very last poem in the book, ‘In Proportion’. Here she compares a critique via tweet with autopsy, of human or animal. It is intriguing to read a poet respond in this way, and usually writers are advised not to rebut critics. In this case, Maiden has the skill to do so effectively and in a way which is expansive, not limited to only her poems but poetry generally.
Drones and Phantoms is a fascinating collection, full of richness and strong writing, and I am encouraged only to read more of her work.
Maiden, Jennifer 2012, Liquid Nitrogen, Giramondo Publishing, Sydney.
Steger, Jason 2010, ‘First the fire then rain’, The Age, accessed 30 May 2015, http://newsstore.fairfax.com.au/apps/viewDocument.ac;jsessionid=CB47C6DF6DEC61D9E082EB665CF32414?sy=afr&pb=all_ffx&dt=selectRange&dr=1month&so=relevance&sf=text&sf=headline&rc=10&rm=200&sp=brs&cls=18883&clsPage=1&docID=AGE100828A37DK4EQK9V
Drones and Phantoms