Jennifer Maiden: The Fox Petition

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2015, 64pp.

Jennifer Maiden’s The Fox Petition is perhaps best seen as part of a rolling project to engage contemporary political and social issues, a project that has been developing since early in her career but especially since Friendly Fire published in 2005. It sets itself an ambitious goal since the disjunct between poetry and the greater public world is a wide one indeed and the latter will take a lot of convincing that the armaments that poetry and its distinctive poetic logic can bring to bear have anything of value to contribute. Significantly, all of the books since Friendly Fire have appeared under the Giramondo imprint, a sign of a publisher being in tune with the direction a particular poet has taken. The accompanying publicity suggests that this might become an annual event, a continuous engagement with the contemporary. I hope this is what occurs since Maiden’s work shows ways in which poetry and an individual analytical process can say something about public life and its dramatis personae. And the ways this showing is done are not fixed but subtly altering and developing.

The Fox Petition demonstrates this latter point even in its title. The essential metaphors of Maiden’s other books, revealed in their titles, are military (her first book was called Tactics) and the post Friendly Fire sequence of titles that I have been speaking of all have titles suggesting military matters: Pirate Rain, Liquid Nitrogen, Drones and Phantoms. The interaction of metaphors of conflict with human dramas both at the personal level and at the social is one of the fascinating features of Maiden’s earlier poetry. When she begins to develop the poetic methods that allow her to write so well about international affairs, those affairs are dominated, anyway, by issues of war beginning with the first invasion of Iraq. This latest volume, fitting for the time in which the poems were written, is rather more interested in issues of migration, of the crossing of various borders from the national down to the personal. The major focus of her hostility moves from things like US politics in the Bush and Obama periods to Australian governmental biosecurity units. As always Maiden shows that wonderful alertness to synchronicities and metaphors which we hope to find in poetries and so the fox of the title appears as an innocent, rather beautiful animal threatened by government operatives as a noxious pest, as a ghost in Asian folklore, as the name of Murdoch’s egregious US network, and as the name of the great eighteenth century Whig statesman, Charles Fox. Nor is this interesting concatenation dreamed up for this book alone: some of them appear in a group of poems from Friendly Fire called “Foxfall”.

You can reread Maiden’s entire output watching how this current mode has slowly evolved. “Mandela in New York” and “Janet Powell Poem” from the 1993 volume, Acoustic Shadow, are early examples of a clever reading of a public individual’s inner personality based on media-transmitted images. By the time of The Fox Petition we have, in “Orchards”, a very subtle analysis of two politically opposed figures, Melissa Parke and Julie Bishop based not on their opposed political positions but on their clothes and the way these reflect both origins and reactions. The poem’s epigraph points out that Parke’s parents owned an apple farm in Western Australia and Bishop’s a cherry farm in South Australia:

When she met the Christians Bishop had arrested
for protesting detention of refugees, Parke
wore a coat like apple blossom: pink,
white and green, translucently. Bishop
on the day the Bali two were transferred
to the death island wore a dress
the colour of cherry blossom, dark pink,
looked gaunt with anxiety. Politics
will pierce you with its empathy, if you
practise it successfully. Apple flowers
spread raggedly and openly, breeze
dapples through them. Cherry blossom
reblooms so densely, brilliantly, that we
plant temples to ensure its resurrection.

One could imagine using this wonderful poem as an introduction to some ideas about the way in which lyricality emerges (and is developed and transformed) in Maiden’s poetry. Here the colours of the women’s dresses are themselves staples of the lyrical tradition, and there is also the fortuitous chiming of the appearances, the odd – decidedly “poetic” – interest in such out-of-the-way facts as the women’s origins, and a poem in Liquid Nitrogen which moves from a description of the way in which a frozen magnet can float to statements such as “Lyricism / is about positioning”. But I’ll leave this complex issue for some future opportunity.

Friendly Fire introduced the idea of a character waking up in an exotic location in each of the first six poems devoted to the adventures of George Jeffreys and Clare Collins. This series is continued in all the succeeding books including this latest one. They are a couple we first meet in Maiden’s second published novel, Play with Knives, a disturbing genre work built on the relationship between these two characters at the point where George is a probation officer and Clare – who murdered three other children when a child herself – is coming up for parole after years of being institutionalised. Maiden tells us in the introduction to the first poems of the sequence in Friendly Fire that George and Clare were resurrected from both Play with Knives and an unpublished continuation, Complicity or The Blood Judge, as a way of entering the traumatic events of what we now call “September 11”: “The two could clearly do New York and in the process, with the freedom of fiction, the horror-inhibited portions of my mind might speak . . . . . I have always agreed with Freud that the imagination is bisexual. It seems to me that you achieve a clearer view if you let the two sides talk to each other. Hence George and Clare”.

The first poems (the ones in Friendly Fire) concentrate on the psychology and situations of players like George W Bush and Condoleeza Rice and the analysis is compelling. By the sixth poem we have what is, I think, the first of the imaginary encounters which grow to dominate later: George Jeffreys meets Saddam Hussein in the ashes of a bombed Baghdad restaurant and the pair discuss both Bush and Saddam’s activities from an ethical standpoint. There are two George Jeffreys poems in The Fox Petition. The first is devoted to a discussion (held while the couple and two friends are on holiday in Wollongong) about the Charlie Hebdo killings and the deaths of dozens of animals in a fire in a boarding kennel in Adelaide. But the surprising thread through this poem is the idea of holiday – the animals were being boarded while the owners were on vacation, as was one of the staff. This transmutes into a discussion of delegation and guilt. As Clare says:

                                            “Every time
some child dies on a school trip, some
of the other parents defend the school, even
sometimes it’s parents themselves. Any 
institution seems more powerful than
human love or loss.” George said, “But it’s just
what you said: the guilt of careless
delegation. And blurring of ego with
any perpetrator . . .”

If you’re coming to Maiden’s poetry for the first time you are quite likely to think of this as rather clunky and put it down to a generalised difficulty that poetry has when dealing with the exposition of abstract ideas especially in a duologue (“Ah, but you say to counter that . . .”) But the fact is that this rather arch but intellectually unrestrained dialogue goes back as far as George’s first interview with Clare at the beginning of Play with Knives and is really better seen as part of Maiden’s distinctive style. The second of the Jeffreys poems is an extended narrative (at over four hundred lines the most extended so far) in which George and Clare, on Kos, observe what is happening to Syrian refugees and become involved when one of these is recognised by their translator as a spy: some Mediterranean-mountainside, night-time shenanigans follow.

The Fox Petition also continues some of Maiden’s imaginary conversations where a contemporary figure speaks to what is usually an admired (and dead) mentor. Hillary Clinton continues her interactions with Eleanor Roosevelt (which began in Pirate Rain) and Tony Abbott continues talks with Queen Victoria which began in Drones and Phantoms. In Clinton’s case the issue revolves around her political “original sin” of voting for the invasion of Iraq and so there is a lot of opportunity for exploring how the “necessary violence” that any person of power with humane, liberal convictions will be involved in will affect their psychology and their morale. This is also explored in “The Possibility of Loss” where Obama speaks to a rather delphic Mahatma Gandhi. Obama is in the situation of having approved a raid in Yemen in which a hostage and a child were “collateral damage”. Maiden seems a lot less sympathetic to Obama (and, for that matter, to Hillary’s and Eleanor’s husbands who appear briefly in some of the poems devoted to this pair) than to some of the other figures she looks at – Bishop, for example – and the implication seems to be that these kind of figures are more deeply entwined in the system, using charm to paper over the various ethical compromises that they are continually forced to make.

The poems devoted to Tony Abbott’s conversations with Queen Victoria are a lot more fun. They meet first, in Drones and Phantoms, near the embers of a gum tree where Abbott has been doing a stint as a voluntary firefighter. His first reaction is one of relief “that she wasn’t Santamaria, Mannix / or Loyola, with all of whom he’d grown / deeply tired of conversation” and when she points out that the use of gunboats to drive back would-be migrants is something her husband would have seen as “extravagance of a similar nature / to that of real war” his reply is memorable: “But, Ma’am, inside me everything is war”. The two Victoria and Tony poems in The Fox Petition continue the issue of asylum seekers and thus harmonise with this book’s most pressing theme. The second of them, “The Famine Queen”, is as structurally complex as one of Maiden’s diary poems and plays with the importation of potatoes into Ireland, the resulting famine (which, really, occurred as a result of monoculture rather than importation since only one variety was brought in and thus there wasn’t enough of the immense genetic diversity present in the vegetable’s homeland) and then moving on to the issue of biosecurity:

. . . . . 
                    “The rumour 
that I gave them only five pounds is not
right: I gave a large amount: well over 
a hundred thousand in your currency from
my private fortune, but the toxic
and imported can be necessary, dear
Sir Anthony” – he loved the title so – “I
myself am fond of potatoes. Do you know,
they called me ”˜The Famine Queen’?” He jumped
to her defence, as usual: “Oh, Ma’am, no:
you are always the source of my nutrition.” She
added, “I see your Queensland Biosecurity has started
a 'military-style mission’ against South American
fire-ants, using remote sensors refined
from the US Military. Surely that would mean
rather a lot of money?” It was not just, he discerned,
of fire-ants she spoke: her words were often
dual citizens: knowing he was, knowing quite
painfully about his vanished home.

This might be a point at which one should ask how accurate and how valuable (not quite the same thing) Maiden’s analyses of contemporary macro-political events are. Can they apply poetic logic successfully? Or, to broaden the question slightly, can a poet’s analysis of the greater world ever again be penetrating and important. It’s a complex issue but it’s fair to say that it is hard to imagine this occurring at the moment or in the foreseeable future. It may well be that intellectual life has seen an irrevocable separation between the professional (political aide, speechwriter, journalist) and the amateur (the creative type). I’m not confident enough to pursue social generalisations like this, nor am I competent to pass judgement on the quality of Maiden’s comments about individual politicians and political events. But I am, at a general level, inclined to be sympathetic and the main reason for this is that her judgements rarely fit comfortably with the cliches of the day (what we would now, in an equally cliched way, call “narratives”). There is a refreshing awkwardness about her view of people that can only be valuably confronting. Julie Bishop, to a casual observer like myself, looks to be a hard-nosed professional politician and Hillary Clinton seems a deeply unattractive power-player despite the continual emphasis on her looks in the poems devoted to her conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt. The less someone follows the existing grand narratives – propositions like “Islam is essentially a medieval religion” or “ISIL is a reverse crusade” – the more attractive they seem to me. At one level, of course, this is saying no more than that a poet is free to focus on the individual datum and can avoid making large, gestural statements about societies. But it can be said, if nothing else, that poetic thought is an antidote to the non-thought of ideological grand narratives and, intellectually, I’d be on the poets’ side even if I weren’t as interested in poetry as I am. You’d like to see Maiden’s poetry set compulsorily on school courses because her poems show that it is possible for people to see clearly and think imaginatively and critically, free of imposed and casually accepted media cliches.

So I’m inclined to give Maiden a high level of tacit belief: I love the surprising ways in which she thinks about the people in power and I’m equally interested in her beliefs about issues like responses to trauma, blame, guilt, the issue of incarnation and disincarnation, and so on. At the same time, The Fox Petition makes contributions to Maiden’s evolving sense of what her poetry is doing and how it might develop. We are used to her “cluster poems” and “diary poems” and “x-woke-up-in-y poems” but this book allows for some interesting developments in the latter when Julie Bishop’s mentor turns out not to be a dead human but the Harvard School of Business and, though an earlier poem doubts whether a university department can wake up alongside a contemporary politician, in “Animism” that’s exactly what happens. But “Diary Poem: Uses of the Female Duet” probes the possibility of using a new kind of interaction between public figures. Not imaginary conversations but operatic duets, the simplest example of the operatic ensemble, that wonderful, still immensely relevant, form in which characters sing of their own obsessions while harmonising with those whose obsessions are quite different. It seems the only art form which can do this and Maiden’s appropriation of it has Tanya Plibersek speaking of her personal griefs while Julie Bishop pleads for the lives of the two drug runners in Bali. The form enables readers (as it does for listeners to opera) to focus on the conflict and differences between the characters and, almost simultaneously, on what they share. It is thus another way of avoiding the polarisation which contemporary narratives prefer (and which, for that matter, the western systems of justice and politics require) and so strikes a poetic blow in the right place. “Uses of the Female Duet” is a diary poem whose title declares its subject but it may well be that “Orchards” is the first real “duet” poem.