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.

Jean Kent: Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks

Sydney: Pitt St Poetry, 2012, 86pp.

Jean Kent’s Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks is an immensely likable collection, so likable that readers may miss some of its sophistication, thinking it no more than a set of poems about travels in France and Lithuania. It is actually a good deal more than that. Travel poetry, once it gets beyond the basic level of “I’ve written a poem about my trip to the Grand Canyon”, is usually about the self and the way in which aspects of the self, surprising even to the poet, are revealed when that self is faced by an experience of the alien. It is fine to have poems which come from a continual renewing of contact with some personal sacred ground but the self only develops (or “only reveals itself” – depending on your ideology) by moving into the unfamiliar. Even a poetry resolutely opposed to being based on a lyrically conceived self learns about (and expresses) the observing self when faced with an experience of the foreign: see, as an example, Laurie Duggan’s sequence, “Onati Notebook” from his The Pursuit of Happiness, reviewed on this site in May.

For the Jean Kent of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks , travel is a linguistic experience as much as anything else and the poems harbour a lot of a poet’s deliberately bad cross-language puns: pain/pain, les Loups/loops, “Aah oui”/”Are we”, rues/ruse and many more. It is also, as its title suggests, an experience of linguistic dislocation. But linguistic dislocation isn’t simply a matter of being in a country and not speaking the language, what we might call the abrasion of travel at a domestic level. There are, for a start, more languages than spoken languages: the languages of the senses, of bodily movement, even the weird syntax of foreign customs – both informal and those formalised in laws and institutions. And, to complicate matters, just as a famous episode of Dr Who contains the observation that “A door, once opened, may be crossed in either direction” so travellers, instead of being passive victims of linguistic confusion, bring their own languages with them to disorient the natives. You get some sense of the complexities involved here in the book’s opening, a triptych called “’Le Weekend’ in Paris”, the first poem of which begins:

Sundays in Paris unsettle us with silence.
The grumble of traffic stays dream-distant,
an argument with air in a language
we apprehend with our senses, its light fur
the only foreignness against our skins
when we wake. With the curtains closed
we could be anywhere.
Doodling dialogues of slow shoes
under our windows; in the distance, bells. . . .

Significantly the title of this poem is a “borrowing” from English, much objected to by purists, and the fourth word of the poem, and thus of the book, is “unsettle” that odd word that simultaneously describes translocation and merely jangled nerves. The vision of Paris in the final poem of this group of three, “The Language of Light”, is one not of unsettling linguistic foreignness but of a city partly transformed by its visitors. And these visitors are traced back to grandparents who, as soldiers, passed through Paris in the First World War. Sitting on park chairs (significantly the poem says “we settle briefly / on these wrought-iron chairs”), Kent describes an experience whereby all visitors across languages and across times harmonise with the language of Paris itself:

. . . . . 
Poles and Italians, Australians and Africans,
small boys and motorised boats all blend into a buzz
swarming from under the acid-yellow horse-chestnut leaves
. . . . .
                                                  The light,
as it negotiates peace settlements
within this temporary country
of cold shoulders,
is speaking everyone’s ancestral tongue.

But if dislocation seems the immediate, primary experience of the poems of this book, the search for the sort of harmonies spoken of here is what gives them both drive and shape. It is no surprise, then, that the figure of Rilke (a great poet of harmonising) looms large and “Following Rilke to the Paris Zoo”, also a sequence of three poems, is probably the core of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks. These are poems structured by a process which encourages the inclusion of the most disparate material and then shows that this can be harmonised into an aesthetic whole. I don’t want to bore readers but it is hard to explain how this works without looking briefly at the structures of the poems themselves.

“The Path of the Panther” begins with an epigraph from Rilke’s poem, setting up the expectation that the poem itself will begin with an expedition to the Jardin des Plantes. So the first pleasant dissonant shock is that it begins with the Penguin Book of German Verse, read in another country and in another time (this opening chimes with my own experience since I used this book as a school text myself, a few years before Jean Kent, and I too have kept my copy):

The margins of my Penguin Book of German Verse
are shadowy with beasts. There was no panther
in that schoolgirl text – I found him later, alone -
but still around each captured poem, voices snarl.
“Over all the hilltops,” Goethe promised “Ruh” -
. . . . .

The second dissonance allowed into the poem is the endless, mechanical annotations demanded of students and embarrassing to read forty years later. Metaphorically they are like the bars on the panther’s cage, although the teacher, whom we meet at greater length in other poems, “rose like a flamingo / from our flock of galahs”, dealing with Rilke’s “Liebes Lied” with its statement that everything that touches us (“alles, was uns anruehrt”) is material from which a single harmonious note can be drawn. The poem then goes on to deal not only with our inability to erase the past but with the way in which the past writes on us. The cover is:

a calligraphy as hypnotic and alien as the so-fashionable
white lace pantyhose I wore then. They disfigured my legs,
my mother said with shudders of distaste. They reminded her
of the ritual scarrings of primitive tribes. And why
would a young Queensland girl want to look like that?

No likelihood of that now, as middle-age inscribes
my thighs, slowing me into a macrame of veins no mini-skirt
could hope to happily skim. I have been written over 
as much as this book . . .
. . . . . 
I can only will the spaces of my world to widen
as I settle for such chaos, the bars of my bones growing shadow-light
round their own zoo of wild and gentle beasts.

All told, I think this is a rather wonderful poem. It also links up with other Australian poems. It has, for example, a touch of Gwen Harwood’s “Midwinter” about it in that it deals with a text from the past which turns up to speak to us in a future which that past could not have predicted. And, like the other poems in this sequence, there is a touch of the structure of Jennifer Maiden’s longer poems where the onward drive pulls more and more disparate items into the field of the poem, only to transform them into a surprising whole. And, at the end, it even recall’s Beaver’s image of his tortured self as a zoo in Letters to Live Poets. In “The Path of the Panther” the “whole” of the poem is summarised in the wish to entertain and finally harmonise the most widely disparate elements both in the outside world, in the world of the poem and in the inner world, her own internal zoo. The poem says you have to “settle for such chaos” but you also have to settle such chaos.

In the third poem of this group, “In the Jardin des Plantes”, we actually get to the home of Rilke’s panther. I presume, though I can’t be confident, that the roundabout path to the place itself in the three poems is yet another dissonance requiring to be absorbed and harmonised. It reminds me of the principle of the labyrinth whereby the harder our logical, meaning-seeking brains try to get us to the centre – in the labyrinth of reading and writing it becomes the central significance – the more we are thrown towards the outside. At any rate this poem makes a feature of its accretive structure. Once again the disparate worlds brought into the jardin involve youth, school and German lessons. When the poet is in the garden she sees children shouting “Les Loups! Les Loups!” when they see the models of wolves circling the hill. And this visual pun, of “looping”, is the primary motif of the poem. Memory “loops” over her and she recalls reading Anna Karenina under the desk at school. A Russian novel recalls Russian wolves and school recalls the pop group of the time, The Animals. The German teacher, the flamingo among galahs of the earlier poem, reappears. A victim of invasion, imprisonment and expulsion in the war – ultimate experiences of dislocation – she “encircles us / with futures doomed to rot”:

. . . . . 
A quarter of a century later, still I feel the sting
of her voice after she stops. Vibrated between
raw throated flowers and silvery circlings of wolves
. . . 
I almost forgive her for her love of sidling round us, hackling
our bare young necks between pigtails
with promises of suffering.

“O susses Lied! O sweet song!” Equivocal as history,
under Rilke’s bow her disparate voices chime.
. . . . .

Another sequence introduces, if not chaos then at least disjunctiveness, by being built around postcards from sunny Australia, sent by family and friends as if these “have suddenly become tourists in their own foreign land” reflected arches of the Pont Neuf or of Margaret Preston with Utrillo is often a motif drawn from the postcard. So a friend’s comment on seeing a black snake at home in Queensland echoes as an image for a snakelike queue for visas. In “Crocodiles in the Marais”, a card from Lake Macquarie with a picture of a crocodile moves the poem onto memories of the scaly skin of the Monstera Deliciosa which allegorises out into a statement about the frustrations of both living and reading with experiences that reveal themselves only at their own pace – like the slowly progressing, sweet semi-rotting of the Monstera fruit:

                                                       So much sweetness
in each fruit-salad phrase, no wonder we longed for our tongues
to be treated to whole poems, instantly. The monster, though,
was wiser. After the first ravishing: threats of razor blades.
When the skin resists, we learned, let it rest . . .

Now, in much longed-for Paris at an age when she should have a tough enough skin to be resistant to any stripping she finds herself ill with shingles, resulting in an intense surface pain in her neck. Confined to bed (“I imitate Proust”) she has a sense that the city has peeled her.

Though most of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks is built around a stay in Paris – something that might be a strain for any readers who are mildly Francophobic – there is one section, the second, devoted to a visit to in-laws (“the family my father-in-law left fifty years ago”) in Lithuania. In these poems we meet the same linguistic sensitivity:

Ruta’s favourite word is “maybe”.
The dictionary on her lap
is heavy as another passenger
as she strokes and cossets it, dropping
the juicy apple crystals of Lithuanian
and hauling back the slow
chewing gum of English. . . .

but the historical realities of the country as it emerges from the Soviet Bloc, the traumatic translocations of the poet’s husband’s parents, the sinister remains of a past that is not spoken about, all mean that these poems are more straightforwardly built on content rather than the challenges of a harmonising form such as we meet in the Paris poems.

This excellent book is the first I have read from the publisher, Pitt Street Poetry, so it is an opportunity to say what a physical pleasure (as well – as will be obvious from what I have written – as an intellectual one) it was to read. The physical component of the pleasure derives from good typography on beautiful, cream paper. Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks does have some awkward page breaks but this isn’t a problem with the other two books – by John Foulcher and Luke Davies – that I have from the same publisher. Though screened titles for the poems themselves may not be to every poetry reader’s taste – they suggest graphic design rather than book design – these three small books set a standard in Australian poetry publishing.