Certainties crumble in the poetic quest
By Jennifer Maiden Giramondo Publishing, 104pp, $24 By Brook Emery John Leonard Press, 80pp, $24.95
WHEN I see Hillary Clinton on screen, I wonder if Jennifer Maiden is watching and, if so, what she thinks. Clinton is one of the cast of living, dead and fictional people who have come to inhabit Maiden’s poetry. Historical figures, contemporary newsmakers, and the poet and her circle of family, friends and fellow poets appear in and alongside the ongoing story of two fictional characters, Clare Collins and George Jeffreys.
Though her poems are often funny and playful, Maiden’s central concern is with what is often described, after the title of one of her books, as the Problem of Evil. This is a problem to be understood, one that might be worked at. Attention to the minutiae of public and private life — hair and clothes, jewellery and decor, mannerisms and gestures — is the entry point for Maiden’s analysis:
‘‘ Hillary Clinton wore an autumn jacket, bright/ beads, and addressed the Press about/ the new Libyan No Fly Zone.’’
The bright beads are then contrasted with the faux pearls Clinton wore during her campaign for nomination as the Democratic candidate for president, and the change of accessory stands for the difference between Clinton, presidential candidate, and Clinton, Secretary of State.
In these poems, Clinton is visited by Eleanor Roosevelt, not so much a ghost as a Jiminy Cricket presence who offers support but relentlessly urges her away from realpolitik and towards her better nature. This device of visitation between the living and the dead is also used in poems on Kevin Rudd and his avowed inspiration Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Bob Carr and the US senator Robert Byrd. Nye Bevan doesn’t quite manage to get through to Julia Gillard, however.
There are stand-alone poems in this book but even these include images and ideas patterned from poem to poem, so that the more you read, the more you are rewarded with new resonances. The almost titular poem Uses of Liquid Nitrogen, for example, explains that liquid nitrogen cools the computers ‘‘ at Langley’’ used for decryption and thus for ‘‘ trying to trap [Julian] Assange’’. The fluid and glittering image of liquid nitrogen takes on new significance as the poet refers to her theory, not fully explained in this book, that poetry is binary, a digital technology that predates the computer.
The play of characters, images and ideas may make Liquid Nitrogen sound daunting to a reader new to this award-winning poet’s work but, like reading the first few lines of a complicated knitting pattern, it all begins to make sense once you jump in and get started. Whenever the thematic or narrative lines threaten to tangle, the poet is there at the reader’s elbow providing, in a line or two, some plot point or information that helps make sense of things.
The poems are lyric and epic: personal reflection and expression are used alongside narrative and a concern with great events, though it is the moments of not-quiterepetition sparking connective thinking, rather than narrative revelation, that provide the most thrilling moments. Like the ox she compares herself with in The Year of the Ox, Maiden is ‘‘ alert to the point of twitching/ but still trample[s] through the difficult’’, using events played out in the 24-hour news cycle and small moments from everyday life to unbraid the relationship between trauma and violence.
Maiden thinks and writes about why people hurt and oppress one another. The work of her life is to unpack this carefully for us, again and again, trampling through the difficult.
Brook Emery’s Collusion manages to combine equanimity and equivocation. Even as he wrestles with profound and complex questions, Emery retains a core of serenity.
There are moments of deep contentment, ‘‘ as though the sun had circled thus for us’’, the warm and hopeful presence of a grandchild, sleeping and stirring through storms meteorological and metaphysical, and there are the fears that the abject body cannot escape, though in this case of incapacity rather than death.
In one vivid image, a ‘‘ jacaranda/ against the church’s mortared, crumbling mass,/ mauve and stunning and substantial as it is —/ all indirect flowering of twists and turns’’, at first suggests there is solidity to be found in the natural world rather than the crumbling church, but this poet goes on to upset any such easy reading, noting that the tree ‘‘ seems uncontained, as though at any moment/ it might escape the rooted, understandable restraints/ of space and time’’.
Emery describes the jacaranda in terms that reveal it as contingent and temporary as the ruined church. These are the poems of an unfaltering observer, filled with questions and meditations that ripple through the book as the poet works at unravelling arguments and lacing them together again.
Ultimately, in Collusion, only uncertainty is to be depended on.
Hillary Clinton is one of a number of notable people who appear in Jennifer Maiden’s poetry