Cer­tain­ties crum­ble in the po­etic quest

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ali Jane Smith

Liq­uid Ni­tro­gen

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

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