Jennifer Maiden, Pirate Rain (Giramondo 2010)
Jennifer Maiden’s poetry never fails to delight me, so a new book is a thrill. I don’t understand why she doesn’t get rockstar treatment.
Her last book, Friendly Fire, included a ‘cluster’ of poems featuring George Jeffreys and Clare Collins, characters from two of her novels (one of them ‘notoriously unpublished’). Clare had killed her two younger siblings when she was nine years old. George has been her probation officer and is now her mentor, friend and lover. As Jennifer Maiden explained in an introduction to the poems, through these characters ‘the horror-inhibited portions of [her] brain might speak’. First, in a prose piece, they were in the New York of 9/11. Then came the six poems, each of them beginning:
George Jeffreys woke up in [Kabul/Kandahar/London/ Berlin/the White House/Baghdad].
George Bush Junior was on the TV, obsessed
as usual with Baghdad.
and then going to unexpected places. In the five years since then, as seen in Pirate Rain, she has written four more ‘George Jeffreys woke up’ poems (in New Orleans, Rio, Beirut, and a Pirates’ Ship), which are collected here along with one in which ‘Clare Collins woke up in the Paris Hilton’, eight in which Eleanor Roosevelt or Hilary Clinton wakes up somewhere, and one each for Florence Nightingale’s pet owl Athena, Mother Teresa and Grahame Greene, who wake up respectively ‘on the wild cliffs of Crimea’, ‘in London, at /The Inquest for Princess Diana’ and ‘in the Saigon Caravelle/ Hotel in 2006’.
That might sound like a bit of a bore, but it’s actually quite the contrary. Those first-line awakenings are launching pads for a wide range of poems: a couple come close to being straight action-adventure, others enter strange supernatural fantasy worlds, and always there’s a serious play with the big news of the day. (I would have liked the poems to be dated, which would have made it possible to find out easily at what stage of George W Bush’s foreign adventures the conversations in the poems were taking place. For instance, I seem to remember that the bit where George talks about torture in the Abu Ghraib prison was written before those sensational photographs were made public – and this surely affects how the poem is read.)
Maybe one day I’ll write something in which I figure out why I love Maiden’s poetry so much. Penny says it’s because her mind is like mine. I wish it were so! One thing that I can tell is that she writes about the public world, the world we see on the television, and makes sharp observations and judgements about it. Her portraits of George W Bush and Condoleezza Rice are wonderful. In this volume, there are Jim Cairns, Hillary Clinton and, most touchingly, Don Dunstan. (I want her to do Rudd, Abbott, Gillard, Obama, Kristina Keneally, … … … ) She argues about the nature of poetry, and fame, without every disappearing up her own kazoo. She reports conversations with her daughter without going cute – in fact, the poems involving those conversations generally astonish in the way they bring disparate elements together. ‘Night on water’ does this superbly. I hope it’s fair dealing to quote the whole poem:
night on water
Seeing him was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning – Coleridge on Edmund Kean’s acting.
‘Mum, are you famous?’
______ with insouciant irony asks
my daughter, when one of her friends
says, ‘Is your mum famous?’
on the phone. That flirty incorruptible
compassionate eyebrow arches
at me and I answer, ‘No, just
an ageing hippie who’s had
a few books published,’ wishing that
either this or the fame thing were true,
momentarily, as she repeats my reply.
Later, she comforts as usual,
‘Don’t worry – you’ve got me,’ and I agree
‘Yes,’ as usual, feeling the old nervous
delight at that, think that if she has
as I once wrote, ‘eyes like night on water’,
there is also there the rapid glow
of fireworks on the harbour, remember
how once in a storm season when
the fences were blowing away, she
illuminated me from the bathroom window,
held onto its hinges to stop
it leaving as I gripped the fence sheets
together in the blinding, deafening rain.
Her torchlight and the lightning swung
wildly on my face and she called down,
sincerely and suddenly. ‘Mum, you
look beautiful.’______I’ve thought
ever since, this the most powerful
thing that the concept of beauty can do:
glance into the heart of you, like her,
and keep you going. __I’ve thought the
concept of fame somewhat like that, sometimes:
without too much charm,
money or position, it seems to me
a vague modicum of fame, however
mysterious it may seem to others, gives
one enough currency to survive. But
there’s still no real security, except
_____in some stunning
moment in practical tempestry when
one is seen as one would see, is read
like Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.
I didn’t fold any page-corners down in this book, because I’ll want to reread the whole thing, many time I’m sure.