Jennifer Maiden, Liquid Nitrogen (Giramondo 2012)
In ‘The Year of the Ox’, the long poem that opens this collection, Jennifer Maiden identifies herself as an ox (her daughter, who has been appearing in her poems for at least 20 years, is a tiger):
==================I plough my furrow
heavily and fruitfully and my seldom rage
is that of the earth like an earthquake, sudden
and efficiently gutting. She is full of lovely
litheness and protection. Next year I
will still plough slowly, heavily.
She invites us to see her poems as ploughed fields, produced by steady work, but work performed with power, deliberation and passion, no hint of Vachel Lindsay’s ‘ox-like, limp and leaden-eyed‘. I wonder if it’s deliberate, though, that the poem doesn’t mention that oxen are ruminants – because while Jennifer Maiden’s poetry goes in for emeralds and sapphires and turquoise rather than lead, she certainly ruminates: in the ‘diary poems’ (there are three in this book – the term is ironical, taken from an essay by Martin Duwell [or actually a review by Andrew Sant – see Katharine Margot Toohey’s comment]), and in the imaginary dialogues which often begin with one of the participants waking up (which I think of as being like the relevant synapses of the poet’s brain turning on).
A main preoccupation of these ruminations is political power. Many of Jennifer Maiden’s books have taken their titles from the jargon of warfare – Tactics (1974), The Occupying Forces (1975), The Border Loss (1979), Acoustic Shadow (1993), Mines (1999), Friendly Fire (2005). Liquid Nitrogen isn’t obviously in this tradition. The substance liquid nitrogen first appears here (in ‘George Jeffreys 11: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Langley’) as a cooling agent used to keep the CIA computers from overheating – not a weapon of war as such, but part of the machinery of repressive state power. It does turn up again in later poems and its metaphoric meaning transforms – ‘Liquid / nitrogen does not shred, it facilitates, / should not be exclusive to Satan, to Langley, is / too good’ (‘Diary Poem: The Uses of Liquid Nitrogen’). Like liquid nitrogen, Maiden’s poems provide an environment in which data can be preserved and experiments can be conducted.
So Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt have challenging but affectionate conversations (two poems in this book); former parole officer George Jeffreys and former child murderer Clare Collins, characters from Maiden’s 1990 novel Play with Knives, continue their fictional adventures in trouble spots all over the world (four poems). Julia Gillard (in three poems) is scrutinised by the newly awakened Aneurin Bevan, for whom the actual Julia Gillard has expressed admiration. There’s also Kevin Rudd with Dietrich Bonhoeffer (one and a half poems) and Bob Carr with US Senator Robert Byrd (one poem). These poems may involve ox-like ploughing and rumination, they may be thought-experiments conducted in metaphorical liquid nitrogen. Unlike working oxen, though, they are often playful; and unlike liquid nitrogen they are suffused with warmth, and sometimes heat. I could quote lots, but here’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Kevin Rudd (in ‘Deep River’):
=========== He thought that he had never
actually seen anyone purse their lips as much
as Rudd did, even Germans, but the jokes
Rudd made were flirtily Teutonic, his slang
as strangely stylised as an Eden from a culture
he knew had never been, as if to say,
so we’re all self-constructed out of trauma.
I defy you to file me away.’
I love the way this moves from deft observation of mannerisms to much-mocked peculiarities of speech to a completely unexpected flash of compassionate insight. That’s characteristic of these poems – ‘Diary Poem: The Uses of Powerlessness’ which rails angrily against Julia Gillard, begins with a cheerfully resigned address to the ‘Good Spirit of the Universe’ which has given Gillard as a subject, and develops as a meditation on the nature of a certain kind of political power, and in the end the scathing criticism has not been dulled, but it has been infused by a sense of her as dreadfully deprived.
The book isn’t just a collection of disparate poems. Themes are developed from one poem to another. The development of the liquid nitrogen image is just one example. Relationships between the characters in the dialogue poems unfold in an almost novelistic way. In one poem, the poet writes of a weird little dog she and her daughter have seen on the TV news that she had considered giving it to George Jeffreys, then 25 pages later George and Clare adopt it in Cairo.
I should mention that Giramondo sent me a free copy, presumably because I’m a declared Jennifer Maiden fan. I’m grateful for the gift.