Jennifer Maiden’s Liquid Nitrogen

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,
==========’‘Okay:
so we’re all self-constructed out of trauma.
==========Standing here,
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.

4 responses to “Jennifer Maiden’s Liquid Nitrogen

  1. Katharine Margot Toohey

    Showed my Mum (JM) this, Jonathan, and she’s grateful as usual for the discerning and thorough appreciation. She says she never expected to have a fan and says she’s delighted to have such a continuing, always interesting overview of her work. Great that you describe the interconnections in the poems, including the weird dog finally finding safe harbour. Also, that you perceived the compassion which accompanies the criticisms.
    She thought it would be useful to point out that the “diary poems” aren’t a reaction to Martin Duwell (an understandable idea, as she has referred to him in an earlier poem), but were in fact in response to an “ABR” review by Andrew Sant of her book “Mines” which was subbed “Poems like diary entries”.
    As she didn’t actually have any of these at the time, she thought she’d give it a go, but in her own style.
    Martin Duwell has always been very intelligently supportive of Mum’s work, but she thinks he does tie himself up in knots very occasionally by over-complicating her intentions.
    Thanks again,
    Katharine

  2. Thanks again for commenting, Katharine. I’m glad you and JM enjoyed it. I hope there isn’t a Stephen King Misery feel to my fandom. Thanks for putting me straight about the diary poems – I’ve added a note to the post. Will there now be ‘ducking and weaving poems’?

  3. Hey! I am a Year of the Ox person – 1949 – as is my wife in the Chinese reckoning (but in Japan – where the year changes to fit the western calendar – and her birthday is early January, 1950 – she is suddenly a Tiger – and friends here in Japan look askance when I declare our unity – despite this apparent incompatibility of Zodiac signs)! And just this evening a letter from a young Chinese friend who has scored highly on an IELTS testing schedule and can take up his Canadian University “exchange” year next year – from Beijing – but who – like millions of Chinese it would seem – has taken Julia Eileen GILLARD’s tongue-in-cheek announcement that yes – the world is about to end (no more Q&A) as gospel truth – and evidence of her simple-mindedness – proving that high IELTS scores do not indicate the ability to read irony or jokes in English!

    • Katharine Margot Toohey

      Nice to hear from another Ox and Tiger, although Mum’s poem doesn’t focus too much on the Chinese Zodiac, just on some characteristics of those two creatures. There is a recurrent Chinese theme amongst other themes in the book, though.
      On the idea that millions of Chinese took the Gillard ‘end of the world’ radio prank as evidence that she is simple-minded, I think that they probably understood that it was simple-minded for her to lower herself to try to gain popularity by using cheap irony in a cheap radio program, but perhaps gave her the benefit of the doubt that she actually believed what she was saying.
      Katharine