Jennifer Maiden’s Drones and Phantoms

Jennifer Maiden, Drones and Phantoms (Giramondo 2014)

D&P cover pic

With each new book Jennifer Maiden continues a long-running conversation, or rather several conversations. Here’s a list of those that either continue or begin in Drones and Phantoms:

  • Clare Collins and George Jeffreys appear in 3 poems, bringing their total to more than 16 (not counting the novels where they first appeared). All a new reader needs to know is that the white-haired Clare was a child-murderer and George, her former parole office, is now her part-time lover. You don’t need to know about their past encounters with a Somali pirate or a Beijing dissident to enjoy the poems in this book, which find George in Iceland and Clare hiding in a tree on Manus Island. The pair’s adventures don’t constitute a single narrative: they turn up in hot spots on the slimmest of pretexts and, while the characters are much more than cardboard cut-outs, their conversations with each other and the figures they meet are also a vehicle for what Gig Ryan has called Jennifer Maiden’s ‘dialogic enquiries’.

Maiden’s dialogic enquiries also include a string of public figures, most of them in conversation with resurrected/awakened figures for whom they have expressed admiration in real life, and many of them addressing the complex relationship between the living characters’ actions and their proclaimed ideals:

  • Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt are up to their tenth conversation, full of consolation, admonition and – could it be? – flirtation
  • Tony Abbott and Queen Victoria costar in four brief poems, at the end of which VR appears to give up on TA (which is perhaps the poet relinquishing her attempt to enter Tony Abbott’s mind sympathetically)[*]
  • Tanya Plibersek and Jane Austen get on very well
  • Kevin Rudd seeks reassurance from Dietrich Bonhoeffer who observes silently in one poem and soothes indirectly in another (‘Numbers / you know are always deadly’)
  • Nelson Mandela is reluctantly drawn into conversation with Barack Obama about drones, justice and reconciliation
  • Mother Teresa and Lady Diana (who died on the same day) renew their acquaintance
  • Julia Gillard tells an unnamed disk jockey that riding in his Rolls Royce Phantom convertible would make her hair uncontrollable (the reference is to an interview with Kyle Sandilands). I think it’s fair to say that Jennifer Maiden is not a fan of Julia Gillard, whose previous relationship with Nye Bevan seems to have come to an end..

These dialogue poems are a means for the poet to offer reflections on current events, on the nature of power and violence, and state sanctioned evil. (It’s a measure of their success that when I watched our elected leaders struggling to find words in the wake of the Martin Place siege this week, I wanted instead to eavesdrop on George and Clare, or perhaps Mike Baird and Winston Churchill.) But – call me shallow – the poems are also good, eccentric fun. While Tony Abbott is working as a volunteer bushfire fighter, Queen Victoria fans herself with a copy of his book The Minimal Monarchy. Tanya confides to Jane:

Jane, sometimes the need for tact
disconcerts me so much that I grin
like a guilty schoolgirl, then try to make
it seem deliberately charming.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s hand

seemed much larger than Hillary’s now, had
stilled and covered it like the pod
around a seed.

There are other dialogues:

  • LM Montgomery, creator of Anne of Green Gables, wakes up in the modern museum version of Green Gables and alarms a tourist
  • There are real, remembered conversations that Jennifer Maiden has had with Judith Wright and with her daughter Katharine; and an imaginary chat with Frank O’Hara, a poet whose work she has never read.

The conversation in this book isn’t limited to the imaginary or remembered dialogues. In a number of essay poems (some of which Maiden labels ‘Diary Poems’ in ironic response to a critic who dismissed some of her earlier poems as diary excerpts), the conversational tone is marked, and occasionally the reader is addressed directly, as in this, from ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Silence’:

I often value my lack of audience (except
for you, of course) in that one
can speak freely in a poem because
no one will read it, which is like
being silent, but with almost none
of the corollary frustration.

Closely related to this pervasive use of dialogue is another kind of interactivity. Maiden increasingly flies in the face of the truism that no good can come from a writer responding to critics or dissing editors. There’s the mild amusement in ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Frank O’Hara’ at a reviewer who ‘said I’d learned a lot from Frank O’Hara’ and then ‘professed shock that I had never read O’Hara’, and in the opening of ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Judith Wright’:

After a couple of reviewers who decided
I was not Judith Wright’s successor, I
began to recall my encounters
with Judith herself

But there’s less amusement, something closer to rancour, when she tells of a row with an editor (in ‘The Sweet Sheep Gone’), when she refers in ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Ethiopia’ to feminists who are ‘well in favour / of ethical security’ and ‘a hostile magazine site’ ‘now given / to ethical self-security’, when she gets stuck into ‘The Director of a Writers’ Society [who] tweets / flatly that my book is not her “thing” / because it is too political with only / a “niche” of poetry’ (in ‘In Proportion’ ). I find it hard to know what to make of these responses to critics, especially because, as a bit of a fan, I often recognise the reviews and have read the relevant comments threads. It is interesting, though, that she speaks back from within the poems – resulting in a kind of vertiginous cross-referencing within her body of work.

You probably have to be interested in the political news to enjoy this poetry. Or maybe not. I’m at home with references to Forbes and Hope, Christmas Island, Fukushima, Run-Over-the-Bastards Askin, Santamaria. But there are a lot of references that I don’t get. I generally enjoy the play of language and mind enough anyway, but when I decide to let Google be my friend, the results invariably enrich the reading experience: I had to reread Hopkins’s ‘Elected Silence’, find out who Frieda Hughes is, and learn about the killing and ‘autopsy’ of the giraffe Marius in Denmark, among, come to think of it, many other things.

There’s more, lots more. But that’s enough for one blog post.

awwbadge_2014Drones and Phantoms, is tenth book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge, and with it I have met the quota I accepted at the beginning of the year. I am very grateful to Giramondo for sending me a complimentary copy.

[* Added on 4 July 2015: In today’s Sydney Morning Herald, she comes back for a further barbed but sympathetic conversation]

One response to “Jennifer Maiden’s Drones and Phantoms

  1. Pingback: Best of 2014 in 3 lists | Me fail? I fly!

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