Jennifer Maiden, Biological Necessity (Quemar Press 2021)
For some time now, Jennifer Maiden has produced new poetry collections almost as regularly as the earth revolves around the sun. Giramondo published five books between 2010 and 2017, handsomely designed by Harry Williamson. Since then Quemar Press, the publishing company created and run by Maiden’s daughter Katharine Margot Toohey, has published a collection of her poetry at the beginning of each year (as well as Selected Poems 2017–2018, a number of novels and two other slim non-poetry books authored or co-authored by Maiden). Biological Necessity is the fourth new collection.
I look forward to each new book in much the way I’ve looked forward to each new season of, say, Call My Agent.
I want to know what happens next in a number of continuing narratives. Maiden’s fictional characters George Jeffreys and Clare Collins continue to turn up in international hotspots – in Biological Necessity, they spend time in Covid quarantine at Darling Harbour, and they talk to Donald Trump by Skype on 2020 election night (in a poem published before the votes were counted). Her versions of real people living and dead continue to chat with each other, at least one person in each chat having just woken up as if a switch has turned them on in the poet’s inner mind – here Eleanor Roosevelt’s ambivalence about Hillary Clinton reaches a kind of peak in her 17th poem; and Gore Vidal continues to hover around Julian Assange. Maiden’s incarnation of the Carina Galaxy as a sixties bombshell, last seen several books ago, makes a repeat appearance.
Surrounding the narratives, a sprawling, multi-faceted conversation has continued over the years, a conversation largely about politics and abuses of power. There are Diary Poems, which usually include ‘Uses of … ‘ in the title: in this book, poems meditate on the uses of biological necessity (Aneurin Bevan said that socialism was a biological necessity), indigo (the colour), Sacha Baron Cohen (for his performance in The Trial of the Chicago 7) and Finnegans Wake. In them, and in Maiden’s poems generally, there’s a quality of heightened chattiness: a subject is announced in the opening lines, and is reflected on; then, sometimes as if distracted by a random association, the poem veers off, and perhaps veers off again, always to interesting places, sometimes to recondite ones such as, in this book, Bolivian elections or Andean mountain cats; those different veerings crisscross one another, and – to mix my metaphors – weave something new. I love this process; it’s like listening to someone’s mind doing the basic work of thinking, meditatively and associatively.
The poems/conversation/meditations generally deal with topics more usually found in op-ed journalism: Julian Assange, Ghislaine Maxwell, Donald Trump, Greta Thunberg, Syria, Covid–19, the CIA, right-wing cultural machinations. But it wouldn’t do them justice to read them as op-eds cut up to look like verse, with an occasional rhyme for good measure. We don’t read them so much to find out what Jennifer Maiden thinks, or to learn about the world (though they often send me searching the web), or to debate a position, but rather to enjoy the carefully-crafted illusion that we are listening to the poet in the act of thinking.
Usually when I write about a book of poetry I focus on a single poem. So hard to choose! ‘After the Volcano’, which revolves around a poem by Martin Johnston that Jennifer Maiden read at a zoom event, which I attended, marking the 30th anniversary of Martin’s death? One of the excellent Covid poems? ‘The Watchchain’, on a family story of a watchchain made from a dead woman’s hair? I ended up choosing ‘A somewhat consistent rule’, because it’s one of the shortest in the book, and can be captured in a single scan. (If you can’t read it easily here, you can find it on page 39 of the pdf sampler from this book on the Quemar website.)
We know from the prose introduction – unusually long and informative for a Jennifer Maiden poem – that this is one of her poems inspired by the travails of Julian Assange, of which the short lyric ‘My Heart Has an Embassy‘ is perhaps the best known. The quote is from Clive Stafford Smith’s official witness statement at the Assange hearing in September 2020, which is available as a PDF at this link (see paragraph 86). It not only announces the poem’s context, but also identifies the ‘rule’ of the title: it could almost stand alone as a found poem. In reading this poem, it’s important to note that the statement was read aloud in court.
I don’t know how this poem would work for a reader unfamiliar with Jennifer Maiden’s work. I read it as part of a web of poems that relate to each other in form and content. The first line places it in a long series of Maiden’s poems that open with someone waking up, all the way back to when it was always George Jeffreys waking up to see George W Bush on television obsessing about Iraq. Specifically, it’s at least the fifth poem, and not the last, in which Gore Vidal wakes up. He is Maiden’s main conduit for engaging with Assange (along with Diana Spencer and Emma Goldman in previous poems). He’s not a completely arbitrary choice: Assange was clutching a book by Vidal when he was dragged out of the Ecuadorian embassy in April 2019, which led to Vidal feeling ‘quite possessive of his reader’ (‘Resistance’, The Espionage Act, page 6).
The next two lines mark a departure in the ‘woke up’ poems. Vidal doesn’t simply snap awake as in these poems previously, but the waking process continues for the whole poem: ‘the world returned to him in bits’, and the lines that follow show us the bits. (As my regular readers know, I’m currently reading À la recherche du temps perdu, and am reminded that Proust’s narrator takes several pages to describe such a bit-by-bit waking up.) Not yet fully awake, Vidal finds a focus in the words of Stafford Smith about the boy
who was no doubt concerned, civic-souled and mild: not dangerous enough to live, poor child.
It’s worth noticing the deliberate use of rhyme. In ‘mild’ / ‘child’, and later in ‘scorn’ / ‘porn’, ‘joy’ / ‘boy’, and ‘awkwardly, he’ / ‘mystery’, there’s a whiff of, say, Alexander Pope’s classic rhyming couplets:
Heav'n from all creatures hides the book of fate, All but the page prescrib'd, their present state
Maiden’s couplets don’t aspire to that magisterial authority. They don’t scan beautifully like Pope’s, but the rhyme does suggest a connection to that tradition, in which the poet casts a withering eye on hypocrisy and pretension.
The next three lines, in a characteristic Maiden move, invoke insider gossip about public events. I assume that Jennifer Maiden, who lives in Western Sydney, doesn’t have much access to US intelligence agents, so what Vidal remembers hearing is probably as much an invention as the awakening Vidal himself. But it’s plausible, and here the ‘TV’ / ‘conveniently’ rhyme adds a hint of dark comedy.
Vidal’s focus on ‘the words of Stafford Smith’ ends with the chilling general implication that being seen as harmless, far from meaning one will be ignored, might actually be a threat.
Then the poem veers. In nine or ten lines, Vidal pictures, one of the postage-stamp images that he wakes to, the magistrate hearing Assange’s case.
a magistrate showing her luxuries of scorn at the defence, like something out of porn he would still quite like to write.
In real life this is Vanessa Baraitser. I found this description by John Pilger:
Her face was a progression of sneers and imperious indifference; she addressed Julian with an arrogance that reminded me of a magistrate presiding over apartheid South Africa’s Race Classification Board …
When [Julian Assange] spoke truth and when his barrister spoke, Baraitser contrived boredom; when the prosecuting barrister spoke, she was attentive. She had nothing to do; it was demonstrably preordained. In the table in front of us were a handful of American officials, whose directions to the prosecutor were carried by his junior; back and forth this young woman went, delivering instructions.
The judge watched this outrage without a comment.(At https://wikispooks.com/wiki/Vanessa_Baraitser)
‘Luxuries of scorn’ isn’t too bad a summing-up. ‘Porn’ in the next line isn’t an arbitrary rhyme: it’s Gore Vidal who is seeing these things, and though I don’t know if he write any porn, he was interested in sexuality as much as in politics.
I found the photo of Baraitser poised at an exhibition with a champagne glass as described in the next lines. It’s here if you’re interested, but it doesn’t add a lot. The word image is strong enough. The next lines do a lot of work:
________________________ virginal with joy: a living dual passport, with the innocence of a boy trusting that power is too dangerous to die
‘Virginal with joy’ contrasts with Vidal’s associating the magistrate’s manner with porn. The use of passport as a metaphor for two-facedness reminds even those of us who haven’t followed Assange’s trials closely that passports and citizenship have been an issue. The phrase ‘too dangerous to die’ echoes ‘not dangerous enough to live’ from earlier in the poem. The magistrate has dual identities, on the one hand an innocent viewer of art ‘poised at an exhibition’ and on the other an agent of oppression (hinting at one of Maiden’s themes that reactionary forces manipulate art and literature for political ends); innocence and trust are attributed to her, but rendered nastily ironic by the phrase ‘of a boy’, recalling the boy who was killed by forces that the magistrate is at least indirectly abetting.
The next lines – ‘She had rescinded permission …’ – refer to her action that’s on the public record, but the poem is doing more than simply stating the facts. The scare quotes around ‘control’, taken together with ‘remote, are a nod and a wink towards the deadly drones that are the background to the hearing and to the poem. without any big display, the found language of the court is being harnessed to remind us that the courtroom procedures are intimately connected to murder by drone in Afghanistan.
I had trouble parsing the final five lines:
____________________________________ But as Stafford Smith said, 'somewhat consistent rule', from nowhere the slowly-integrating Vidal had arrived in the public gallery, unreal as justice, and innocently, awkwardly, he returned her gaze: a somewhat final mystery.
Once I realised that ‘as Stafford Smith said’ means not, ‘in agreement with Stafford Smith,’ but, ‘at the moment when Stafford Smith was saying,’ the penny dropped. Stafford Smith’s witness statement isn’t a document being recalled here, but the spoken background to the poem’s action. At the beginning, when Gore Vidal ‘was focused by the words of Stafford Smith’, he was waking up, bit by bit, to the sound of Stafford Smith’ evidence, and hearing the story of the boy killed by drones is what makes him fully present ‘from nowhere’. The poem’s action is the imaginary Gore Vidal’s coming to full wakefulness.
‘Unreal as justice’: yes, the poem is saying, this Gore Vidal is imaginary, coming ‘from nowhere’, but so is any justice that Assange will receive in this court. Innocence and awkwardness aren’t words that have often been applied to Gore Vidal, one of last century’s most wickedly sophisticated writers, but even he must experience that first moment of wakefulness as an awkward freshness. His sharp intelligence meets the gaze of the morally compromised magistrate. Vidal becomes fully present, the poem’s perspective on this judge in this trial solidifies, becomes ‘somewhat final’. As for ‘mystery’, it’s a satisfying rhyme for ‘awkwardly, he’, and reminds us that Gore Vidal, like the other people who wake up in Maiden’s poems, isn’t simply a mouthpiece for the poet’s views: there’s a mysterious process by which these imagined figures come from somewhere (‘from nowhere’, perhaps) to help her, and us, think. Not What Would Jesus Do? but what Would Gore Vidal Think?
Biological Necessity is the third book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.