Jennifer Maiden, brookings: the noun: new poems (Quemar Press 2019)
Probably more than any other of Jennifer Maiden’s books, brookings: the noun revolves around a central concept. It’s not that every poem addresses the concept directly, or that there is an overarching narrative, but the notion of ‘brookings’ weaves its way through the book, becoming explicit every so often, taking on new metaphorical form and emotional resonance as it goes.
The simplest description of the concept is in the poem ‘Brookings in Fur’ (which you can read here – you’ll need to scroll down), brookings are defined as
things that trickle the Overton window
to the Right by focusing on soft left topics
According to Wikipedia, the Overton window is ‘a term for the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse’: we’ve recently seen, for instance, that veganism is outside the Overton window in Australia, and offshore detention of people seeking asylum barely makes it into the frame. ‘Brookings’ are the right-wing tactic of espousing harmless, even positive policies around education, discrimination, environmental concerns and so on, in order to disguise or make more acceptable the underlying ruthless policies. However, defining the term doesn’t tell you much about the poetry. After all, a similar concept is captured in the phrase ‘lipstick on a pig’ – Maiden’s metaphors are a lot more interesting than that.
The term has at least three incarnations.
First, in ‘Concrete’, which is Jennifer Maiden’s sixteenth poem comprising a flirtatious-reproachful conversation between Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton, Eleanor appropriates the name of the US think tank, the Brookings Institution, giving it the new meaning. It’s a straightforward satirical jibe at Julia Gillard, who recently joined the institution. (I have no idea about the politics of the institution, but I do know that Maiden has been caustic about Gillard in earlier poems, and is again in this volume.)
Second (though preceding ‘Concrete’ in this book), in ‘Uses of brookings: the noun’, Maiden discovers rich metaphorical possibilities in the term. This poem draws brilliantly on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem ‘Maidenhood’ (you can read it here) for the image of a virgin ‘Standing with reluctant feet/ where the brook and river meet’. Longfellow’s maiden is facing the prospect of mature adult life with trepidation; Maiden with a capital M makes something different of the contrast between brook and river:
The river beyond soft
brooking glints a deadly global thing.
This image of the soft brooking and the deadly global river recurs in a number of poems.
The third embodiment picks up on that ‘soft’. In ‘Brookings in Fur’ it’s a little creature:
soft little Brookings, a silk-nosed squeaker
too gentle for words like Global, War or Money, who
would not know the price of a gun.
The sweet creature embodies the appeal of brookings: we want to believe that those in power are benign.
The poems in this book engage with international politics, corruption and war: allegations about the White Helmets in Syria, Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard’s dubious practices, Tanya Plibersek’s apparent support for inhumane treatment of people seeking asylum, Israeli snipers’ use of butterfly bullets against Palestinian protestors, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. (There was a time when you needed a working knowledge of Greek myth and the Bible to be able to read English poetry; with Jennifer Maiden, you need to be reasonably well-versed in current affairs. Readers outside Australia or even outside New South Wales may need to keep Google – or Duck Duck Go if they value their privacy – handy.)
It’s poetry that includes political commentary and analysis, but it would be a mistake to read it as if that’s all it was. One reviewer has sneered at Maiden’s version of the White Helmets as agents/brookings of Daesh, saying she has offered no evidence (here, and her poem in reply here – you’ll need to scroll down). I think that misses the point. Just as people who abhor Les Murray’s politics can enjoy his poems, people who disagree strongly with Maiden’s political positions (and probably everyone disagrees with some of them – I’m agnostic about the White Helmets, for instance) can still embrace her poetry. One of the things that attracts me to her writing, and has kept me coming back for more, is her commitment to engage with the world in a big way, to figure out what she thinks and to say it without prevarication, sermonising or mumblefucking, while striving for a deeply human perspective on her characters (including – unsuccessfully in my opinion – Donald Trump).
These prayer-like lines come as close as any to articulating the impulse behind much of Jennifer Maiden’s poetry:
Let her protect me,
great Spirit of the Universe, my ancestral Durga,
with her many limbs, from all that's born to narrow
the vision to a bright domestic window.
(from 'Brookings in Fur')
That is the temptation of ‘brookings’, and it’s a temptation that Maiden’s poetry invariably resists.
I usually single out one poem for more detailed discussion when writing about books of poetry. Here’s ‘Rope’. Click on the image to big it up, or click here and scroll down to read it in the Rochford Street Review:
If what follows is laborious. Forgive me. Actually reading the poem isn’t laborious at all.
The poem is in three parts. The first four lines set the tone: the speaker, who sees herself as harmless, has been threatened and promised much by a nameless ‘they’ – the fourth line seems to suggest that soon, with talk of Elbridge Colby, some of this will become clearer. The next eighteen lines deal with the speaker’s distressed ‘state’, the poem a rope that prevents her from plummeting into ‘blind depths / too lightless even for black’. After a four-line transition (‘We will move from my state’), there are nine lines about Elbridge Colby, which raise the spectre of nuclear war, and I guess we understand why she is so upset, and who the opening ‘they’ are. The final six lines come close to an expression of despair, though I read the final line, ‘We can talk about Elbridge Colby’, as an assertion of the power of poetry, in the spirit of T S Eliot’s ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruin.’
‘Rope’ is not a typical Maiden poem. I’ll get to that, but first here are some ways it is characteristic.
First, it’s conversational. That’s in the tone, the unobtrusive use of rhyme, and especially in the use of enjambement – many lines end in a word that launches a sentence, creating a constance sense of forward momentum. The sense of a conversation is also there in the way this poem, like many, addresses the reader as a collaborator. The ‘you’ in the fifth line, ‘But I ask you to hold this rope’, seems to imply that the imagined reader in some way helps to preserve the poet from something like deep despair. So when you or I come to it as an actual reader, something uncanny happens – in reading this poem am I somehow holding the rope that saves the poet? If I have trouble with it – have to Google Joan Maas, say – is that my armpits feeling the weight>?
Second, there are a number of kinds of allusions:
- allusions to poetry that the reader is expected to be familiar with – ‘this is not the end of Childe Roland‘ refers to Robert Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came‘, and a quick web search reveals (or reminds if you’re better read than me) that at the end of that poem the knight arrives at his quest’s goal and sees there all the other knights who had gone on the same quest. Maiden has just listed ‘some faces of suicides’; this line is a way of saying they are not the subject of the poem.
- allusions to public figures. Usually the poems just assume the reader knows who the public figures are – from Jared Kushner to Dodi, mentioned by Princess Diana. Here there’s no need for a web search, as Elbridge Colby’s identity is explained, but if you want to read his argument, you can click here.
- allusions to past and present members of Maiden’s poet community. You probably don’t need to know who Grace and Joan Maas are in this poem. But since I’m writing about it: Joan Maas (also spelled Mas) was an Australian poet who died in 1974 – she was the Joan in Roland Robinson’s autobiography, Letter to Joan; Grace is Grace Perry, who has been mentioned in a number of earlier Maiden poems. In the conversational mode of these poems the reader is expected to remember when she was last mentioned.
- allusions to Maiden’s other poems. That Joan Maas ‘thought writing was a brook / to refresh and for respite’ only takes on its full meaning in a context where (soft, sweet) ‘brook’ implies its opposite, the deadly global river: writing is dangerous.
But the poem is atypical. Maiden’s ‘signature’ poems in recent years have been in the form of dialogues, sometimes between fictional characters, especially her own creations George Jeffreys and Clare Collins, but often between public figures and re-awakened people from the past whom in the real world they profess to admire. These dialogues always have elements of dramatic action. In this book, for example, Tanya Plibersek pours tea for Jane Austen, Donald Trump and his mother chat in the Oval Office, and Kenneth Slessor and an unnamed Australian critic meet by moonlight in the Sydney Botanic Gardens. My sense is that this staging of dialogues, where underlying questions might be, ‘What would Jane say to Tanya about this?’ or ‘What would Donald Trump’s mother say to him and John Bolton?’ opens up possibilities for fresh and unexpected thinking. Maybe it’s possible to see Tony Abbott’s humanity if you imagine him chatting with Queen Victoria (that one’s not in this book).
There’s none of that here. This poem is shockingly direct. In it, in a way, Maiden shows her workings, the puppeteer comes out from behind her curtain. Rather than move directly to Elbridge Colby, or set him up for a chat with, say Mamie Eisenhower, here she starts from her own emotional response. The transition between the two main parts is telling:
We will move from my state,
as I do in truth to survive,
to the personal and worldy.
Many of her poems are about the worldy (an excellent word**
, though it may be a typo, as the Rochford Street review has ‘worldly’), and many personalise the subjects they address (as for example, when George and Clare go to Syria). But these lines suggest that there’s some deep and dangerous emotion beneath or behind the political comment and analysis, emotion that cannot easily, or even safely, be addressed directly. And looking at the state of the world, don’t we all have emotions like that?
I am always gripped by a Maiden poem. Rope helps me to understand why.
* Many of Jennifer Maiden’s poems have titles indicating that they belong to one of her sequences or types of poems. For example, the full title of the first poem of the book is ‘DiaryPoem: Uses of brookings: the noun’, and the second’s is ‘Hillary and Eleanor: 16: Concrete’. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve omitted the scaffolding when naming poems.
** I have been informed by the publisher that this isn’t a typo, but a deliberate revision of the Rochford Street Review version. The progression from ‘personal and worldy’ in these transitional lines to ‘personal and worldly’ at the end of the poem adds another level of subtle poignancy.
brookings: the noun is the sixteenth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.