In Proportion

In Proportionbook cover

Poetry review by Dan Disney

Drones and Phantoms

by Jennifer Maiden
Giramondo, 2014
ISBN: 9781922146724
96pp AUD$24.00

The sleeve notes proclaim Drones and Phantoms as successor to Maiden’s much-feted previous collection, Liquid Nitrogen; this new book again features her ‘characteristic interweaving of personal and public forms of address’. Elsewhere, Maiden’s have been called ‘long poetical essays’ and, recalling the word ‘essay’ comes from the Latin verb exigere (to examine, test, or literally drive out), these unadorned picaresques personalize the political in order to arrive at a particularly moral worldview. Unfolding her process for readers, Maiden tells us –

      … You and I,
I think do want to build a process
here for analysis: shared symposium.
I can’t remember who said of Socrates:
he talked so much in order not to cry.
The subject is dismemberment, its uses.
(‘Diary Poem: Uses of Dismemberment’, 66)

Of course, Plato’s Symposium is a dialectical discourse on love, that affective mode the ancient philosopher posits as the origin for ethical behaviors; to act ethically is to act toward one another as though we loved. In his speculative tract, Plato introduces a super-race of hermaphrodites who plan to make war on the heavens; to punish the would-be usurpers, Zeus slices them down the middle, and thus originate of a suite of archetypal discourses: love, power, loss, the search for connection (individual and primary, intimate and binary, social and collective). The consistent intelligence of Maiden’s analytic is that she sees potential for making connections between events she is surrounded by, taken as iterations of timeless themes. A poem which begins with a meditation on the questionable morality of a Danish zoo’s recent slaughter of its giraffe ranges dialectically to drive out a suite of theses (bestiality, the morality of a giraffe calf ‘bred for death’; the annual dolphin slaughters in the Faroe Islands; the ‘powerful prestige in all dissection’ and a reflection on the poet’s father, ‘a blind physiotherapist who achieved/ real cures’). Splicing the personal with the political, Maiden never falls into simplistic, programmatic judgment, and her evidence-based excursions seem consistently aimed toward inclusion, connection, unity. She is indeed talking ‘in order not to cry’, and at heart her work cries out a humanizing call. These texts are populated with overflowing emotion, organized as an instrumental sense-making amid the disharmonic noises of power.

Herein, one ploy Maiden consistently employs involves pitting together historical figures from different eras; heightening the dreamlike irreality, we find Hillary Clinton –

      … on Wimbledon Common
in the late nineteenth century in a deep
warm coppice of evergreens
(‘Hillary and Eleanor 10: The Coppice’, 12)

talking of domestic life and world politics with Eleanor Roosevelt; elsewhere, Mother Teresa listens to Princess Diana musing on her murder (17); Queen Victoria rises ‘near the embers/ of a burnt-out gum, where Tony Abbott/ doze(s) lightly’ (22); in a later poem, he confesses to the matriarch how ‘inside me everything is war’ (25); Tanya Plibersek is watched on TV by Jane Austen (50). What, one may ask, is Maiden up to? Are these simply charades, or poetic whimsies? When Maiden inserts herself biographically alongside Judith Wright (in one of the ‘diary poems’ in this collection) and follows their debate over the role of politics in poetry, the ambit becomes clearer –

      … politics
is overpowered if empowered by poetry, its
successor, and which always slips the net.
(‘Diary Poem: Uses of Judith Wright’, 31)

Drones and Phantoms talks across, through, and into political realms; just as Aristotle asserts the dominance of poetry over history, Maiden too is talking in a local and at once general trope, designating how the play of power is happening here and now, in ways similar to how hegemonic discourses have always happened. In this, these texts are not simply follies but deep (and deeply playful) analyses of the motivations, plots (or losses thereof), conflicts and dénouements of our dramatis personae and their bygone counterparts.

The first text in the book, ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Live Odds’, sees the poet showing her readers a remembered old line in which she writes how ‘poor men/ do not belong in rich men’s houses’ (1) and this more or less defines the mode throughout the book; using this dyad as her platform to (as if off-handedly) recall ‘Forbes visiting more comfortable/ poets who were into Real Estate’, Maiden unpacks her memories like nested Russian dolls, next recounting an earlier time, ‘scrutineering for the Labor Party’ (1) inside a room once used for illegal gambling. Though elsewhere she recalls how ‘a reviewer/ said I’d learned a lot from Frank O’Hara (34), her implicative and synthesizing style is perhaps more reminiscent of American poet Robert Hass; and, like Hass, Maiden also often includes exegetical poems which make commentary on her own poems (‘when I wrote/ a Plibersek Austen poem … I was suggesting that a lack/ of critical confidence in both areas/ was unwarranted’. 55). But unlike Hass’ meditative existentialism, Maiden’s texts are infused with a more actively ethical reckoning: this first ‘Diary Poem’ nestles poets against soaring house prices, corrupt politicians, and illegal casinos, and it seems that in each of these (poetry, real estate, politics, gambling) the stakes are high while discourses of power play out: the rich and powerful will stay pitted against the poor and/or aspirational, and Maiden’s opening poem is less a simple diary entry and functions instead as a manifesto: for Maiden, the job of the poet is to plaintively record the struggle within ‘a rich/ man’s house for all poor men on earth’ (1).

Throughout Drones and Phantoms there seems an impulse to – what is it, soliloquize? Apologize? – as if the poet is not quite wanting to claim the mantle of purifying a dialect for her readers, and we occasionally encounter lines that seek to qualify the poet’s stance: ‘I wrote/ many things which all, like me, are ethically insecure’ (6). But what is it about ethical insecurity that is such a virtue to cause Maiden to repeat herself in successive poems –

      … the unorthodox
feminists who liked my Complicity
manuscript did not object to works
being ethically insecure – as is
all my work – and that
some offended feminists who hated
the manuscript were well in favour
of ethical security, well radiated,
hence there fandom for Gillard later
(‘Diary Poem: Uses of Ethiopia’, 8).

This avowed instability is perhaps a mode of assuring us that, rather than a rote response, each essay is to be a dynamic engagement. Laudable, though given what we find in the book, this is also somewhat incongruous: surrounding these self-reflexive caveats (are they defenses?), there are so many surefire claims advanced by Maiden: ‘Bin Laden/ had no gun at that time’ (14); ‘All our revolutions/ were agrarian, unorthodox’ (56); ‘Reconciliation is a deep guilt need, not hell/ one wills on any country in the name/ of diplomacy’ (60); she doubts ‘if Manus police use dumdums./ Black Talons are expensive’ (69). Rather than ethically insecure, then, this is a collection that seems sure that when not actively lied to by powers with vested interests we are (at best) told half-truths and that, in retaining our place within hegemonically-ordained domains (the interpellated poor within the rich house of neo-liberalism), our complicity in these lies is required.

In these notes from ‘hyper Australia’ (41) and beyond, Maiden asserts how ‘politics is still poetry’ (80); she understands the ideological machineries churning around her, and turns the force of her gaze toward too-often mediatized political arenas. These spectacles are, partly, what Benjamin warns of in his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’; as if answering to an Orwellian ‘aestheticization of politics’, Maiden’s Drones and Phantoms is a dreamscape populated with the key technocrats of our times; hers is an analytical and moral answering, and Maiden’s ‘politicization of aesthetics’ close to Benjamin’s clarion call to artists. It is hard to see just how poetic modern politics is (this seems as counter-intuitive as, say, Wallace Stevens’ claim that ‘money is a kind of poetry’). But turning this, an imperative emerges: poetry can – and when the era requires it, must – be political. With this book, Jennifer Maiden shows us again how the poetic voice can be an empowering agent. In the poet’s own words: her ‘lyricism is direct, adores/ the physical, the real’ (56). These interrogations are incisive, the scope ideal.


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