David McCooey Reviews Jennifer Maiden

By | 3 December 2014

It is not surprising that the spectral figure of the refugee is so important to Drones and Phantoms. Successive governments have sought to discourage Australians from having any imaginative intimacy with asylum seekers, those maligned crossers of distances. Shamefully, the so-called ‘major parties’ of this country have undertaken increasingly punitive and sometimes illegal policies with regard to those seeking asylum in Australia, while political discourse concerning asylum seekers has become so debased that the LNP ran an election campaign in 2013 that depended largely on the three-word slogan, ‘stop the boats’.

Maiden’s poems are important because they reinsert the intimacy of imagination into the public discussion of asylum seekers in Australia. In ‘Clare and Manus’ (an apparent spin-off from the ‘George Jeffreys’ sequence), we find Jeffreys’ partner, Clare, waking up with Jeffreys ‘on top of trees / on Manus Island’, the site of one of the Australian government’s immigration detention centres (officially termed ‘regional processing centres’). ‘Clare and Manus’, while taking something of the imagery and idiom of the movies, is a devastating essay on the violence of the island: the neo-colonial violence of exploiting natural resources in Third-World nations (in the guise of logging); the violence of the police and camp guards; and violence against animals (such as the giraffe infamously killed and dismembered in public at the Copenhagen Zoo, a disturbing event Maiden is repeatedly drawn to in Drones and Phantoms). These last two forms of violence are surprisingly linked by the asylum seeker (Reza Barati) who was beaten to death during a riot at the Manus Island detention centre in February 2014, and who, according to the poem ‘had loved animals, defended / moths from being fed in sport to lizards’. In a rare show of imaginative counter-violence, Maiden allows Clare to torch a truck (though it is Copenhagen that inspires her). Ironically, Clare and George make their escape (peacefully) via boat: ‘The Manus boatman / as they sailed quietly off was quietly pleased / by the unexplained small dawn on the horizon’.

As this poem suggests, Drones and Phantoms, like Maiden’s work generally, is a sophisticated meditation on the intimacies and distances inherent in human violence. Drones, which figure repeatedly in the collection, are, after all, ways of inflicting violence from great distances. In ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Silence’, Maiden – again with reference to Manus Island – adverts to the ‘violence of waiting’, a perfect description of the violence that the Australian government inflicts on asylum seekers, adults and children alike, through long-term detention.

Drones and Phantoms continues Maiden’s tremendously impressive ‘late style’. Her collections for Giramondo Publishing are, for me, one of the most extraordinary bodies of work in contemporary Australian poetry. One of the differences between poetry and the news, of course, is speed. The poems don’t obviously address the year of social vandalism that has characterised the beginning of Tony Abbott’s tenure as Prime Minister. One is tempted to look forward to what Maiden does with Abbott’s egregious cabinet, but it is important to remember that she is neither a journalist, nor a political cartoonist. (Thankfully we have First Dog on the Moon for the latter.) The collection illustrates, Maiden’s eccentric and powerful imagination takes itself where it will. And while one might disagree (sometimes intensely) with Maiden’s characterisations of her politicians, the play, the anger, and the originality of her poems make it clear that mere agreement is not what is at stake. Rather, her poems help us intimately feel some of the distances that public life so often seeks to ignore or deny. Maiden pulls off her poetic gamble: in being eccentrically original, she is a truly public poet.

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