Gig Ryan Reviews Emma Lew, Bella Li, Kate Lilley, and Jennifer Maiden

18 September 2014

The first poem in Jennifer Maiden’s The Violence of Waiting, ‘George Jeffreys: 15: The Fourth Terrace’, takes us into Dante’s Inferno, the abode of the slothful imagined as a casino, in which some Labor Party politicians have gathered. Dante’s sloth is that of ungrasped opportunities, of insufficient love (of the good), and on the fourth terrace these blighted souls now rush in frenzy to compensate for their earthly sloth:

The air in here swirled that colour,
she thought, like aerated wine, all
restless, tired pearls, a hiss
of penitential moonlight, love
that was not enough at the start becoming
overwrought and angry at the last ...
Matilda offered some cold, flasked
forgetfulness and sublime
selective memory, but Clare
remained steeled to remember,
and George knew his own knowledge
of her history itself a steel anchor.

In this sweaty, tinselly atmosphere, Maiden’s George and Clare sharpen their philosophical positions while sceptically observing the ensuing procession.

In ‘Diary Poems: Uses of Cosiness’, Sylvia Plath’s facility with homecrafts is described as being ‘desperate / for humanity and control’, that is, as in Lilley, such minutiae may signify, or even magically contain, character. As in previous collections, here Maiden directs odd-couple dialogues: Kevin Rudd and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt, along with George and Clare who appear through many volumes. These talismanic guides interpret the existing world as if time-travellers, wise elders whose ethics are more stable than those of their admiring adherents – partly confessors, partly loved parent-figures. Eleanor speaks to Hillary of the Osama Bin Laden assassination, critical of those televised reactions: ‘to have trapped oneself as an audience / to prove onself an actor isn’t what / I would ever want for you’ (‘Hillary and Eleanor: 10: the Coppice’).

The final poem ‘Maps in the Mind’ is similar in its economy and rhythm to ‘My heart has an embassy’, which imagined Julian Assange, in Maiden’s last book Liquid Nitrogen:

The isle of the dead is always sand ...
The isle of the dead is never solved
by jungle fast last answers, planned
sensitive-isolate like species evolved
in feral fight and fear on Manus Island,
in fear on Manus Island.

This lyrical poem is partly in couplets whose repetitions and melody, not its matter, remind of Hopkins. The plaint of Hopkins’s ‘Spring and Fall: to a Young Child’ echoes in Mother Teresa’s words to Princess Diana, ‘we will now mourn for ourself.’ This pair converge as if painted in a Renaissance Visitation: ‘now she was wistfully, stilly alone / and Teresa stood beside her.’ Maiden’s poems are naturally political, wrangling the catastrophic here and now. The Violence of Waiting refers to those lukewarm souls who wait in the Inferno’s antechamber, but also refers to those, deemed guilty of the recently-invented ‘sin’ of seeking asylum, who wait in much nearer Infernos.

In his introduction to Contemporary Asian Australian Poets, Adam Aitken writes that Bella Li’s ‘poems are more like deracinated explorers’ journals … China is not hers … China is a library.’ In Li’s Maps, Cargo, prose poems expose the solipsism of early explorers – Cortés in South America, Franklin in the North-West Passage – who see only a desired ‘terra nullius’, just as Judith Wright exposed the Wilderness Society’s presumption of an unnamed wilderness.1 Yet it is colonisers and explorers, at once unbearable and sympathetic, who narrate these poems as they dauntlessly proceed to erase ‘wilderness’: only they possess character, as if the indigenous inhabitants form merely homogenised backdrops for an extinguishing gaze. This pocket atlas of colonialism moves from China to the Americas and elsewhere, through time. Facts frame tired or rapt asides, but Li’s interest is in the Melvillean quest itself, its compulsion and audacity. The second prose poem ‘Voyage’, indicating Baudelaire et al, also positions discovery as play: ‘The hold littered with props. Flat clouds drifting idly along the cardboard coast … my eyes reeked of distance’, and in ‘Three views of the Hindenburg, Ocean County’, part three simply states ‘(Stock photo.)’ – highlighting the writer as collagist and guardian of information. Another tracks the exiled prophet Muhammed:

Massacred, according to custom, the vast number of the inhabitants … One morning,
 according to the vast number of oriental historians, the sun ‘a little after rising, completely
lost its light’. To the great astonishment of the astronomers, this darkness (in the easter
palace persisting). Persisted until noon. (‘E 44 10 N 33 15’)

Dashes, ellipses, are often deployed, as if any word can be arbitrarily assigned: place and time become generic components of colonialism. To own a thing is to desecrate, its attributes miniaturised into a performance of obedience. Reminiscent of Susan Howe’s suggestive gaps, Li’s gaps function as cynicism, a yawn for randomly designated place. This is reiterated in her use of a type of anadiplosis: beginning a line with the last word of the previous line, (a technique Maiden employs in her earlier ‘cluster’ poems) but more often, simply reiteration, or anaphora, beginning lines with the same words. Images are layered like houses around a harbour, theatrically doubling their importance, the solid thing suspended above then caught in the permeable waves re-interpreting it. Li uses lines from, among others, Pound, Ashbery, Seferis, Sexton, and the Guyana-born British poet David Dabydeen, as departure points in many prose poems. The last poem ‘Windows’, a somewhat jarring break from the ebbing dream-like prose, looks out from, or into, an americanised universe as if past feats of exploration are now transposed into the blandishments of a more insidious conquest.

  1. ‘… the Wilderness Society of Australia’s … aim, to ‘preserve Australia’s wilderness’ assumes that it is the right of the invaders, not the original owners, which is dominant everywhere except where Aborigines may be able to prove, before our tribunals, ‘traditional attachment … (Its) policy thus adds up to a confirmation and endorsement of the terra nullius judgement … That judgement has resulted, over the past two hundred years, in dispossession, destruction and the denial of all human rights to Aborigines, has turned all Aboriginal land in Australia over to destructive interests, and is the chief stumbling-block to justice and reconciliation’. Judith Wright, Born Of The Conquerors, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1991, p49
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