Nick Terrell Reviews Jennifer Maiden

18 October 2010

Pirate Rain by Jennifer Maiden
Giramondo Publishing, 2010

Since Jennifer Maiden began publishing in the early 1970s, her work has been charged with a commitment to frame the ethical challenges presented by manifestations of evil. It’s a commitment that was stated plainly in the title of her second volume, The Problem of Evil. For Maiden, theological definitions of evil, and the related controversies about an omnipotent God’s tacit complicity with evil-doing, are mumbo-jumbo; her urgent fascination lies in the concrete question of why people do evil things. With Pirate Rain, Maiden has taken the connection between politics and violence as something of a key with which to identify, and process, the always plentiful manifestations of evil in the here and now. Maiden is a poet-philosopher or philosopher-poet. She is also a storyteller and a conversationalist with an abundance of ideas.

Pirate Rain is Maiden’s fifteenth volume of poetry and war (specifically, the American invasion of Iraq) remains a persisting theme. Beyond any single conflict, though, the collection contains (among other things) a broad spectrum of moral crises that characterise our contemporary reality in a somewhat apocalyptic light.

The title piece, for example, juxtaposes a variety of politically expedient, conservative allegiances with the military slaughter and ecological destruction they facilitate. Pirate rain is “rain that means trouble” – it falls in a time where real events increasingly suggest the failure of law, diplomacy, principles and sanity. In ‘Positional Asphyxia’ Maiden and her daughter discuss “the scores of dead children” suffocated in the rubble of their destroyed houses after “the second but not last massacre / by the Israelis in Qana.” Out of the children’s deaths, Maiden teases a thin (and tenuous) suggestion of transcendence or release, but the real goal of her rhetoric is the far more convincing diagnosis of a state corrupted by the means of its self-preservation:

                                       Their asphyxia
in a tight compartment there is over,
while need to breathe safe air in a sealed nation
traps their enemy, trauma-rigid and forever.

Pirate Rain contains a couple of other current affairs poems – ‘Project Rose’, for example, is a poised, sonnet-shaped verse that allusively presents the corruptions of the Australian Wheat Board in the rhythms and allegorical mode of Marvell – but it is in two grouped sequences of dramatic narratives that Maiden goes deepest into the belly of the whale. In these vivid, fluid and absorbing sequences, Maiden makes use of character, dialogue and narrative to tap into extreme or remote dilemmas and situations; situations typically experienced by a relative few but which contain ethical and imaginative challenges for all.

And so we have George Jeffreys (a character from Maiden’s 1990 novel Play With Knives who has become the protagonist of an ongoing series of poems) waking up in all manner of global hotspots. George discusses Keynesian economics and the US sub-prime lending market with a Somalian pirate who has hijacked the oil tanker he was travelling on. With his girlfriend Clare Collins (also born of Play With Knives), George waits for the all clear in a bomb shelter in Beirut. Always talking, exchanging ideas, Clare and George reflect on Jon Benet Ramsay while two young Lebanese girls mimic her dance routines. They quietly watch TV images of bodies being carried from ruined buildings in Qana. In another poem, Clare wakes up in Paris and watches a hotel fire. George wakes up in Rio, where he and Clare are pursued by a corrupt death-squad cop through an action packed pastiche of Hitchcock, Buchan and Fleming. Always ready to critique and debrief, George moves through Katrina-lashed New Orleans and talks ethics with the Devil:

‘The buses don’t come, but to Bush
the buses exist and are moving people
out in an orderly fashion. To him, they are as
real as his chain-of-command. Iraq, he thought,
was to prove him his chain-of-command. I know
how this man thinks, Mr Jeffreys. He experiences
nothing but an ideal, or the chaos of the real,
                                                he can’t combine
the two into a bus that transports people.’
                                                George nodded: ‘That
I find is the problem of evil.’

The second grouped sequence re-imagines a number of key moments in Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful campaign to lead the US Democrats to the 2008 election. Hillary’s dialogues with a spectral Eleanor Roosevelt (once dubbed “the first lady of the world”) add up to a composite portrait which is elegiac and hard-headed and full of tenderness and sympathy. Principled failure is a mark of some distinction in Maiden’s work, and the depiction of Hillary accepting defeat is suffused with a crypto-spiritual affinity:

                         In the quiet light of failure,
Hillary smiled at Obama with the dimples
of one newborn, not a 50s movie wife. Eleanor
approved the change and that complete
elaborate process of discarding Bill, so that
the surname ‘Clinton’ now meant only one
golden baby of a lady, lovelier
as she became each day, her mouth
reflected in the clear glass now like wine.

The lyrical lilt is almost too much, almost too smitten, but in Maiden’s conversational rhythms sincerity mingles easily with playfulness and the bold and unfussy showiness of an experienced performer. Maiden’s narrative inventiveness, her sympathetic characterisations and her emphasis on the ethical challenges that accompany power over others as well as individual agency make for works that openly entreat intellectual and moral response.

Maiden’s work is full of people, and full of talk. “One needs the private voice / to balance a public terror”. Focusing on the private voice allows Maiden to elicit familiar personal and social motivations and interactions from broad historical narratives. A frequent use of dialogue also lightens Maiden’s discursive mode. Quotations and conversations create a lively impression of unworked content, co-opting the living pulse of verite and reportage. These assembled voices, with their anecdotes, theories, factoids and epigrams, insist on the presence and manifold authority of real life. Maiden’s dialogue is, for all that, highly refined rather than as found. The rhythms are naturalistic rather than entirely natural, and there is much to be enjoyed in the metrical polish Maiden applies.

Maiden’s verse tends to skip along and her tone is more often comic than tragic. The way that Maiden writes, and the simple fact that she writes at all, suggest an abiding faith in reason and the creative imagination, and in the constructive exchange of ideas, stories, theories and impressions. It’s a faith that also manifests in the use she makes of figures like Don Dunstan, Graham Greene, Florence Nightingale, Nye Bevan, Mother Teresa, Lady Di and Jim Cairns. The tenderness Maiden brings to these significant figures from her own personal mythology is a positive counterbalance to the travesties that abound in a world increasingly shaped by the dangerous forces of passionate sincerity. A brief aside in ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Anger’ gives a good idea of Maiden’s dual sense of the awfulness and the absurd comedy that run together at the extremes of human behaviour:

In Baghdad, Bush’s Shia hang a man
who is dying of bone cancer, so
his brittle head snaps off. Over
to the reader

Though the comedy is jet black, there is definitely a joke here (on the hangmen, and on Bush). We are back with the problem of evil, where principles obscure reality; a vengeful commitment to justice, out of all proportion with circumstances, results in a travesty. Another aside, in Maiden’s recollection of Eugene McCarthy’s failed “presidential candidacy against Vietnam” (in ‘Wisconsin’), notes with approval McCarthy’s tendency to:

Chesterton that in a crisis the cry
went up for a man of action and
there was always one available’

Chesterton’s sardonic, patrician cynicism obviously harmonises with something in Maiden. Maiden is intensely engaged, but humour ensures the ardour of her moral entreaties does not translate into a harangue. In moments of self-deprecation, Maiden doesn’t seem entirely convinced, but her penetration and scepticism generate their own wry wit. The arresting turn of phrase, the rolling momentum of the unstopped lines, and the skipping pace of an articulate, polysyllabic vocabulary, are typical of Maiden’s poetic idiom. Everything is designed to keep you moving and thinking (or perhaps to think you’re thinking).

For the most part, Maiden has dispensed with the compressed cryptic formulations and deliberate fragmentation she has used in the past. While it’s hardly the language of the people for the people, in Pirate Rain Maiden’s meaning is never obscure. It’s probably not quite right to say that Maiden has gotten kinder to her reader; she still asks more than most, but here focus seems to have shifted from linguistic or aesthetic challenges to conceptual and ethical ones.

The diary convention suggests spontaneous reflection. Spontaneity creates an impression of candour, and candour creates an impression of intimacy. Maiden’s poems feel like a kind of overture to a conversation, or the initiation of some sort of collaborative dialogue. They engage. The plain reality though is that each poem here is a finished thing and any conversation I might have with them will never be more than anticipated. So perhaps I have merely been seduced and subdued by an implied complicity with Maiden’s self-privileging rhetoric of fluent thought? Because I believe Maiden when she defends the rigour of her style, and because that means there are no accidents, nothing unintended, un-worked or truly unguarded, I can’t avoid the logic that says this impression of candour and personal entreaty is a contrivance or, if you prefer, an artistic effect. As effects go, it is a very good one, but what does it mean to see it as such, as an effect?

In Maiden’s meditations and diary poems, the reflexive, self-privileging vantage point, and the solipsistic trajectory of their autobiographical sincerity, are transformed by the implied entreaty to a reader into a kind of offer of intimacy. This offer is clearest in the diary poems but something like it is made in most of Pirate Rain. Maiden’s candour is flattering – it conveys the sociability of an engaged intellect and a desire to re-experience moments of reverence and insight with the reader. In the course of giving these moments form, through the adrenalin charged push towards apt expression, Maiden is hoping also to crystallise their significance. Which is to say that as much as Maiden is stylistically sure-footed, with her language and meter exuding confidence, her thematic progressions are typically searching and open to spontaneity as she weighs up ideas and associations.

Maiden writes (among other things) to process personal, global and artistic challenges, often to the extent that the final position at which they arrive looks to have been determined only under the pen. Hence the tone of partial appeal, partial uncertainty, and the pulsing progression along a lateral chain of associations and qualifying clauses. At her most spontaneous, the pulses are perfectly sustained by a barely reined in, cantering rhythm. In calmer, more meditative works, the steady rhythm of progression and pause is like the cognitive equivalent to the gentle surges that punctuate a rowing crew’s steady forward motion – pull and drift, pull and drift. In either mood, the combination of fluid thought and fluid expression is immediately satisfying, and in that, it is carrying out the kind of aesthetic seduction that always bears a second look.

Nick Terrell is a contributing editor at The Ember.

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