Alice Allan reviews The Metronome by Jennifer Maiden

 

Jennifer Maiden. The Metronome. Sydney, NSW: Giramondo, 2017. ISBN: 9781925336214

 

Alice Allan

 

The title of Jennifer Maiden’s latest collection initially seems to have only a tenuous link to the highly detailed, politically focused poems within. But the name is apt for at least two reasons. First, these are poems that function as markers in time, documenting the fluctuations of recent history along with a wider historical context. Second, the book continues, even crescendos, the rhythms that have persisted in Maiden’s work since 2005’s Friendly Fire.

We cannot assume that Maiden wrote the poems in this collection with an ecopoetic framework in mind, but it is possible to identify broad priorities that resonate with ecopoetic thinking, particularly the poetic methods Jonathan Skinner suggests “model ecological processes like complexity, non-linearity, feedback loops, and recycling”.[i] Maiden consistently prioritises the complex and specific over the simple and general. She also displays a concern with the work of recording and re-using these specificities, along with a desire to represent the interconnectedness of her subjects.

The specificity of Maiden’s writing is one of its defining features. Real people, real places and historical facts provide not only the subjects for her poems but the content that moves each poem forward at the line level. In “‘I Want to be a Turkmen Warlord’”, for example, memories of a childhood rhyme lead to details of the moment when:

ISIS in Syria was ferrying truck on truck

of oil to Turkey at cheap prices,

paid by the ruling family, the US

hesitated to bomb because the truck

drivers were civilians, but then Putin

bombed them, anyway, and where these

days can you buy cheap oil if not

from ISIS and that indeed is the reason

oil prices have fallen and the Saudi

economy is a mess

(“‘I Want to be a Turkmen Warlord’”, 25)

ISIS, Syria, Putin and the Saudi economy are not topics many Australian poets would tackle in a single poem, but in The Metronome they are just as suitable as childhood memory. Whether examining geopolitics or a childhood rhyme, Maiden remains in direct contact with the details of specific events, rather than retreating toward smooth generalities.

This foregrounding of specificity occurs again and again throughout The Metronome. Rather than speak about animal cruelty in broad terms, for example, Maiden instead creates an imagined quote for Jeremy Corbyn, who says “I opposed / the dogs-for-meat slaughter in Yulin.” (“The Gazelle”, 4). And instead of including Malcolm Turnbull merely as a conservative Australian politician, Maiden goes much further, imagining a conversation between Turnbull and William Bligh in which we have time to consider Turnbull’s relationship to his uncle, his mother and even the fact that his mother “won a Guggenheim / to research the link between Victorian workers, / Feminism and the fight against Vivisection.” (“Temper”, 39).

The cumulative effect of these specificities, referred to in one poem (through George Jeffreys) as “vital trivia” (“Clare and Nauru”, 14), is that Maiden’s readers are never off the hook. She has of course invented these conversations between George Jeffreys and Clare Collins about Nauru, Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt about various pre-election scandals, and Jeremy Corbyn and Constance Markievicz about the contours of their political views, but the web of particulars that holds each poem together feels more true than the content of any news article. We cannot escape into the comfort of a simplified narrative. Each new detail shocks us back to attention, mounting a convincing case for the position Maiden gives to Corbyn: “‘Neatness / always does seem to be a lie.’” (“The Gazelle”, 9).

Maiden is not exclusively concerned with recording details of the recent past. She is just as interested in creating a space where forgotten and neglected subjects can exist on equal par with the various outrages of the moment. In “‘Turn Again, Wittington’”, for example, Bernie Sanders’ surprising win in Michigan, his loss in Ohio and his will to continue campaigning regardless leads to thoughts of London:

I thought of the Bow bells

intoning ‘Turn again’ which is why

maybe I wrote this. The London Blitz

blew up the Bow bells, but they were rebuilt

a decade later amidst Mary-blue plaster,

still shouting in their sleep to Whittington,

still mourning each apprentice in the river

(“‘Turn Again, Whittington’”, 56-57)

The relationship between Sanders’ story and this history of Bow Bells may not be obvious, but their juxtaposition suggests the way events sometimes echo and double back on each other, rather than proceed along a predictable trajectory.

Through her signature device of tracking conversations between two or more figures, Maiden creates a space where these reverberations can be explored. These poems magnify the particulars of each speaker’s story, giving them time to consider their relationships to one another along with their own actions. The final poem in the collection, for example, takes us into George Jeffreys’ hotel room as he muses to Clare Collins on the unfolding results of the 2016 US election:

‘I met Trump a few times in the City. At a couple of bars

and a dinner. He gave money

to Prisoners of Conscience, maybe thought we were

the CIA one, by mistake. At any rate, we agreed

on nothing but being against Globalism – though that was ever

at those boring troughs, a cheerful bond in hate.’

(“George Jeffreys: 20: George Jeffreys Woke up in Washington”, 74-75)

This may feel like too minor a moment to dwell on, especially in a poem about such a cataclysmic event. But this is also the kind of detail a poem that prizes particulars needs to include. We don’t often remember them, but even the most shocking days will also contain at least a few minutes of relatively mundane reflection.

It’s worth pausing here to look at the place Maiden creates for herself between these imagined conversations. When we zoom in on the poet herself she appears as confident creator, fully aware of the wider response to her work. Nowhere is this more clearly spelled out than in “Jennifer Maiden woke up outside the Fourth Wall”:

It’s always been quite puzzling that so many

critics and poets try to mimic my device that

someone woke up somewhere, but substitute

my name for the ones I explore, as if

no one else had done it.

(“Jennifer Maiden woke up outside the Fourth Wall”, 41)

Maiden goes on to explain that the dialogue between the speaker who wakes up and their conversational counterpart are “the point […] of / the packed form”, adding that no one who has recreated this form has included her own dialogue: “So far, in / none of their constructs do I reply”.

Maiden’s presence inside her own work is another way The Metronome highlights the blanks that occur when we insist on linear narratives. Maiden is interrupting the traditionally one-way conversation between critic and poet, exposing the messier back-and-forth that takes place behind the static printed/digital word. And because Maiden is so present, the reader is required to maintain their presence as well. There is no question of checking out for a line or two. We must remain alive to our own responses and our role as readers.

This emphasis on engagement and specificity results in an accumulative rather than linear structure to the collection as a whole. As each poetic conversation progresses and details mount, we begin to see the interconnectedness of Maiden’s subject matter. “Diary Poem: Uses of Catalonia” is an example of this layered, non-linear structure. The poem begins with “Hilary Benn’s dreadful, dreadfully / overrated speech to the House of Commons in favour / of bombing Syria” (27). Maiden notes Benn’s comparison to the Spanish Civil War, then brings in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Next, after discussing her daughter Katharine’s love of Catalan, Maiden goes on to include a number of passages in Catalan itself. As the poem gathers speed, it moves into a bracketed section in which Maiden speaks metapoetically:

(And, yes, that should always be the poet:

a shivering enemy to secrets. Remember,

Richard Rees wrote that in Barcelona

Orwell’s wife’s face was the first time he’d seen

‘the symptoms of a human being

living under a political terror.’ But later

even use of Catalan names

was outlawed in Madrid.)

Still, that poem, of course, was not really ever

About Catalonia. I wrote it the night

Assange went into the Embassy.

(“Diary Poem: Uses of Catalonia”, 30)

As this poem ends, a network of sorts begins to appear between its subjects: Catalonia, politics, terrorism, Assange, Sweden, Britain and the writing of a poem about these topics are all part of a “feedback loop”. While not directly related, each subject sparks off the others. As readers we begin to see the impossibility of writing that is both true and clean—that neatness may indeed be a lie.

The pace of current events since this book’s publication might well have meant it became dated before leaving the warehouse, but in fact many of these poems feel absolutely relevant. They have survived a feverish news cycle precisely because they consistently eschew neatness and remain willing to grapple with complexity. The collection reaffirms the now familiar argument that managing challenges like climate change, or the ever-widening economic divide, requires that we look closely rather than swatting at these issues with catchphrase solutions like “austerity” or “clean energy targets”. The great strength of The Metronome is that it takes the time to do this work. This is poetry that watches the news, reads history, but knows reality is never so straightforward.

 


[i] Skinner, Jonathan. “Jonathan Skinner: EcopoeticsJacket 2. Web. Accessed 10 June 2017.

 

Alice Allan is an Australian freelance writer and editor with work published in journals such as Australian Book Review, Westerly, Cordite and Rabbit. She is an associate editor at Verity La and publishes a podcast at poetrysays.com.

%d bloggers like this: