Siobhan Hodge reviews brookings: the noun and Selected Poems 1967–2018 by Jennifer Maiden

Jennifer Maiden, brookings: the noun: new poems. Penrith: Quemar Press, 2019. ISBN 978-0-6482342-7-2

Jennifer Maiden, Selected Poems 1967-2018. Penrith: Quemar Press, 2018. ISBN 978-0-6482342-0-3

 

Siobhan Hodge

 

The introduction of brookings: the noun opens with an explanation: Jennifer Maiden describes it as ‘a collection to do with disarming (both as an adjective and a verb) deception which falsely identifies a target or cause of indignation, or deception which identifies causes as being left wing when they are safe and acceptable but ignores other profound and dangerous problems, or deception which accepts a cause as benign when it is misleading and possibly malign’. (4)

The political world is rife with characters that Maiden selects and deploys throughout brookings: the noun. The quick wit of Maiden’s merciless political persona poems renders these some of the most engaging pieces of the collection. At this stage, there has been some prolonged character development as Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt are brought together again to swap tactics in the twenty-first century, Trumpian landscape. Maiden’s astute political and historical knowledge threads a balance between dry humour and sinister revelation. Princess Diana sits with Mother Theresa; Donald Trump negotiates with his patient mother, Mary Anne MacLeod.

brookings: the noun is played out in a series of condemnations. ‘Butterfly Bullets’ is almost prosodic in its delivery of the use of ‘butterfly bullets’ which expand inside the body when shot, used by Israeli snipers. Maiden posits the ironies of soft justifications with visceral and the strategic allocations of blame:

… And by chance

the resulting whittled-down rounds would flutter

inside the flesh in starburst agonies. Israel, however,

has no shortage of the proper designed equipment,

and no doubt no shortage of winged explanations, as

delicate as the exquisite PR woman, as clean-spoken

as if just emerging from cocoon. I can imagine reasons

she might give in advance: it is not the Geneva Convention

which bans dum-dums but only the Hague in 1899,

and then only in warfare and only international. Use

of them remains legal: for hunting, and for the police,

so that the bullet doesn’t re-emerge, collateral, in

its chaos …

(27)

The image of the butterfly is looped back into the poem at several points:

… Let us now imagine

a scarlet and black butterfly, its nursery-soft wings

pressed together as if praying when it drinks from

its first tearful blossom, quivering as such things

do when they succour, its feet kneading like kittens,

wing edges as serrated as the black and red in wounds.

(28)

Public opinion is a knife edge, but one which is easily balanced, as Maiden wryly reflects. This is continued in ‘Mockingbird, mockingbird’. Maiden engages with a CIA operative’s disclosure of press and CIA collusion in the poem’s epigraph, moving to engage with cyclic and frustrated repetitions with notions of truth:

Mockingbird, mockingbird, you echoed me in the night,

with nothing but your own mirror-light: ‘I am the Work

of a Nation. The Centre of Intelligence.’ I scoffed:

‘The official motto. Tell me the unofficial, something like

Work shall set you free – or was that Auschwitz?’ The bird’s

cry blinded like a mirror: ‘It was about truth, truth,

not work, from John 8:32: And you shall know the truth

and the truth shall make you free.’ …

(45–46)

Maiden’s speaker demands honesty from the mockingbird, only to receive echoes and her own unanswered questions. But the speaker places the grim foreknowledge of the eventual answer in the poem’s final lines

… I know that you will answer me,

mocking to the last, will answer

only what you hear from me, that your call will sound as free

as my own ghost in the dark.

(46)

It is this lingering, latent threat of violence, shielded by the different iterations of political and social ‘brookings’ that plagues these poems. Maiden pushes back against complacency. In ‘Rope’, the speaker’s refrain ‘We’ll talk soon of Elbridge Colby’ hints at the catastrophic foreshadowing of the recommendation offered by Colby, a member of Trump’s administration: ‘If you want peace, prepare for nuclear war.’ The speaker throws the human cost of such rhetoric in the listener’s face:

They threatened and promised so much,

and why when I was contained, numberless,

and posed no threat?

We’ll talk soon of Elbridge Colby.

But I ask you to hold this rope,

as no postmodernist conceit.

My weight will rip inside your armpits

and I’ll sway like a corpse

back and forth on blind depths

too lightless even for black, too deaf

for wet echo …

(62)

Threats for peace do not offer grounds for purchase. Maiden’s brookings: the noun is an investigation of the myriad failures of platitudes and their grim undertones. The collection’s final piece, ‘Brookings Follows Us Home’ reimagines this collective of meanings as a stray marsupial, gentle and drifting, as the speaker ruminates on the issues gone before in previous poems. The final lines draw out that cyclic process of creating such means of speech and excuses, their soothing mask and eventual return:

He wakes up, endures another cuddle, then

ambles back to the bush with that to-and-fro rhythm

of a child in panic or a lullaby.

(80)

After reading brookings: the noun, the transition to read Maiden’s Selected Poems: 1967 – 2018, also published by Quemar Press, was informed by an interest in tracing the evolution of the ideas and images shared in the former. In curating a collected works such as this one, there are logistical considerations. Maiden has published over 24 volumes of poetry. The works chosen to appear in this collection share many features in common with brookings: the noun. Visually, the poems become distinctly longer across the page as the sections progress through the years. The early, shorter lined verses give way to longer pieces. The speaker takes firmer ownership of voices. Maiden’s crispness of imagery, paired with sharp and complex observations of human nature on political stages across history are consistent forces.

‘The Green Side’, taken from the 1978–1986 collection The Border Loss, For the Left Hand, pairs surprisingly well with the more recent poem discussed from brookings: the noun. ‘Mockingbird, mockingbird’ is an evolution of more insistent tones, in contrast to ‘The Green Side’ where:

Autumn is unquiet everywhere.

Our redhaired Natasha is suing the wind

for sexual harassment. Somewhere

in South America the C.I.A. is plotting

to overthrow the C.I.A. again. We are

re-elected to the Borstal Board. Yes, there’s

no such thing as a bad boy here.

We shot them. All the girls

straddle Yamahas, blush, bush-walk

and come down storming. Natasha

wakes up, her molars grinding

together like rough tiles. In barred air

at her window the leaves dance dying.

Half the tree shakes clumsy crimson.

The green side is still with fear.

(53)

There are suggestions of wry humour, undercut by tensely sexualised motifs. Instabilities of power are cyclic, not ever truly permitting change to occur.

The majority of Maiden’s Selected Poems 1967 – 2018 firmly establishes her canon of historical and contemporary figures, set out as characters on a stage to be challenged, spoken with and spoken for. Their motivations are laid bare, but seldom simply. For example, the dispassionate arrogance of Condoleezza Rice in ‘Costume Jewellery’ is played out against the history of her family, descended from slaves:

you were a young black woman, you

don’t like Positive Discrimination. You sacked

a Chicana dean and her students went on hunger

strike, but you shrugged, ‘I’m not hungry.

I’m not the one who’s not eating.’ Descended

from slaves in a white house, you’re proud

how ‘Granddaddy Rice’ changed religion

to get on. ‘Praise Be,’ you said, smiling.

(141)

The morally questionable judgments of historical figures are infinitely accessible and Maiden’s speaker resolutely shifts back, letting the sombre tones of such pieces be implicit in poetic setting and selection of detail, rather than clear and direct speech. Fundamentally, these are the works of a historical poetic scholar.

Two poems which initially caught my eye for their equine motifs were ‘Plastic Ponies’ and ‘Smooth Unicorns’. Written after the anniversary of Tiananmen Square, ‘Plastic Ponies’ uses the shining plastic bodies of the toy horses to reflect on prison labour:

Some were made in China,

probably

by dissidents from prisons.

(87)

The speaker is discomfited by the symbolism of their radiant, pastel bodies in contrast to the more natural horse models among them. The implications of these unblinking tokens proves to be their constant reminder of unaddressed injustice:

I have always mistrusted

dusty collectables: all dry

silk and vinyl blossom. These, however,

have stolen past my guard and stare

unbiodegradable

there, in their broken basket, poised

like free parts of a person, bare

carnations that can’t self-express or die.

(87)

In contrast, ‘Smooth Unicorns’ uses the equine image of the speaker’s daughter’s toy unicorn as a contrast to the more masculine mythological figure, subtly shifting control:

… Before,

I thought of unicorns as male power-symbols, said

– rather oddly – to represent purity in

the company of virgins, but these

two are complacently girls, the bridge

of each nose acute with pleasure, and

both mouths curved plump with promise,

and with poise …

(102)

The speaker’s young daughter negotiates the historical tapestry unicorn through her own purple-daubed, sparking version, resulting in the assessment ‘I think the thesis / that smooth unicorns can be women eases / my blood. My daughter takes it for granted … .’ The symbolic shift of the mythological animal is a reimagining of gendered conventions, not necessarily refiguring, but re-directing their energy and supplanting their potential for suppression.

In both texts, I have been consistently surprised (occasionally amused) and always intrigued by Maiden’s selections of figures, their unlikely pairs and parallels, and their implications for the wider world. Both brookings: the noun and Selected Poems 1967 – 2018 require that the reader be prepared to read further to tease out more from each poem, grounding more not only in the symbolism of Maiden’s chosen figures, but also her broader poetics of sharp critique. Maiden’s poetics also stand perfectly on their own. They are compellingly presented with standout imagery, but there is always more to unpack.

 

Siobhan Hodge has a Ph.D. in English literature. Her thesis examined the creative and critical legacy of the ancient Greek poet Sappho. She most recently won the 2017 Kalang Eco-Poetry Award and second place in the 2019 Ros Spencer Poetry prize. Her work has been published in several places, including Overland, Westerly, Southerly, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, Axon, Peril, and the Fremantle Press Anthology of WA Poetry. Her chapbook, Justice for Romeo, is available through Cordite Books.

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