Siobhan Hodge Reviews Jennifer Maiden’s The Fox Petition

Jennifer Maiden, The Fox Petition. New South Wales, Giramondo Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-922146-94-6

 

Siobhan Hodge

 

In her latest collection, Jennifer Maiden continues her politically-charged examinations of Australia in a richly historical and simultaneously contemporaneous poetics. The Fox Petition is a deft examination of a range of issues, central to which is the notion of belonging or not belonging – native or immigrant – and the ironies and hypocrisies involved in such distinctions.

The opening poem of Jennifer Maiden’s The Fox Petition establishes the deeply critical tone of the collection, set to exposing hypocrisy with a style that is both restrained and compassionate. “Death by Dissonance” opens with a wry comment about the NSW government’s biosecurity laws that prohibit keeping “a newly acquired fox”:

Part of his brain hates foxes,

hate the people who rescue,

neuter and vax fox young, give

them to sensible homes, part

of his brain knows this

would make his synapses eschew

the crusade and relive

a time before poison, a whole heart

not patronised by a purity

in which all confusing mercy

is his non-native death.                     (1)

The collapse of distinctions between animal and human unveil Maiden’s recurring focus throughout the collection, namely the cruelty of Australia’s detention of refugees and xenophobic tendencies.

The “fox” of Maiden’s poems recurs frequently, invoking the 18th century Whig politician Charles James Fox, a staunchly anti-slavery British politician who was also supportive of the French Revolution. “Once I Met a Fox” compounds the poet’s calls for sympathy and mercy, whilst also showcasing her critical edge. At first the fox in this poem refuses to take on human form, “I wondered if it were about / to turn into a woman”, refusing the initial interpretation of this as an allegory rather than a reflection on the difficult position of introduced species in Australia, before conceding to the over-arching human focus of the text and collection, “… but this animal was simply / the great Charles James Fox, Whig / politician … ” (57). The human focus returns, and Maiden threateningly reflects:

… Now,

since new laws for Biosecurity,

if I spoke to the fox without

killing it, I would be charged, but

we once had much in common. A quality

spare and wild with desperation

in its streetlamp eyes, its old headlight

eyes could still suggest a city

in shifting shapes, its identity

aristocratic in lost deceptions

On an empty

road by the Lakes, I once met a fox

whose eyes were ghosts with pity.              (57-58)

The dark hint of this need for compassion rather than condemnation strikes a balance between Maiden’s human and animal figures, as well as the past and present. There is no evading injustice and its violent tolls here, despite Maiden’s neatly restrained stylistic expression.

Maiden’s poems frequently invoke well-known historical and literary figures, blurring lines between the past and present. The effect is an unsettling but almost humorous and compelling tone as Maiden stages a dinner between Mahondas Gandhi and Barack Obama, while in a later piece Queen Victoria scolds a crestfallen Tony Abbott. In each poem Maiden’s playful setting belies a steely undercurrent; each figure’s decisions have and will take their places in history. Australia’s contribution within the collection continues to revolve around exclusionary policies, even in broader world political contexts, such as those shown in this section from “Victoria and Tony 6: The Famine Queen”:

… but the toxic

and imported can be necessary, dear

Sir Anthony’ – he loved the title so – ‘I

myself am fond of potatoes. Do you know,

they called me “The Famine Queen?”’ He jumped

to her defence, as usual: ‘Oh, Ma’am, no:

you are always my source of nutrition.’ She

added, ‘I see your Queensland Biosecurity has started

a “military-style mission” against South American

fire-ants, using remote sensors refined

from the US Military. Surely that would mean

rather a lot of money?’ It was not just, he discerned,

of fire-ants she spoke: her words were often

dual citizens: knowing he was, knowing quite

painfully about his banished home.         (14)

Even Maiden’s Tony Abbott isn’t immune from feelings of alienation and exclusion within Australia, but The Fox Petition spares its strongest, most resonating criticisms for the injustice of Australia’s detention of refugees, particularly in “Diary Poem: Uses of Xenophobia”.

The Fox Petition is a resolutely critical collection that, despite featuring several long narrative pieces, does not give over to excess nor at any point feel repetitive. Maiden is diverse and dynamic in her exploration of the many faces that persecution for “not belonging” can take. Her wry examination is extensively researched and cleanly delivered, shifting from settings that inspire incredulity then horror.

 

Siobhan Hodge has a doctorate from the University of Western Australia in English. Her thesis focused on Sappho’s legacy in English translations. Born in the UK, she divides her time between Australia and Hong Kong. She has had poetry and criticism published in several places, including Cordite, Page Seventeen, Yellow Field, Peril, Verge, and Kitaab.

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