Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
by Jennifer Maiden
ISBN: 978-1-920882-99-0, November 2012, Paperback, 104pp, AU$24.00
There’s something deeply original about Jennifer Maiden’s poetry. Perhaps its the way Maiden manages to combine such disparate and seeming unconnected images into a smooth, almost narrative presentation. Perhaps its the utterly female way in which the domestic, the political, the personal, and the universal are woven together so that there’s almost no distinction.
The book begins with “The Year of the Ox”, a seeming meditation on parenthood, aging and love, which grows outward, exploring ‘ox-like’ qualities like stability and perseverance, earth elements contrasted against a daughter’s vivid, fiery tiger-ness. Before we know it, the poem brings in political ‘names’, and starts to move, in almost free-association, across a panoply of shadows, from the literary and self-referential, through the very personal fears and machinations of the political characters that appear and disappear, like players in a dream. Modern figures like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, both of whom reappear in different guises through the book, become part of the overall ox-theme, while others like former British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, George Bush Senior, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, Woody Gutherie, Florence Nightingale, and even QC Chester Porter, in his role as Dorothy Porter’s father, drop in, moving with surprising deftness between their political roles and their personal pleasures, losses, and interactions. I can’t imagine this kind of riotous hotpot working well for many poets, but Maiden pulls it off with startling power.
As the poem progresses, the work continues to weave together historical events with the tenderness of parenthood – the poet’s own relationship with her daughter, Porter’s with his famous daughter, and the near parent-child relationship of mentorship: Hillary and Eleanor; Florence Nightingale and Queen Victoria, Julia Gillard and Nye Bevan, and the relationship between fictional characters George, who is looking after a young French baby and his partner Clare Collins, another fictional character who has murdered her siblings. Clare has returned from Maiden’s 1990 novel Play with Knives, as a mostly positive force through the poems. These are pieces of a puzzle which are worked through in subsequent poems, building in almost novelistic backstory with a godlike eye that traverses across time and space to create paratactical meaning that is more intuitive than intellectual. The meta-poetic is always at work here too, reminding us that this is not only a poem about the political, or the psychological, but also one about the nature of poetry itself:
The ox wakes and unbends her strong
knewes that snap like rifles, moves along
her furrow with a firm step then
a neutral one in a digital pattern: iamb
then trochee, a digit and a cipher, pattern
of poetry. (12)
Many of the structural themes that are introduced in the first poem begin to reappear in later ones. For example, throughout the book, the characters wake up in different places and different situations. Hillary Clinton wakes in New York. George Jeffreys wakes in Mt Druitt. These wakings occur in later poems too. In “George Jeffreys I I: George Jeffreys Woke Up In Langley”, the fictional character George Jeffreys wakes up in Virginia next to a vat of liquid nitrogen. Liquid nitrogen is used to keep the decoding computers cool. In this instance, the computer is being used to decode Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks website. George wakes in other places: in Sharm el Sheikh watching Clare on television arguing with the police; in Cairo looking out at Tahrir Square; in Oslo just after the 2011 Norway attacks; and in Beijing to meet with a Dissident in a cafe in the Forbidden City.
Julia Gillard cited Aneurin Bevan, deputy Leader of the English Labour Party from 1959 to 1960, as her inspiration. In Liquid Nitrogen, he wakes in the Lodge, to puzzle over Julia Gillard, who disturbs him: “he recognised the defensive studied affability, soul of a Welsh seaside town built on coal…” (18) He also wakes in Bathhurst and in Canberra, giving us a delicate and startlingly apt portrait of the Australian Prime Minister: “This woman did not converse, her flame/ ate her within always. Always. Always,/this woman haunted him.” (21)
Throughout the book there are many other wakenings, political events, connections that weave through the work like a silver thread (the gleaming white strands of Clare’s hair). I was particularly taken with the Diary Poems, which are no less political or referential in their approach, but which turn inward on themselves, exploring the notion of poetry-making and its meaning. Liquid nitrogen as a substance features throughout all the poems in this collection, but it reaches a kind of fruition in “Diary Poem: Uses of Liquid Nitrogen”, in which the nitrogen is used in a number of ways: to preserve sperm with all its symbolic potential, to preserve computers (a reference to “George Jeffreys I I: George Jeffreys Woke Up In Langley” cited above); to preserve the past, our memories and histories; to preserve the lyric; and to preserve the dead. Liquid nitrogen then becomes a metaphor for the power of poetry itself to both preserve and open up our inner and outer lives, bypassing the physical restrictions of prose and of the frailty of human bodies:
somewhere in this poem I could
tell you again that the language binary
of computers is the same as that of poems:
that the second process is the first, raw magic
of electronics responding to language, memorising
verse, its algorithms as careful,
even a metaphor, but just the inner
blood beat in the synapse, memory’s clay,
and somewhere in this poem, I may.(58)
Like most of the poems in Liquid Nitrogen, “Diary Poem: Uses of Liquid Nitrogen” is full of humour (yes, she may, somewhere), linguistic beauty and power, and a deep seated awareness of the play between reflection and action. We have a similar broad reaching impact in the final poem in the book, “Carina”, which couples the Carina Nebula that is used as the cover to the collection, with the notion of interferometry – a technique that uses the principle of superposition to combine waves. With an astronomical interferometer, a series of telescopes act together (in an array) to probe astronomical objects. In “Carina”, Maiden uses the ESO Very Large Telescope that takes the Carina Nebula’s picture. Though Maiden’s poetic description of the Carina Nebula alone is worth the price of the book, this building up of smaller things into something larger, powerful, and transformative, is exactly what Liquid Nitrogen does, taking the many cultural, political and literary characters and references, in order to create a complex theory of everything, woven together on a Maiden’s “spinning jenny.” There is so much to unpack here in this dense, rich collection which is “stunningly cool but alive/within with information, like/liquid nitrogen.” (80)
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.