Two essays on Jennifer Maiden
Ages of Reason: Ethics, Metaphor and the Work of Jennifer Maiden.
In Sartre’s novel, at the much quoted point at which the protagonist affirms “I recognize no allegiance except to myself... all I want is to retain my freedom”, he finds himself being chided by his brother:
I should have thought that freedom consisted in frankly confronting situations into which one has deliberately entered and accepting one’s responsibilities. You have reached the age of reason... but you try to pretend you are younger than you are. (107)
In Jennifer Maiden’s ten books of poetry, in her two published novels as well as in her reviews and essays there is a response to this challenge not to live a kind of ethical infantilism. But a complex and extended body of work engaging such issues needs in its turn a continuous response from the community of readers. In fact there has been no extended criticism of Maiden’s work and the sum total of attention she has received in reviews hardly amounts to a tradition of interpretation even though some of these (such as Finola Moorhead’s review of Maiden’s second book) do constitute extended engagement with individual works. There are many possible reasons for this neglect, one of which might be that Maiden has an equivocal status within recent conceptualisations of Australian women’s poetry, something which engaged Moorhead’s attention. It is difficult, though, not to suspect that the lack of attention ultimately derives from the complexity of much of the poetry. Maiden is one of the most challenging of Australian poets and her difficulties are of a particular kind. They do not derive from any radical transformation of the nature of poetry itself, or at least not a transformation as radical as that of many of her coevals, but rather they are often difficulties of expression, narrative conceptualisation, and thematic focus. Faced with the task of finding a suitable descriptive method, I have chosen to focus on an early work, “The Problem of Evil”, as an encapsulation of many of the topics which aggregate themselves around Maiden’s work. Tactically, however, the best approach to “The Problem of Evil” is through a number of poems which appear in the first book.
A reader’s initial experience of the poetry might focus first on the overwhelming presence of war at various levels in the poems, secondly on tendency of the earlier books to contain poems which are not meditative but rather brief, fragmented and compressed narratives (the frequency of these seems to have diminished with time perhaps because Maiden has found that up to now prose fiction can deal with this aspect of her interests) and thirdly on interpretive uncertainties caused by Maiden’s deployment of metaphor. In a sense all of these are related but the third of them, the question of metaphor and its effects on the experience of reading does make a useful point of entry. Time and again metaphor in Maiden has an unsettling effect, often because the alternative world of discourse which metaphor brings into play remains disturbingly present. Sometimes we are not sure which of the worlds of discourse is the “base” one. A poem such as “Circe” describes a visit to a woman:
. . .
She always says “You trust too much
. . . you never will be told . . .”
“Well, no, but then my innocence
is purposeful: ignominious but chosen . . .”
I relax, but with my sleek head
bent to touch the wood,
grunt into my handkerchief, scared
to be understood broken.
I needn’t talk tonight.
the saccharine whirl in her coffee,
never offer to tell my fortune
now, as she used to do.
I thwart her trade — which is to listen — too.
She thinks that I should need more
than sex & pillows & a phenobarb
to satisfy my famine for the sea
beyond her garden & this ample trough.
One night again to calm her I’ll pretend
humanity & lie it was a loss.
Many of the features of this cryptic little narrative will be familiar to readers of Maiden, even down to the doubt we have as to the sex of the narrator. More importantly we will recognise that it contains two crucial conceptions in Maiden, trust and hunger (here, “famine”). On the surface it is a brief incident, a visit, which focuses a relationship. The interaction between the two characters is rather difficult to grasp (again, a common feature in these kind of Maiden poems) basically, we feel, for expressive reasons. The core of the interaction is compressed into a cryptic exchange: “You trust too much...” and “my innocence / is purposeful: ignominious but chosen . . .”. It leaves the reader with the sense that the author is deploying an analytical framework with its own vocabulary, but one which the reader is not entirely confident with. But the poem’s use of metaphor is significant. What are we to make of the reference to Circe in the title? The later allusion to grunting means that the poem is not using Circe as a synonym for a sibyl or witch but is a specific reference to the Odyssey, and yet an extended application of the story would cause a good deal of disruption — even to the extent of wanting to make us turn the narrator into a man, since in the legend only men deal with Circe. The result is that the reference to Circe runs like a separate text alongside what is really a poem about an interchange. It is a complex example of the way in which metaphor, in Maiden’s poetry, does not serve as a slave device illuminating the significance of the poem and then lapsing into discreet silence, but rather, perhaps, reminds us of the isolating power of poetic and linguistic focus by continuously asserting the existence of other worlds.
As though to emphasise the significance of “Circe”, it is immediately followed in Tactics by another poem about an encounter with a woman, this time an older woman in a feverish state, and the poem is called “The Metaphor”:
I memorise the tragic “ethos”, stray
about your room. You protest in a fever:
cry out with plotless candour, damp as love.
“So mimesis means some comparison . . .”
the term’s last essay, set in Tragedy . . .
. . . . .
Studious of “crisis” I can hear
the murmur of the sheets, skin-subtle, smearing
your sleep with their starched peace.
Relaxing, I read, lulled again. Again
the fleshless winds wake, rocking with my fear.
This poem problematises the significance of the metaphor. On one level the “real world” of the sick room acts as a site in which an alternative meaning of crisis to that of Aristotelian tragedy can be exemplified for purposes of comparison but also contrast. But ethical questions emerge too when the relationship between the literary study of tragedy and a sick loved one is played out.
Another line of approach to Maiden’s work might derive from a poem such as “Haptic Chess” which introduces questions of our engagement with reality. It begins with a quotation from Henry Reed postulating two creative types: a visual type who makes a perceptual whole from visual experiences and a haptic type “who is primarily concerned with his own body sensations and with the tactical space around him”. This distinguishes not the passive/ receptive and the active/ intervening but more subtly different orientations towards reality. The poem itself seems to investigate Maiden’s own creative self using this distinction and decides “I’m half n’ half myself sometimes”. The haptic component of the personality is incipiently solipsist “you are alone & suspect / you are real, alone” and is driven to action principally as a kind of assertion of the existence of the self:
. . . & can
twist through the thing like a hero —
say, Bond in his undersea peril
tested in tunnels of torture,
deep in the villain’s design.
The central proposition of such a personality might be “I act therefore I am” and, in a modulation typical of Maiden, the ethical dangers of this are investigated:
The danger of the dream’s still that
it works, & that you find
yourself obliged to poniard some
dragon for its status . . .
The last part of the poem deals with the “visual” type which, I think, is described in the phrase “that warmed / & wilful sleep behind the waking gaze”. I take this to refer to a suppression of the ego in favour of a hyperintense receptivity. It may be no accident that this kind of attention is a crucial part of the epistemology of Simone Weil, an important influence on Maiden. Her “Reflections on the Right use of School Studies” (Panichas, 44-52), for example, analyses it continuously, but one of her well-known aphorisms says it most succinctly: “Moments of attention and insights of genius are not different in kind” (Cabaud, 56). Questions of appetite on the one hand and action on the other are present throughout Maiden’s poetry and much of the effort to understand her vision is involved in trying to tease out their significance and their relationship, but it may be that the essence of such a personality involves appetite: “I hunger, therefore I am”.
“Haptic Chess” which I read as an imagined chess game between the two types, focuses on the question but does not offer an entirely straightforward key to take into the later poems. One thing it does do though, in choosing a chess game as a setting, is introduce the way in which Maiden deals with conflict. Indeed the quotation from Herbert Reed speaks of the haptic personality being concerned with the “tactical” space around him, and one wonders whether a tactile/ tactical pun may not have been intended. Chess is a stylisation of war and war remains one of the dominant Maiden concerns. The titles of her books alone demonstrate this, even though in some of them the war reference is a punning one: Tactics, The Occupying Forces, Mortal Details, The Border Loss, The Terms, Acoustic Shadow. A battle zone forms the setting of “The Problem of Evil”, and the way in which military activity provides settings, subjects and metaphors throughout the poetry is something that even the most preliminary discussion of the poetry would have to investigate. The title poem of Tactics might be one place of many in which to begin, since it deals not only with strategy but also with the nature of narrative. It is a two-part poem in which the second section acts partly as a critique of the narrative proposed in the first. This narrative has many of the hallmarks of Maiden’s situational poems (such as, say, “Hypothesis”) but the beginning of the second part objects to its completeness and logicality. What is needed is the world rather than an author-controlled environment:
No, the last line rhymes too tightly,
& time’s random spill is strange —
too anarchic to quite execute
immaculate revenge . . .
no consequence is needed: just
those waters & a wristed watch,
that world . . .
The poem then makes an odd modulation and replaces the brief narrative of the couple with another in which the same voice which enunciates the critique appears as the woman of another scene with a couple. The woman repairs her face in a compact and sees the lazily sprawled man as a reflection. The conclusion is complex and full of double-meanings:
“I won’t keep you long now,” I say,
I now can’t keep you long,
that working of the world, to gain
Its expertise, a tactic of return.
I read this, tentatively, to be saying that the working of the world will ultimately drive the couple apart but that the tactic of seeing the partner in the mirror, ie (using the conventional metaphor of the mirror) as art, enables the woman to regain the experience for herself.
“Tactics” is, in other words, not only one of the dozens of poems which at one level or another involve military references, it is also an introduction to the ethics of narrative, particularly insofar as it involves authorial control. Asked in an interview whether one of the central problems of contemporary literature was to stay relevant to ethical questions in a world in which words were no longer considered trustworthy, she replied to the effect that it is not a matter of modern literature having a problem so much as being one (Duwell 129). She went on to quote Simone Weil as saying that “art is potentially evil because it allows man to ‘disincarnate’ himself, to forget about his own reality at the same time as using it.” Weil’s position, especially as expressed in her “Morality and Literature” (Panichas 290-295) is an extreme one in that she considers art and truth to be mutually exclusive. Almost all art is evil because it distorts the true moral status of mankind by rendering evil as attractive and good as boring. The only exceptions to this are a few works which, in their art, enable us to recognise that we are dragged by a kind of moral gravity towards the sin of constructing fictions in which, essentially, we lie about our moral status. Maiden’s position has none of the theological overtones of Weil’s, but it is from Weil that she inherits her thoroughly contemporary fear of the incompatibility of ethics and language and its fictions. Perhaps the best summation of Maiden’s position is the statement from her interview: “To state a thing is to transcend it”. Ethics is a matter of living, in other words, not of speaking. At the same time she recognises (though in a less canonical way than Weil) that art is capable of enabling us to understand the danger of art, and is perhaps the best hope for doing so. This tension is a crucial one in Maiden and it presents an ongoing problem which forms the basis of “The Problem of Evil”.
This twenty page narrative was written early in Maiden’s career at the same time as the poems of her first book, Tactics (ie in 1971 when Maiden was twenty-two). It was, however, not published in book form until 1975 and, it is fair to say, it has baffled readers since that time — it has more problems associated with it than its singular title suggests. It is prefaced by a quotation from one of Maiden’s own poems, “Tunnel”, itself a poem whose complexity lies in its metaphorical base. It is the point at which Maiden invents her own phrase, “the problem of evil”. This has caused confusion since, for most people, the problem of evil is an orthodox and much wrangled over Christian theological puzzle: if God is good why is there so much suffering in the world? But “Tunnel” with its lines “But the problem of evil drums, rhythm / and the drug of immediacy”, provides the clue that the evil which Maiden is investigating in “The Problem of Evil” is the immorality of experiencing the excitement of immediate events in a completely incarnate way without the ability to disincarnate and assess conduct. Also, perhaps, that it can be equally dangerous to carry a set of abstract ideals into a conflict (as with the Americans in Vietnam) without assessing the immediate reality.
The poem’s narrative is a complex one which takes a good deal of unravelling since the plot moves in the same compressed, cryptic way as the poems I have looked at by way of introduction. A man and a woman are sent on a rescue mission in a war whose exact provenance is unclear — it seems to recall, at various times, a Mediterranean civil war (perhaps the conflict in Cyprus), the Vietnam war and even the Northern Irish “troubles”. The first part of the poem concludes with the protagonist (a man despite some passages in which most readers are likely to guess it is a woman) falling while climbing near an outpost of the occupying forces. While his partner escapes, he is made prisoner. The second and third parts of the poem focus on the relationship between the protagonist and his captors. It is here where the central questions of loyalties, motives for action, self-doubt and inauthenticity are explored. In the fourth and final section, as the forces pull out in the face of guerilla threats, they seed the ground they are giving up with frozen poisons which will thaw at dawn. The protagonist knows of this plan, escapes during an accident, and finds the partisans (lead incidentally by a woman) but is unable to warn them that the land they have repossessed is poisoned and that their triumph will be a Pyrrhic victory.
This brief summary obscures an almost overwhelming amount of interpretive effort — what Finola Moorhead describes as “many hours of dinkum academic yakka”(71). Later quotation in this analysis will give at least some taste of the poem’s density but for the moment it may be enough to point out that, as the author herself has described, the readers of the first two publishers to whom the poem was sent were not able to register that it was a single coherent narrative. The metaphoric set-up of the poem and its metaphoric density — the kind of thing I have analysed in respect to “Circe” — has much to do with this. The major image of the poem is actually a nexus of references which generates a complex set of metaphors: it has to do with caves, catacombs, honeycombs and, by extension, sea, sky, bees and honey. We meet it almost immediately:
The soldier incognito, triggered, zips
his briefcase on his thighs & strokes his chin
at travel brochures: rescue.
Where salt has catacombed a reef
the engine of all meaning breaks to prove
each drowner molten in his sky of tides,
the sojourn in identity too long.
The last four lines of this are immensely dense and complex. To describe the sea almost casually as “the engine of all meaning” is not a simple explanatory metaphor but one which (as in “Circe”) compromises the world of the narrative and even the processes of narrative. The passage seems also to compromise the identity of the characters so that they are not coherent and logical entities but rather momentary formations of the sea of meaning and possibility. It recalls the various kinds of field-theory popular at the time and also even the film, Solaris, in which the oceans of the planet create living people from the memories of the visiting astronauts. The reef upon which the sea breaks might then be a bastion of essentialism in characterisation. Whatever the intended meaning, its catacombed state is clearly associated with the honeycomb a few lines later when the image of bees is introduced. The honeycomb with its hexagonal component cells might also be associated with the image of political machinations as wheels within wheels and in a sense the image begun with “the engine of all meaning” comes full circle when the protagonist says to his partner:
“The trick,” I said, “of wheels
within wheels is to build
the machine yourself . . .”
This analysis of a brief early passage will give some idea of the complexity of the functions of metaphor at the poem’s verbal surface. There are wider metaphorical questions to consider however. One of these is the status of the narrative itself. It is, for example, perfectly possible to read the poem as an allegory not of war but of the “war” between the sexes. Since so much of Maiden’s work concerns itself with relationships between men and women it seems reasonable to suspect that as readers we are being asked to allegorise this poem outward in that direction. I suspect that this is not in keeping with the author’s intention though it represents a defensible reading of the poem.
If we investigate the poem on the lines suggested in my brief discussion of “Haptic Chess” and “Tactics”, we can read it as being about self-identity and self-assertion, about appetite and incarnation/ disincarnation, about the ethical implications of this and the way in which these ethical implications influence the author’s narrative approach. The poem seems to be about the very questions of guilt, loyalty and belonging which are focussed by the situation of spying in a war situation, a situation where full comprehension of the machination of the wheels within the wheels is beyond the comprehension of any individual, certainly the individuals who turn up in the poem. This is focussed even more precisely when the war situation is that of a civil war. The narrative hub of the poem is the experiences of the protagonist during his captivity when the military intelligence officer, either through policy or as an experiment induced by boredom seems to make an effort to win his heart and mind. Mind-distorting drugs are used but so are subtler techniques including an analysis of the way in which the protagonist has been subjected to manipulation by his `own side’, something that he was always aware of.
Half-absolving me, they teach
me of my “conditioning”. The graphs
prove it by recording fear’s
inadvertent reflex in my heart.
. . . . .
so now at last their language serves me:
tailored to me like a home.
My voice explores unhurriedly
their new machine: its own.
In this new incarnation the protagonist is tested by being sent on missions, but the results are equivocal, at least to the reader: we are nor sure whether he really finds a dead woman at the water’s edge, or hallucinates that he does. When he escapes and is found by partisans he is interrogated and treated with suspicion (Russian forces dealt with escapees from the Germans in even more extreme ways in the Second World War). The ground which the partisans retake is, of course, poisoned ground — an excellent symbol for the results of civil war.
The ethical dimension of the poem revolves around this situation. In civil war both sides have a claim on the individual, from their own perspective at least, and the individual is not free to reject both sides but is a victim of both sides. Conventional fiction (especially cold war fiction) often exploits this by investing the protagonist with either an impressive, tragic fate (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, for example) or a rugged individualism and a canny contempt for both parties. Both these techniques are romanticised fantasises and Maiden clearly wants to deal with the ethical questions of reality. The Military Intelligence Officer, like the woman with whom the protagonist begins his mission, represents a person caught within the requirements of the ideology of his masters but who has enough awareness to understand his situation. Like the protagonist he cannot escape it either by flight or transcendence. The world of “The Problem of Evil” is thus one in which a disincarnating ideology is so dominant that the ethical requirement that one position from which ethics can be explored is an incarnated one becomes almost impossible.
Thus we might say that Maiden’s fictional scenarios, such as are embodied in “The Problem of Evil”, are attempts at what might be called “ethical realism”. This involves not only choosing scenarios in which ethical dilemmas are focussed but also exploring ways of investigating such dilemmas honestly. If we trace lines from “The Problem of Evil” on through Maiden’s later work we can see her first novel, The Terms, as a work using the same kind of situational, ethical conundrum, as is found in the central sections of “The Problem of Evil”, but also working on ways of eschewing an authorial control, expressed through point of view, which is a coy limitation of a writer’s omniscience and all-powerfulness. In this brief work the occupation of a building staged as a protest against an inner city “redevelopment” is hijacked by a more violent group with arms who escalate the protest into a siege. The protagonist, Ian Anstey, an architect, is caught between two groups, to both of which he owes some sort of allegiance. As the police negotiate with the occupiers, Anstey acts as a go-between, his own guilt in the affair a complex matter for negotiation between himself and the authorities. To complicate matters his ex-wife (who is never characterised as anything other than sympathetic and capable) is prepared to use his involvement in the affair as an argument for her custody of their child and his lover, Chrisogon, is the grand-daughter of the developer. In other words, the situation is one which focuses ethical dilemmas, not only for the characters but also for the reader. In the end, whatever Anstey’s ethical status, he loses. His child is killed in a presumed accident and his lover takes over her grandfather’s business to become a surprisingly successful entrepreneur.
Much of the structure of the novel reflects Maiden’s obvious desire to prevent the moral dimension being decided by generic features. The complex time sequence prevents there being a single climax which imposes a triumphalist conclusion in which complex questions are swept away by the triumph of one side or one individual. Similarly Anstey is cleverly constructed so that we find it hard to identify him with those heroic, lost individuals like Oedipus or Antigone who gain both pity and admiration as they are broken by a fate far too brutal for any one person to withstand, and thus demonstrate the cruelty of either the gods or the ethical setup of the universe. Similarly the novel tries to disconcert the reader and prevent a naive identification with the perspectives of the protagonist by having several passages from Anstey’s journal included. These are in the first person and thus remind us of the convention of omniscience involved in the other passages, but they also allow Anstey to remind us of the ethical dangers of fiction, of the kind I have mentioned: “Despite my use above and elsewhere of the third-person persona, I do not mean to criticise life as if I am not part of it”, he says, right at the beginning, as well as “since I have chosen the freedom of fiction and its pretence to be ubiquitous”. This obsession with the position of the observer and his or her temptation to exploit a fantasised omniscience leads to an inevitable interest in the ethics of journalism and Maiden has written compellingly of the ethical dimension of this kind of writing, especially in the two article length pieces which revolve around the autobiography of the CNN journalist Peter Arnett.
The aim of The Terms seems to be to transcend the simplicities of fiction by undermining the temptation of fiction to represent only one perspective, to try to make it, in the book’s word “multifaced”. Maiden’s second novel, Play With Knives, has the same interests but works as a distorted genre novel. As such it takes great risks, in that it asks to be read (and even marketed) with the ethical simplicity of a whodunit, but the non-generic features mean that we cannot read it simply in this way. Readers are fruitfully positioned between a generic and non-generic response. The plot of the novel deals with the re-entry into society of a girl who seven years before murdered three children in her care. The protagonist is the official who becomes her probation officer. The novel focuses on their relationship and gives the two characters the intelligence and articulateness to analyse out its complex strands of power, attraction and fear themselves. At the same time a set of murders are occurring and both characters are, at one time or another, possible suspects, at least to the reader. George, like Anstey, is positioned between the demands of different worlds: his professional life, his family life, his responsibilities to the girl, and so on. The novel’s technique for avoiding begging the question, transcending a problem by stating it, is to place the reader in a situation analogous to George’s — we do not know whether we are reading a genre novel or a love story and it is a fruitful awkwardness.
To deal, as I have done, with the interaction of ethics with metaphor and narrative technique gives Maiden’s work not only a consistency (which it does have) but a sameness (which it does not). We might trace the kind of response-to-the-world material of “Haptic Chess” through into the book length For The Left Hand where left-handedness is opposed implicitly to right-handedness and seen as the domain of “femininity, non-sequential or tactile (and tactical) logic systems . . . magic, violence, creativity” (Duwell 122). But the poems of that book, which include twenty-six devoted alphabetically to the protagonist’s “boxes”, are a quite different mix of meditation and narrative to the earlier poems. Maiden’s last two books of poetry, The Winter Baby and Acoustic Shadow, are more conventional in that they generally eschew narrative in favour of meditation, but they are very different in method from the poems of Tactics, The Problem of Evil and The Occupying Forces. They are modally more accessible, simply because we have experience of reading complex meditations, but their intellectual position is complex and consistent with the concerns I have outlined here. A sequence of poems on the gulf war in her most recent book, Acoustic Shadow, most of which seem to have been written almost as a diary of responses, continues Maiden’s obsession with war but in a structure which is itself more ambitious than a collection of meditations. Acoustic Shadow itself includes a long narrative poem “Guarding the Cenotaph” in which a school cadet guarding the cenotaph from the graffiti of Women Against Rape in War protesters comes face to face with a solitary protester. Each is armed with a poem: in the boy’s case it is Slessor’s “Beach Burial” (part of his High School curriculum) and in the girl’s Elizabeth Riddell’s “The Soldier in the Park”. They make love in an act which is perhaps will only ever be a temporary release from the ideologies which give their life meaning, although in the boy’s case there is a strong hint of a quantum leap in maturity. “Guarding the Cenotaph” perhaps embodies most of what Maiden’s poetry about civil war wants to say but its relaxed comic mode is at the farthest imaginable remove from “The Problem of Evil”.
“True Scope for the Dissident Heart”
The above article, written nearly ten years ago, focuses rather shamelessly on Maiden’s early work, especially The Problem of Evil, and pays insufficient attention to the later work included in books like Acoustic Shadow. I want to rectify this a little. Then there is the matter of the 1999 book, Mines, arguably Maiden’s best individual collection. Poetically, the essential feature of Mines is its unity of method. By this volume Maiden seems to have invented her own free-wheeling meditative style and even the last poems of the volume — the five poems that make up the “Epilogue” including three about Madeleine Albright which might, in an earlier volume, have been approached entirely differently — are in this style. I mention this at the outset because one’s first impression on rereading Acoustic Shadow, published six years before Mines, is how varied the mechanisms of the poems are and how like, in this respect, Acoustic Shadow is to the earlier books.
The first section of the book looks sharply at media-experienced public events and establishes us firmly in Maiden-land. The opening poem seizes on a seemingly innocent line from SBS’s advertizing for a video packaging of Ken Burns’ The Civil War — “The Civil War can be yours to enjoy forever” — and teases out its implications. It introduces the first Gulf War which forms the background to the entire book and, explicitly or covertly, enters into every poem, and focuses immediately on what is for Maiden one of its defining, symbolic atrocities — the burying alive of Iraqi soldiers:
the Gulf War seemed to neat for bayonets
and burial alive leaves no provisions
for observing an Acoustic Shadow: unless,
indeed, that puzzling silence falls direct
this time on the dead or on the world:
and doesn’t just create a soundless space
mid-distance from the fighting, as it did
in the Civil War: a ring around the battle
some miles off where guns and cries weren’t heard.
At the same time this poem looks back to the earlier Maiden work — of the kind I examined in my earlier article — by seizing on the issue of what exactly a civil war is and suggesting that the war might be the relationship of the sexes or, just as well, a continual battle within the self.
But you might as well at this stage ask:
what Civil War is it we are enjoying
and why and what we winners are resisting
still — and will apparently “forever”? Is
it the musak-humble hints at Stephen Foster
— suggesting how long losers last: his satiric
“We Are Coming, Father Abraham” in portions
behind the solemn credits — which infer
that death isn’t the madman whom we fear,
or the atom bomb that every player owns,
but just hard work and loneliness and here,
on a cassette with tape-head wearing down
until its static silences all questions?
The central of the seven sections of Acoustic Shadow is also its central achievement. It is a sixteen poem response to the first Gulf War as mediated through television news. One’s sense of this sequence is that it is ordered chronologically almost as though it were a kind of poet’s Weblog. It is, as ever, fascinated by the role of the war correspondent, simultaneously in and out of the violence:
It’s important not to write or speak in rage
which will truss up the apter words
and the syntax which sharpens the skin.
But it’s not a chess-like coolness which
we require, so much as the white-
jowled pit-eyed weariness once
of McCarthy in Chicago or, now, Arnett
in Baghdad. Having seen we must speak
but slowly . . .
This response and interest is in keeping with Maiden’s sense of “the problem of evil” that I devoted so much of my earlier article to, but another poem, “‘The Indispensable Third Party’”, essays a psycho-analytical approach to the violence of war, mixed in with popular culture in the form of the novels of Stephen King, the favoured reading matter of the soldiers. In King:
Side has a firm efficiency
and the best heroes,
are children — since they are,
above all, functional, assess
the Dark Side as combatable,
the Father and the Teacher.
. . . . .
Always here, the Third is not
the Devil but the Child,
for whom all wrongs are personal,
all dreams avenge the night.
An aphorist might say: the West
is one huge hospital,
and in hospital not just patients
but the staff too will choose
to read King and desensitise:
to handle the blood better,
rest at last that fear is right.
A small poem, “Measurement”, reminds us that this war opens the final decade of the Twentieth Century and thus sets the tone. It also recycles the micro/ macro switch of focus by commenting that now we are no longer in a world where a kind nod can settle “many squabbles on the hearth”. It concludes with a socially committed poet’s one bleak satisfaction:
to be said for the decade:
true scope for the dissident heart.
Many of the other poems in Acoustic Shadow are about public events experienced through the media. Some are superbly done little vignettes such as “Wenceslaus Square” and “Mandela in New York” which both describe the re-emergence of a public man who is now an icon. Of Mandela she says that the first loss is “not time or health”:
so much as forever of the freedom
to escape to the purposeless self.
But a number of these poems interestingly think about the nature of this kind of culturally focused poetry. Two of these, “The Detonator” and “The Science” are worth a careful look. The former deals with the Lockerbie crash and, at heart, is an examination of a fairly clear pattern of cause and effect — Maiden, in a note, describes the poem’s central theme as “the need to see violence in logical sequence and therefore discontinue it”. What is interesting is the poem’s apology for writing about Lockerbie, as though there was a boundary either of good taste or cliche:
Normally, one would still draw the line
at writing poems about Lockerbie, or yet
another burned-up baby, who was not
meant to be there when the bomb homed in.
at last, this time, the sandwiched news —
cause and effect — makes a clear space
in one’s creative process where the dead
. . . . .
can marry well in history, become
a microchip we bury in our heart,
whose wiring has changed
“The Science”, also from the opening section, is one of the most important poems in Acoustic Shadow, if only for the way it investigates openly the interaction between public and private life and how this tension operates in poetry. The poem begins by looking at how a precise public position creates in Maiden a vaguer, rather than more focused, sense of the self:
Looser, softer, fumbling feeling
at a self beyond an attitude—
that is what comes sometimes, as
a parallel part of the self assuming
a knife-edge public stance.
And then goes on to state her own forensic methods:
to one criticism made, it is not
my position to state this and then
complicate it out in many ways.
Rather my habit’s to examine
with some energy if the thing
is true, and if so
how far true it is. I think
this one is largely true, and I preferred
some earlier centuries’ knowledge
that the public and the private world
The last of the Acoustic Shadow poems that I want to look at is a short one that appears late in the book, “Easter Eggs, 1991”
All grace is an insurrection
Shells break inadvertently, as
the world cries too simply
for rebirth. Flesh, however,
searches itself for power, and in
the last surge lives to question.
here our bony wings flutter,
arch stickily against their branch
too whole, too hallowed infinite,
to bear some new order, or other
burden of resurrection.
The poem’s burden, I take it, is that individuals should not be forced to carry the weight of realizing any culture’s sense of a new order. This is in keeping with the general position of the poems of Acoustic Shadow for, after all, the pain of Mandela and Dubcek derives from being forced to accept that they are icons in a new world order (though not President Bush’s). But the method here is as interesting as the content. For this is Maiden writing in her old style, and is perhaps one of the last examples. The method is to compress a host of punning images involving eggs (chocolate and real), Easter rebirths, resurrections and insurrections. The result is a complicated and compacted unity of the sort that her earlier books have made familiar. It is a lot of fun to imagine this poem teased out into the style of the poems of Mines. The conception would be essentially narrative: she and her daughter would be opening Easter eggs; news of the first Gulf War would enter the poem; it would switch to notions of rebirth and “new world orders” and so on.
But perhaps the best way to introduce this style is not to use hypothetical examples, but rather the marvellous first poem of the book itself, “‘Look, I’m Standing on No Floor’”. I think of this poem as one of the best of its decade and it is worth quoting in full:
“Look, I’m Standing on No-Floor”
said Margaret Cunningham’s four-
year-old daughter Tessa, her fingers
clenched whitely on the table-edge, her feet
luxuriously in air. Margaret is still Director
of STARRTS, the N.S.W. Service for Torture
and Trauma Rehab., and I am still their
sort of Writer-on-Call. Together
we wrote a chapter about a child
called Layla who comes from no-country
in particular, a fact which has already —
together with the letterhead Torture and Trauma —
put off at least one publisher. Layla
has witnessed torture and many other
forms of not-belonging. Margaret and I often
have also stood on no-floor, child or woman.
said that, I joked about the shoes
I’d worn the day before: open high-heels
very black and very tall, and very
precarious: “I was standing on no-floor
a lot yesterday”, but it was
worth it because I only paid nine
dollars for the sandals and felt as sexy
as something airy from another world.
But the torture:
Margaret joked about a phone call
to the T.&T. Unit from the cloistered A.B.C.,
asking to interview clients who’d really
enjoyed their torture, were into S-M. I
observed this was a travesty of my theory
that people after trauma need a hierarchy
but both idealize and demonize it, and that
recognition of S-M in their sexuality
might clarify the process for them:
when you’re standing on no-floor, you skate
or fall or just stay-put, appreciate
the elevation. We also spoke of Arthur
Stieglitz photographing Georgia O’Keeffe
as hundreds of nudes, and how women at one
of Margaret’s workshops had gone out to pay
a photographer to give them back their bodies.
One works better in all areas, I think, with
a confidence in one’s geography,
there’s a vaginal velvet emptiness at centre
studded with that vaginal
diamond mine of nerves,
no-floor is not a life-defining problem.
On the wall
near this table at Margaret’s, a Georgia
O’Keeffe lily is as poised as Tessa’s joy.
A later poem, “The Nubian Spoon” speaks of the effect of writing “several / autobiographical poems” clearly intended as a description of poems like “‘Look, I’m Standing on No-Floor’”, but it is not the overt autobiographical cast which marks out these poems, rather it is their free-ranging allusiveness within a highly unified structure. In other words it is the links and modulations that give us the thrill as much as the ideas or the enjambment-generated drive of the things. The little girl’s phrase connects to the experience of sufferers of torture and their lack of a clear sense of where they are situated. This in turn is connected to other women’s sense of their embodiment. The autobiographical element is worth observing, though, because it is a feature of the poems of Mines. I can imagine it irritating some readers, but I find it reassuring that Maiden makes so many appearances that we sense a certain naivety, awkwardness, confidence and pride in the character, almost like a speaker in public who is not accomplished in the trivial sense but knows that he or she has something much more important to say than the other speakers. Most poets inhabit their poems in a much sleeker way than this. The major result of Maiden’s voice is that we sense that she sees the world clearly and analyses it according to her lights.
Not only do the poems of Mines have a related method of working, they also have clusters of autobiographical references and clusters of themes. Maiden, in this book, is obsessed by stones, for example: opals, moonstones, lapis lazuli, pearls, diamonds and so on; in the later poems she is obsessed by roses. What these recurring images do is act as unifying reference points when the structure of the poems might be inclined to become tenuous. Thematically, much of Mines is about violence and evil and the attempt to deal with them. Another fine poem beginning with a child’s casually heard pregnant comment, “Can We Dive Into the Monster, Jenny?” is very much about evil and says, in passing, speaking of witnesses rather than sufferers,
of evil is when to expect it, how to slow
that expectation into sips,
small enough to allow
withdrawal or confrontation.
This recalls, of course, Maiden’s obsession with incarnation and disincarnation — the continual process of becoming part of an experience and then withdrawing from it to gain perspective. “‘Look, I’m Standing on No-Floor’” shows this process of a double perspective extended in the experience of people who have suffered severe trauma when it speaks of their need to both idealize and demonize a hierarchy. In fact the perspective of the sufferer of severe trauma is one of the dominant themes in the book as is Sado-Masochism (a fine triple-trochee, though Maiden, for all her interest in the rhythms of the language in which violence is mediated to us, prefers the spondaic S-M). The attraction of the latter seems to be that it, too, shares the process of switching perspective: from being the one who causes pain to the one who experiences it. The relationship between S-M and trauma is best expressed in “Lapis”:
and I think of my theory
that grief and trauma cause us
to yearn for some earlier order,
so we seek out something like it
— then reject it because the trauma
was a parody of order, this pattern
unsettled and unsettling, ever
repeated angrily, and that
S-M and Art (is there a difference?) might
be attempts at a solution.
. . . . .
to the problem of order-hunger (which may
be called the problem of evil) is
to enjoy a situation in which order
is clear but reversed often, as it seems
it can be with mother and child . . .
The entrance of “art” into the equation here is important since an analysis which focused on the way in which television transmitted violence but which did not analyze itself as yet another medium would be hypocritical at best. In fact Maiden’s poems think about poetry continually. “Lady’s Chair” contains a passage excusing art for its desire to dominate and to prevent the necessary switch to detachment:
which gives it the excuse
to manipulate one
there’s a strong pitch to the senses
in this, which can summon
for metaphysical dimensions, decisions.
This brings me back, of course, to the concerns of my earlier essay, but I don’t want to lessen the force of the poems from this book. This is a poetry full of ideas but it is blessedly not beholden to existing intellectual ideologies. It never seems merely deductive, as though the generalizations preceded the observations, it is always holistic in that it treats human behaviour as connected and resists division and demonization, and thus seems closer to Montaigne’s sense that there is nothing human which is alien to him.
I: Works Cited
Cabaud, Jaques. Simone Weil: A Fellowship in Love. London: Harvill, 1964.
Duwell, Martin. A Possible Contemporary Poetry. St Lucia: Makar, 1982.
Maiden, Jennifer. Acoustic Shadow. Ringwood: Penguin, 1993.
———. Birthstones. Sydney: A&R, 1978.
———. The Border Loss. Sydney: A&R, 1979.
———. “Censoring God’s Spies”. A.B.R., No. 163, August, 1994, 42–45.
———. For The Left Hand. Sydney: South Head Press, 1981.
———. Mortal Details. Melbourne: Rigmarole, 1977.
———. The Occupying Forces. St Lucia: Makar, 1975.
———. “The Penisolate War”. A.B.R., No 159, April, 1994, 22–27.
———. Play With Knives. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1990.
———. The Problem of Evil. Sydney: Prism, 1975.
———. Selected Poems. Ringwood: Penguin, 1990.
———. Tactics. St Lucia: U of Queensland P, 1974.
———. The Terms. Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1982.
———. The Trust. Wentworth Falls: Black Lightning, 1988.
———. The Winter Baby. North Ryde: A&R, 1990.
Moorhead, Finola. Review of The Problem of Evil. New Poetry 23.2: 69-74.
Panichas, George A. (ed). The Simone Weil Reader. New York: David McKay, 1977.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Age of Reason. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961.
II: Works Cited
Maiden, Jennifer. Acoustic Shadow. Ringwood: Penguin, 1993.
———. Mines. [Sydney]: Paper Bark Press, 1999.
Ages of Reason: Ethics, Metaphor and the Work of Jennifer Maiden - first appeared in Australian Literary Studies, 17.3 (May, 1996), 254-263.
Martin Duwell, Persepolis, 2002
Martin Duwell is a Senior Lecturer in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History at the University of Queensland. He has published, with R.M.W. Dixon, two anthologies of Aboriginal Song Poetry and a set of interviews with Australian poets of Jennifer Maiden’s generation. He has published widely on contemporary Australian poetry and has strong interests in classical Persian poetry and medieval Icelandic literature.
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