Gig Ryan reviews Pirate Rain by Jennifer Maiden & Beneath Our Armour by Peter Bakowski

Pirate Rain, Jennifer Maiden, Giramondo Publishing, & Beneath Our Armour, Peter Bakowski, Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets,

Jennifer Maiden’s previous book, Friendly Fire, won The Age Book of The Year in 2006, and in her latest book Pirate Rain, she re-introduces some familiar characters in her ‘cluster’ poems that wind around their several themes. Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt commiserate before the 2008 U.S. election, while another sequence of poems brings back two characters from Maiden’s 1990 novel Play with Knives – George Jeffreys, a probation officer, and his lover and ex-patient Clare Collins  (“who had killed her younger siblings as a child” repeats like an Homeric epithet), observing Hurricane Katrina, Beirut and a Somalian pirate ship. These long discursive sequences brim with comedy, irony, drama but uppermost is the possibility of evil or goodness in the world, and whether these are reactions to circumstance or inscribed in character. In these poems, the past co-exists with the present.

Most poems glimpse the chief protagonists in their moments of doubt and crisis – Hillary Clinton seeking succour from Eleanor Roosevelt, George Jeffreys amid the debris of a lurid New Orleans:

In the sixth hour of the storm,
George left the Southern Comfort with his friend,
forced open the door
and walked back towards the nightflood, easily
for the wind walked for him. Soon a broken angel
in stone floated past, and too distant a tiny
nightdress or a child.

Each commences with a character waking up – “Clare Collins woke up in the Paris Hilton. Paris // Hilton was on the TV. Fox News, having disastered // on Iraq, retrained its sites // on Paris Hilton, more in its scope…” yet, across time and continents, as if waking into a dream. Sleep and waking are some of many undercurrents  – “I rhyme most // nearest sleep, like children” is echoed in many poems that end on rhyme. Another theme in Maiden’s work is how events are depicted by the media, mostly TV, that thread through every colourful scene as with Orwell’s pervasive media in Nineteen Eighty-Four: the image replaces the real, as it interrupts, instigates or controls a character’s thought. A sympathetic reader is assumed, and sometimes addressed.  Another humming  layer is how poetry can elaborate these things, jostling time as effectively as television.  Maiden’s work energetically complicates rather than simplifies the world. “Whole as usual only in a crisis”  (‘Clare and Paris’) is one of many ideas these supremely multi-layered poems proffer:

Hillary Clinton woke up in Michigan
in the G.M. plant strike of 1936.
…McCain would win
if they just wanted someone deadly, with
a sheen of compromise…
………………………….(‘Hillary and Eleanor 1: The Companion’)

Peter Bakowski’s Beneath Our Armour traces the development of character, often locating an incident from the past to explain the present. Most are dramatic monologues and portrait poems of artists, an incident illuminating an existence outside of, or parallel with, their work – “The authority I bring to writing // I cannot bring to my life” (‘Portrait of Cyril Connolly, critic’), while other poems depict art as an aid in times of crisis. There is usually some split – just as the book’s title states –  some implied contradiction between life and art – for example the blues musician back at work in the railyards accidentally hearing his own record. Other poems are portraits of criminals,  similarly outside regular employment and regular society, and some autobiographical poems that reach into memory, nostalgia implied with the past tense .

Bakowski’s introduction states his desire to write clearly, to be readily understood, and these poems certainly achieve that.  One problem is that the voices of these characters tend to limpid sameness, and the explanatory voice often enters the prosaic. It is not style of speaking Bakowski wishes to replicate, but to evoke psychology through brief statements and observations. These poems commemorate what often seem inconsequential moments, yet many also wear a sense of foreboding, of tragedies past or to come, as in ‘Sylvia Plath writing in her journal’ – “7 a.m. // Beyond the bedpost // No mirage of glad husband…”  A few poems read like unedited oral histories, where the importance of getting down facts and memories – shorn of art  – seems an ill-fated intention.

Some descriptions are sensitively wrought:
The river is brown-hued, wide.
In its shallows small black fish appear,
hyphens of life

……………………..(‘At Brunswick Heads, New South Wales, September 2006’)

and at their best an understated profundity weaves through many of these poems.

-Gig Ryan


Gig Ryan is Poetry Editor at The Age newspaper (Melbourne) and a freelance reviewer. She has published numerous books including New and Selected Poems (Giramondo, Australia, 2011); Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, UK, 2012); songs with Disband, Six Goodbyes (1988), and Driving Past, Real Estate (1999), Travel (2006).

Pirate Rain is available from Giramondo Publishing:

Beneath Our Armour is available from Hunter Publishing

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