A Discursive Poetics: Caitlin Maling Reviews ‘Drones and Phantoms’ by Jennifer Maiden

Drones and Phantoms by Jennifer Maiden Giramondo Publishing 2014

Drones and PhantomsIn her eighteenth book Drones and Phantoms Jennifer Maiden returns to war. This is perhaps unsurprising as we remain a country, and a world, embedded in conflict and no other poet exists as purely in the Kairos of our exact sociopolitical moment as Maiden. Hers is a discursive poetics, in conversation and argument with day-to-day events and the people that influence them—definitively a poetry aimed at bringing us the news.

This is evident in her use of three recurrent poetic structures, George Jeffreys poems, diary poems and what can be loosely termed a public-figure-wakes-up-has-enigmatic-conversation-with-other-public-figure poems (think Hilary Clinton chatting with Eleanor Roosevelt). These primarily dialogic forms are features of her previous books, (most notably the preceding four) extending out each collection into an extended poetic dialogue. Although each poem, each book, remains discrete, it’s more in the way that a particular phone call ends than in the limits of a physical object. This is what allows Maiden to stay so particularly in the present. ‘Hilary and Eleanor 10: The Coppice’ is, as the name suggests, the tenth of a series of conversations. In this one we find Hilary recounting the Bin Laden assassination:

the drone and that Bin Laden episode
of reality TV,’ added Hilary, before
the old lady added them herself. ‘Yes,’
said Eleanor without variation, ‘I thought
watching live assassinations, some of them
involving children wouldn’t be all that
helpful for your health, dear, whether
we speak of arteries or soul, indeed
to have trapped oneself as an audience
to prove oneself an actor isn’t what
I would ever want for you

This is a telling ending. Television and the act of watching, and, subsequently, what watching requires of us, are some of Maiden’s more complex and ambiguous themes. The ‘audience’ spoken of here is simultaneously Clinton, the reader and, most loaded, the poet herself. In these conversation poems, despite the public figures that occur and reoccur, we always get the sense that the poet is interrogating herself. Here she questions whether it is action enough to bear witness and what, if news is converted into entertainment, the nature of that witness is. Can the poet reporting on the action ever escape questions of how much of their witness is self-serving: speech to prove one can speak? It is this complexity that helps Maiden out of corners that could otherwise prove problematically didactic, reminding us of Yeats’s famous mantra “we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”

It is in her diary poems that we best see Maiden levelling her gaze at herself and her craft. Maiden, like Yeats, is prone to working and reworking themes, images, ideas and using sequencing through her collections to guide the reader along her thought pattern. In ‘Tanya and Jane’ we find Tanya Plibersek and Jane Austen having tea and chocolates:

Jane was
so sympathetic too about her children.
From her shrewd Slovenian family, Tanya
respected this property of an aunty, grateful
when Jane admired her new baby.

Then in the next poem, ‘Diary Poem: Uses of the Politician’s Wife’, the poet offers us advice on how to read the previous interaction between ‘Tanya and Jane’:

The
policy of the belittling alternative
is so entrenched that when I wrote
a Plibersek Austen poem the assumption
from one practiced reader was that I meant
by describing their relationships with babies
to recommend that over
their professions, although in fact
I was suggesting that a lack
of critical confidence in both areas
was unwarranted and socially defined,
all similes on creation intertwined.

By placing this poem after the originating poem, Maiden rewrites the first poem and as readers we are compelled to perform a re-reading. In Drones and Phantoms, and particularly in the diary poems, Maiden deftly directs such commentary at her readers and critics, acknowledging the fallibility of poetry to directly communicate, while actually justifying its power. Throughout the collection she highlights ethical or moral ambiguity and the ability poetry has to rest within discomfiture and uncertainty, her frequent rewritings and references to her own past work are key ways she embodies these concerns.

The biggest risk Maiden runs in being so invested in the day-to-day political is in not maintaining freshness. For all the strengths of the collection, the title poem is a curious let down. Weaving snippets of media together—Julia Gillard’s commentary on her hair and discourse on American use of drones—the poem is failed by a lack of the reflexive personal perspective that grounds some of the other political poems. The ending of the poem has pleasing prosody:

…….while some other
indirect country considers surrender
and its teasing leader’s unlucky
hairdresser gives up

however, the poem’s overall sparse pairing of oppositional Australian/American political statements is not extended otherwise through use of voice or image. In this poem what we are left with is news of the temporary sort.

Such is pleasingly not the case for most of the other standalone poems. ‘Maps in the Mind’ uses repetition to establish a tone of questioning insistence, the speaker demanding we engage with Manus Island: ‘too hot, too late, too cold/ the maps-in-the-mind of Manus Island,/ like maps of Manus Island.’ In this poem, as in all of Drones and Phantoms, Maiden proves herself incapable of evasion, forcing herself and her readers to confront the present world and think, not just about the role of poetry, but what role each of us has in our worlds construction, even through just the simple act of looking, of reading.

 – Caitlin Maling

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Caitlin Maling is a Western Australian poet. Her first collection, Conversations I’ve Never Had, was published earlier this year through Fremantle Press. Shane McCauley’s launch speech for Conversations I’ve Never Had can be found here  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/02/17/the-interplay-of-tones-and-images-shane-mccauley-launches-conversations-ive-never-had-by-caitlin-maling/

Drones and Phantoms is available from  http://www.giramondopublishing.com/author/jennifer-maiden/drones-and-phantoms/

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