Books

Jennifer Maiden
The Fox Petition

An enduring image in Jennifer Maiden’s 19th collection of poetry, The Fox Petition, is of her meeting a fox at night on an empty road. As Maiden gazes at the fox, it transmutes into the prominent 18th-century Whig statesman Charles James Fox. Maiden stops herself from conversing with the shape-shifting creature, though, as new biosecurity laws have deemed the fox to be a pest in New South Wales, and so: 

if I spoke to the fox without

killing it, I would be charged, but

we once had much in common.

This encounter typifies the book’s inquiry: an exploration of the paradoxes of Australian xenophobia, and an analysis of this nation’s ability to harness its fear of the other as an effective form of “pest control”.

Maiden approaches these themes with techniques she has honed throughout her career. She juggles multiple personas with often contrary philosophies, and expertly uses time travel as a poetic device. Not hack sci-fi time travel, in which the paradoxes of the space-time continuum have to be untangled, but a time travel of the well read, in which voices separated by history – Tony Abbott and Queen Victoria, Obama and Gandhi – are afforded the chance to talk to one another.

The most compelling poems of the collection are the “female duets”, in which women speak to one another beyond male discourse, and “make each other credible, which is / any duet’s requirement”. Penny Wong speaks to Gillian Triggs, Hillary Clinton speaks to Eleanor Roosevelt, and Maiden speaks to her daughter. These duets are both feminine and feminist, and as is often the case with Maiden’s writing, very funny.

    Hillary showed her friend

her new logo: an ‘H’ turning into an arrow.
    Eleanor 

observed, ‘The arrow is going right, dear’, but

Hillary said, ‘The left would look backward, but

it doesn’t mean we won’t go there, darling

one.’

The Fox Petition is a political collection, yet it is not didactic or enraged; rather, perplexed and searching. Maiden identifies with the fox as introduced species, just as she identifies with “immigrant humans, / whether in Australia, Nauru or Manus”. It seems her capacity for empathy stems from intellectual imagination. It is her ability to think like the other that saves her from the lethal logic of xenophobia that prevails in this country.  WB

Giramondo, 96pp, $24

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 21, 2015 as "Jennifer Maiden, The Fox Petition". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: WB

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