Books

Jennifer Maiden
brookings: the noun

Male writers and critics seem more prone than their female counterparts to making claims about each other’s genius. After revisiting Jennifer Maiden’s work for this review, I feel it’s time to buck that trend. Maiden’s work is idiosyncratic, urgent and brutally intelligent. She is also committed to her imbrication in the politics of the world, dedicated to her art, and bent on making her own way forward. In fact, when her former publisher stopped producing her work, her daughter set up an independent feminist press to do the job.

Maiden’s books with Quemar Press look cheaply produced, which is understandable given the company declares its business model is to avoid overheads. But the quality of her poetry remains undeniable. Her work is conceptually driven, but also thoroughly worldly and always readable. Brookings: the noun shares its name with a US think tank, Brookings Institution. The collection’s first poem, one of several self-reflexive “Diary Poems”, further defines the term, undermining its lyrical associations and merging it with the image of a dangerous river: “The river beyond soft / brooking glints a deadly global thing.” The operations of the world may look refined, but they are, as these poems continually show us, far from that.

One of the defining strengths of Maiden’s poetry is her insistence that the domestic and intimate are contiguous with the global and political. Here, as in her other books, godlike figures from the world stage converse with each other in homely environments. Thus, Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton wake up and begin speaking “in a hotel room fogged in by Sydney Harbour”. Soon, the poem catapults the reader beyond naive fantasy as Eleanor asks Hillary, “whatever / do you want to confess about concrete shares in Syria?”

Maiden’s dramatic poems – others show Tanya Plibersek having tea with Jane Austen, Mother Teresa in dialogue with Princess Diana, Jorge Luis Borges mourning his missed Nobel prize with an Australian critic – resemble the satires of Aristophanes. But the poems do not foreclose on meaning in the way of satire. They are not about dogma. They are too playful for that, as the brilliantly handled monorhyme scheme – and comic neologisms – of the Eleanor and Hillary poem suggests. These poems are entertainment and provocation, moving well above and beyond “propaganda snuff”. Speaking of the literature Nobel, I can’t think of a better Australian contender.

Maria Takolander

Quemar Press, 80pp, $18

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 23, 2019 as "Jennifer Maiden, brookings: the noun". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Maria Takolander