Contemporary Australian Poetry.
book review - Drones and Phantoms by Jennifer Maiden
Jennifer Maiden’s latest poetry collection, Drones and Phantoms, joins the Australian poet’s already very impressive list of prize-winning publications. In this installment, Maiden offers a series of accessible and intriguing discussions that link the personal with the political. The collection’s exceptionally critical content, referring heavily to a number of current political issues, is balanced by Maiden’s inclusive linguistic and structural approaches; the poems offer access at any point in the collection, though are best read in sequence to get a broader sense of the project. Drones and Phantoms is a multi-layered engagement between the abstract and the quotidian, as well as immediate and imaginary experiences, and is thoroughly critical of human and animal rights abuses throughout the world.
One of the most immediately interesting features of Drones and Phantoms is Maiden’s liberal incorporation of famous living and deceased political, religious, historical, and literary figures. The unlikely combinations of these almost add an air of irreverent humour to the collection, but this is strongly underpinned by Maiden’s delicately critical approach to these figures and the issues linked. Notions of literary influence and mentorship in general, issues of physical and sexual violence, as well as human rights abuses, animal abuse, racism, war, poverty, and many more, are all touched upon in this collection.
Maiden’s sympathetic speaker interjects frequently, particularly in poems that address poetic mentors, “answering back” to reviewers, and allegations of influence. Drones and Phantoms, despite its titular implications of margins, distance, and dehumanisation, is strikingly personal and direct. One of the first poems to appear in the collection is titled “Offshore”, and here Maiden wryly links the famous poet Sappho with rather more modern, racially tinged economic concerns:
Sappho did call
her ‘Cypriot’, after all.
If I were Hope, I’d write Aphrodite
birthing on a Cyprus Beach, in
sapphires of ejaculatory foam,
to wonder how much she could sill
withdraw from her savings, to scoff
she wasn’t a Russian launderer, but
about to extinguish it all, just
a native coming home.
Maiden engages with the image of Sappho as the first recorded female poet, whose works referred to the ancient Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, in a variety of flattering names. Here though, Sappho’s choice of the name ‘Cypriot’, referring to Aphrodite’s alleged birthplace, links Aphrodite with a sense of origin, but also border restrictions. Even Sappho, in Maiden’s reckoning, was preoccupied with immigration. The seemingly bizarre leap from miraculous divine birth in a sea of sapphires, to snide references about ill-gotten funds and not belonging to one place, sets up Maiden’s recurring techniques of presenting the unexpected, and aligning otherwise distanced figures and scenarios with more immediately topical issues in the twenty-first century. These techniques are amplified to great effect in later, longer poems in the rest of the collection, including Maiden’s staged discussions between Hilary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt in “Hilary and Eleanor 10: The Coppice”, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa in “So That’s Who Those Motorbikes Were”, and Queen Victoria and Tony Abbott in a series of four poems.
Not only do these poems’ unexpected links continue to surprise the reader, but Maiden indicates a recurring preoccupation with communication and the importance of originary figures in making further decisions. Silence is thoroughly problematic, and this is demonstrated to fantastic effect in Maiden’s long poem “Diary Poem: Uses of Silence” towards the end of the collection. Maiden’s expansive cast of women personas and speakers engage tellingly with ideas of mentorship and support, touching on issues of gender representation. Anxieties of influence are also examined with particular delicacy in “Diary Poem: Uses of Frank O’Hara”, which examines Maiden’s speaker’s intentional and unintentional negotiations with this male literary predecessor. Maiden directs a discussion with her O’Hara persona, particularly in the following lines of the long poem:
… I wondered: am I shocked myself
really that I’ve never read O’Hara? I do
not miss O’Hara, but I said I would
write a poem called Frank and I about us.
The imaginary O’Hara would confess
of course that he has not read me either,
despite which we would feel quite at home.
I see us relaxed on a gritty tenement balcony
on a star-chilled American evening
with drinks in our numb hands speculating
why poetry is so much about denying
what one is not, and why anxiety
about influence is stubbornly so scary…
Here, the unintentional mentor figure found in O’Hara is claimed entirely by the speaker, despite the initial air of concern. The speaker frames a setting for discussion, opening up communication and grounds for comparison, rather than leaving the unexplored link alone, or problematising it on general, rather than direct and personal grounds. Maiden’s speaker is self-assured, engaging, and entirely in control of the situation. The title itself acknowledges this control; O’Hara has “uses” in, rather than control over, the poem. Maiden focuses on establishing a channel for communication, but also acknowledges her own poetic primacy and influence over the otherwise more egalitarian setting.
The “Diary Poems”, divided throughout Drones and Phantoms, are as sympathetic and personal as they are clinical in their delivery of factual events and their implications. Maiden’s pieces do not shy from violent or sensitive imagery, but certainly do not profess that there is only one suitable response to such scenes. However, issues such as violence against animals are one of many recurring debates in Maiden’s collection. The final poem in the book, “In Proportion”, revisits images of a giraffe killed in Denmark and indefinite detention on Manus island, explored in earlier poems, linked with Maiden’s speaker’s own sense of injustice:
The Director of a Writers’ Society tweets
flatly that my book is not her ‘thing’
because it is too political with only
a ‘niche’ of poetry: my proportions
aren’t correct. In Copenhagen an animal
is fed and its brain destroyed by
a steel bolt before flat ‘autopsy’. On
Manus a man is fed and his brain
destroyed by a steel bolt before a real
autopsy, the usual criticism
of the animal death grief that it
is ‘out of proportion’, and the human
that it is out of proportion
with split universal grief. Not cut up,
the politics is still poetry, the giraffe
the man, and there is no part less
which we can save from the flat jigsaw death.
Maiden’s clean precision, outwardly clinical and preoccupied with factual delivery, akin to a newspaper article, is also consistently referential not only to broader international events, but also her own works. Poetry is simultaneously entirely personal and entirely political; the two cannot and should not be divorced from one another, just as the suffering of the two figures in this poem are thoroughly connected.
In Drones and Phantoms, Jennifer Maiden offers access points to a range of readers, varying between levels of interest and experience in reading poetry.
The collection is pithy, wry, and completely destabilises expectations, despite referring to contemporary events and famous individuals. The political saturation and shifting levels of personal engagement of Drones and Phantoms make the text all the more accessible and compellingly disturbing.