Jennifer Maiden is one of Australia’s most prolific and impressive poets. Leaving a string of accolades in her wake, her three most recent books have all won major prizes, including Liquid Nitrogen, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Griffin International Poetry Prize. Her latest offering, Drones and Phantoms, is again likely to attract deserved praise for its disparaging irreverence and unique poetical premise.
I have never read anything quite like Maiden’s work. It is absurd, lyrically conversational poetry. In Drones and Phantoms, she seamlessly fantasises dialogues between unlikely pairs: Mandela and Obama, Queen Victoria and Tony Abbott, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. Within the poems, which are almost entirely void of context and offering no explanation as to how or why, the historical and contemporary figures discuss their wanton desires and moral queries without restraint.
A favourite vignette has to be the amusing, complimentary exchange between Tanya Plibersek and Jane Austen, as they sip and enjoy Kevin Rudd’s limited edition tea and ponder aunthood, ‘Skilful/of old at praising babies, Jane said/the practiced things to thrill and reassure/the tired mother, at last relaxing to feel/that now indeed she had done something special.’
There is little abstraction in Maiden’s poetry. Though her figures have surreal encounters, the language is largely stripped of poetic cues such as metaphors and similes, leaving a prose-like style imbued with political realities and straightforward, no-nonsense diction. Tony Abbott admits to Queen Victoria that, ‘mam, everything inside of me is war’, whilst other poems reference everything from colonisation to Manus Island and Pussy Riot. Stylistically, the poems are consistent; they seem to be modelled on the straight-edged formality of newspaper columns, possibly evoked by their political themes.
Maiden says what she means and doesn’t hide behind flowery language. One stand-out piece, ‘White Cyclamen’, begins in a way we’re perhaps more used to, but it’s just a magic trick, and Maiden promptly returns to her realist style, ‘nothing is smoother,/like clouds and the moon beside them./But they aren’t pure either./There is a lily-green underside them./This is the start of an ASIO poem’. It’s funny, in a sort of I-despair funny way.
Self-referential and abrasive, Maiden isn’t afraid to challenge her critics or subvert our expectations. In Drones and Phantoms, she has created a piece that is as reflective of her own disconcertion with our politicians as it is generous in the emotional depth she imbues in their imagined, inner tribulations.
Louise Jaques is an emerging poet. Her piece, ‘Synaesthesia’, was published in the 28th UTS Writers’ Anthology, ‘Sight Lines’, and she recently placed equal first in UTS’s annual spoken word competition, Wordstock. You can find her on Twitter here.