Poems for Thinking: Jennifer Maiden’s brookings: the noun (Ben Hession)

Review by Ben Hession
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

Jennifer Maiden is an Australian poet who has been active for over fifty years, with a number of awards to her name. As recently as 2012, Maiden’s collection Liquid Nitrogen won both the C. J. Dennis Prize for Poetry and the Victorian Prize for Literature. In 2015, Drones and Phantoms won the Australian Literature Society’s gold medal. These collections demonstrate a shift that has been occurring around two decades, towards a primary focus on national and global politics while exploring the discourses as they operate on individual levels. In brookings: the noun, we see Maiden continue this trajectory using clear, direct language and a precise use of formal poetic meter.

The title of the current collection is taken from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem ‘Maidenhood’ (no pun intended, I suspect) in which a girl hesitates with fear at the cusp of adulthood:

Standing with reluctant feet
Where the brook and river meet,
Womanhood and childhood fleet![1]

Maiden turns the noun ‘brook’ into the participle verb form ‘brooking’. With this, she creates an appellative noun for the alleged activities of the Brookings Institute, mentioned in the collection’s opening, expository poem, ‘Diary Poem: uses of brookings: the noun’:

‘brookings’ meaning activities that the covert rightwing
make seem smoother and more inarguable than
their lethal ones: a good anti-racist position, anti-pollution
anti-gender/cross-gender discrimination, and
of course pro-educating women. ‘Who wouldn’t belong?’ (6)

Variations of the word ‘brook’ are scattered as a kind of motif for this systematic duplicity throughout the collection. For example, in ‘White Helmets’, a poem about the rebel-aligned Syrian non-government organisation, we see:

Words are white helmets in this brookings stage, in which
savagery hides in brook-like charm, fluffy clouds
of equality, seeming humanity. ‘Humane, it is said
the White Helmets stage atrocities and rescue in the name
of human rights, are really part of ISIS. It is claimed
they kidnap and murder children, for false flags. (9)

Jennifer Maiden

The politics Maiden explores occurs on the edges of the river, or the ‘mainstream’ if one is to interpret that word in its most literal sense. It is a world — to paraphrase ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Ethiopia’, from Drones and Phantoms — which is replete with ethical insecurity.[2] It is also a world of those supposed umbrous exchanges, the stuff of conspiracy theories, which pervade much of this current collection, as seen in ‘White Helmets’. We see, also, in ‘The round, pretty eyes of the Hebrides: Two Mirrors and Smoke’, how these become the substance of strategic game-playing, as President Trump explains to a vision of his mother:

… It’s just confirmed the Russians just supplied three
S-300 air defence systems in battalions to Syria because
of the Israelis, British and French playing mirrors and smoke
with bombing to down the monitor plane full of Russian
military techs. I’ve accused the Russians of Escalation.
But I don’t like being set up for Suez Mark Two by
that gang of amateur chessmen… (41)

In ‘Tanya and Jane: 4: “Their business is evil”’, a conversation about Australian refugee policy between Tanya Plibersek and a vision of Jane Austen turns into a discussion of billionaire George Soros:

‘who uses his money to fund small revolutions, all of them
in favour of free trade. And if a war results, the fleeing population
become an abundance of immigration, of which he is the champion.
An abundance which will lower’, resignedly Tanya
added, ‘conveniently for the rich the price of labour, destabilise
National boundaries so Multinationals prosper…’ (49)

If one thinks of the verb ‘to brook’, which the Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary defines as to ‘tolerate’ or ‘allow’,[3] then Maiden may be seen as asking what people are willing to accept or would not brook under given circumstances. In the poem ‘Butterfly Bullets’, the use of soft-nose bullets by the Israeli army against Palestinians is checked against public opinion. The academic and editor, Bridie McCarthy, notes how Maiden examines ‘the difficulties in establishing or adhering to ethical standards, rather than attempting to gloss over these aporia in favour of presenting a sound ethical platform from which to pontificate’.[4] Thus, in a different setting, ‘On the edge of Lake Geneva’, the apparition of Argentine author, Louis Borges, engages in a colloquy with an unnamed Australian critic about the politics of having been passed over for the Nobel Prize:

‘There are endless routes in the labyrinth, but none’,
said Borges, ‘in art can be controlled or won. In art alone
reality is conserved in its confusion. The Nobel Prize
then would have tolerated values that I despise
now because of aging, but I only wanted to receive
its respite from torture then when I could believe
that art itself was mercy: that I could impinge on reality,
like a Peronista, a muddled-meddling red Lorca, that was why
they should have given it to me then, when it was real, open,
this lake of yearning. Now I have what it would have given
the passivity in regret, the strange blessing to be jealous.’ (38-9)

Maiden uses these challenges to personal values to provide the means for dramatic tension and traction within the poems. Importantly, too, this poem illustrates how the formal constraints of poetry, such as meter and an apt placement of caesurae, nuance or heighten the intrinsic tensions. These, in turn, are counterpointed with rhyming, which, along with the other aspects of poetic formalism, reminds us that Borges and the critic are players in a hypothetical space, detached from the reader as actors are from their audience in a theatre.

In brookings: the noun, as in other recent collections, Maiden’s adept employment of such self-reflexive mechanisms of formalism also allow her a means to dispense with details of biography and logistical probability. For instance, the characters can simply wake up in the scenes that we find them, and, as noted, talk to apparitions of the deceased. What is essential, rather, for Maiden, is the focus on the revelatory dialogue between the prominent figures, past and present, of politics and the arts. This is particularly so where they are players in recurring sequences of poems, like the aforementioned President Trump and his mother; Jane Austen and Tanya Plibersek; Eleanor Roosevelt and Hilary Clinton; or even Mother Theresa and Diana, the Princess of Wales. The continuing dialogues of each of these pairings are editorial ratiocinations on the politics of the world or arts, or the intersection of both. They provide a form of interrogation of issues, with formalist poetry the medium of ‘reportage’. Here, Maiden utilises what McCarthy has described as her ‘prerogative to editorialise within her poetry, achieving an elegiac journalism’. This occurs, as McCarthy further notes, within a ‘polemic of critical verse’.[5]

In pursuit of editorialising, Maiden also eschews any attempt at approximating the cadences of the historical or contemporary political or social personages she uses. Indeed, their dialogue, in this sense, is as improbable as their actual meeting. As we see in ‘What Did They Do With The Bits’, Diana describes the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince as ‘a fruitcake’ who ‘bumps off/ and tortures all his rellies’. (58)

In the latest instalment of the George and Clare series, ‘George Geoffreys: 24: George Geoffreys woke up in Damascus’, Maiden revisits the Syrian civil war, the setting of ‘White Helmets’. Like that poem, conspiracy theories feed the discourse via which the conflict is seen. With ‘George Geoffreys: 24: George Geoffreys woke up in Damascus’, these conspiracy theories are the source of dialogue and movement, akin to an action thriller. We see this when an Aboriginal operative associated with ASIO, named Olivia, interacts with Clare:

Now Olivia checked the files and informed her
that the Snuff Director seemed to be on staff,
but no one could work out what he did:
‘The Helmets aren’t really us: they’re DFAT,
sort of: but he may have been teaching propaganda
videos in some course or other. He was born
in Australia. The Americans aren’t keen on him
because of that Iraq mess with their nurses, but
we could use more good footage of the Isil retreat. (73)

Here, one is reminded of a much earlier poem of Maiden’s, ‘The Problem with Evil’,[6] where ‘situation ethics’ that ‘works both ways’, are played out amid the Vietnam War for a narrator whose allegiances are indeterminate.

The question for readers of brookings: the noun is to what degree they find a level of detachment between Maiden and the politics and ethics which she interrogates within the framework of formal, lyrical poetry. Within the surreal and even comically-cast scenes there is the suggestion of a good deal of ironic removal. Yet, one cannot deny the political biases which underlie many of these scenes, as is often evident in the dialogue between their characters. Further, there is an absence of detachment in poems such as ‘Butterfly Bullets’, ‘Mockingbird, mocking bird’ and ‘Rope’. The level and nature of the politics in this collection, along with the continuing instalments of longer poetic series, may well alienate those for whom this collection is their first encounter with Maiden’s oeuvre. To use a phrase of music reviews, brookings: the noun may be something for the fans. Or, in Maiden’s own words in her preface to an earlier instalment of the George and Clare series, it’s for those who are ready for her work.[7]

Not all poems in this collection are steeped in the machinations of global politics, however, and where these do not feature, we also see deft imagery and musicality that in turn lend a certain poignancy, as with the series poem, ‘The Thousand Yachts: 2 : New Year’s Eve’. Here, the poet Kenneth Slessor wakes up by the shores of Sydney Harbour amid the celebrations beside the same unnamed critic Borges later encounters:

There is something about fireworks that ever
indraws one into guilt, thought Slessor,
feeling pity, respect and the old need to comfort.
He himself was feeling reasonably sanguine –
if not quite rosy as the brilliant tinsels that
were spread on prismed tides around them.
He had spent an intense evening with Noëla –
His first wife, the one who lived and died forever
in the tap of any footstep on the quay here in the dark – (19-20)

In the final poem of the collection, ‘Brookings Follows Us Home’, it is asserted that the drug culture of the sixties was the result of military infiltration, noting the fact that the lead singer of The Doors, Jim Morrison, was the son of an admiral involved in fabricating the Gulf of Tonkin incident. If Jim Morrison, by implication, was somehow an agent, he seemed an unsuspecting and dispensable one, dying an addict. Arguably, the drug culture had more to do with a sense of individualism which still lies at the heart of Western culture, and is embedded in the United States Constitution. In literature, it was anticipated by William S. Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch. It had also found a kind of academic weight with Doctor Timothy Leary and his libertarian sounding International Foundation for Internal Freedom. The sense of the individual pervading such a culture is depicted in the film Easy Rider and — as already noted — is the kind that the Brookings Institute allegedly empowers to make people acquiescent to its own nefarious ends. In a preceding poem, ‘brookings in fur’, the organization has metamorphosised into a small, cuddly creature, of which Maiden notes:

His unforgettable softness: as profound as all live fur,
but you, like me, may never let him go. (61)

The creature reappears in ‘Brookings Follows Us Home’, and is treated with a similar ambivalence: he wakes up, endures another cuddle, then

ambles back to the bush with that to-and-fro rhythm
of a child in panic or a lullaby. (80)

In a response to a review of Drones and Phantoms, Maiden said ‘it’s okay to treat my politics with respect and use my poems for thinking’.[8] I find conspiracy theories are often problematic. Perhaps, though, it is worth knowing that the verb ‘to brook’ is cognate with the Latin, fructus,[9] from which we have the English word, fruit. Indeed, one could say that we have each bitten into it. The collection brookings: the noun sees Maiden examining how we act out our ideals, imagining them — and ourselves — in relation to those we admire, and to their betrayers. She does not exempt herself from this process. The willingness to confront such undercurrents deserves respect, whatever our affiliations.

[1] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Poetical Works of Henry W. Longfellow 46, E. Moxon, Son and Company (undated).
[2] Jennifer Maiden, Drones and Phantoms, 8-10, Giramondo, 2014.
[3] Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary (Third Edition), 163, Oxford University Press Australia, 1997.
[4] Bridie Mcarthy, ‘When Poets Take up Arms: Combatting (Hyper)Real Wars Under the Abstractions of the New Empire’, Melbourne Journal of Politics, Volume 30 2005-06, 130, University of Melbourne.
[5] Bridie McCarthy, ‘When Poets Take up Arms’.
[6] Jennifer Maiden, ‘The Problem of Evil’, Selected Poems 1967-2018, 13, Quemar Press, 2018.
[7] Jennifer Maiden, Selected Poems 1967-2018, 360.
[8] Jennifer Maiden, Reply to Jonathon Dunk from Jennifer Maiden, Long Paddock (Southerly Journal), The Naked Writer 2, Volume 75, No. 2, 2016.
[9] The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, 51, Oxford University Press, 1986.

Jennifer Maiden 
brookings: the noun: new poems
Quemar Press, 2019

Ben Hession is a writer based, in Wollongong, New South Wales. His poetry has been published in Eureka Street,  International Chinese Language Forum, Cordite Poetry ReviewVerity La, Mascara Literary Review, Bluepepper, Marrickville Pause and the Don Bank Live Poets anthology Can I Tell You A Secret? He is also due to have poems published in The Blue Nib. His poem ‘A Song of Numbers’ was shortlisted for the 2013 Australian Poetry Science Poetry Prize. He has reviewed poetry for Verity La and Mascara Literary Review. Ben Hession is also a music journalist and is involved with community broadcasting.