Melinda Bufton reviews “Drones and Phantoms” by Jennifer Maiden
by Jennifer Maiden
Reviewed by MELINDA BUFTON
Jennifer Maiden’s Drones and Phantoms is her 19th poetry collection, the most recent in a list of titles published with marked regularity since the early 1970s. Her work is frequently noted to contain recurring themes that circle violence and war, her bio on The Poetry Foundation website neatly summarising this as occurring ‘…through multiple voices, including those of public figures, family members and fictional or mythical characters’(1). In Drones and Phantoms this technique is the defining logic. The poetry adopts the voices in order to disrupt, and to decouple expectation from experience; from the expectations a reader might have regarding the treatment of violent themes, right through to the expectations of reading contemporary poetry (the jump-cut effect of a conversational multiverse that tantalisingly suggests the famous can access a kind of secret mentoring scheme). The question of exactly who is speaking is fantastically fraught; the question itself is an elastic and provoking device that never lets up, is eerily relentless. The other side of this – also stretching each poem to its fullest tension – is who are the poems speaking to?
‘Uses of..’ is a motif used in many of the poem titles throughout the book, in most cases with less macabre resonance than others: for example, ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Sparrows’, ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Silence’, ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Judith Wright’. The recurrence of the phrase suggests that the elements housed by each poem are interchangeable nodes for the purposes of a well-built poem. Alternatively, each is a selection of sharp highlights taken from of our world that require actual (almost verbal, real-time) response. In ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Dismemberment’, the reader is offered a selection of narratives that illustrate the 2012 killing and dismemberment/autopsy of Marius the giraffe at Copenhagen Zoo (it was widely reported that this took place in order to comply with the zoo’s policy of not retaining animals unsuitable for use in breeding programs. Subsequently, zoo staff dismembered and fed parts of the giraffe’s carcass to other zoo animals in a public viewing area of the zoo, which was described by the zoo as an educational opportunity for children to understand anatomy.)
In this poem, there is no easy path through these ‘Uses of’, although poetic consideration is given to what players in this tableau have offered as moral, scientific and political reasoning that underpin the act: ‘The team dissecting Marius look as proud as nurses’ (p 65), ‘On the internet, Danes attack those mourning Marius saying their priorities should be human or the improvement of animal species’ (p 65), ‘Looking up “Bestiality in Denmark” on the search engine I found that there really are many successful working brothels which provide animals for the customers’ (p 63). And, just before the end, musing that Marius must have been relieved at the offer of rye bread so early in the morning, ‘That is as close to grief I will go on this’ (p 66).
Should we as the readers, go closer? Is that what is being asked? The work seems to say ‘I will not pretend to be impartial, and you will not pretend to ignore’. This is perhaps a very modern blueprint for how political poems can work; and by work, I mean leaving a stain in your thoughts for many days to come, because when the insufferable is jammed up against the absurd it must be unknotted carefully. Which is to say, the lines ask us how we will consider the close juxtaposition of bestiality – and the faint suggestion that this is particularly popular with the Danish – with the idea that ‘..Only the best med students carve cadavers’, this latter phrase preceded by the directive ‘You should remember, too…’. We are being told we need to consider all aspects, and not be knee-jerk – as by a patient teacher – while a patrician tone slides in from the side: ‘Only the best med students’ (emphasis mine) contains echoes of other societal markers, such as class, or authority within society. This in turn may subtly remind the reader to ask questions regarding who makes the decisions in our worlds; who is speaking, and who are they speaking to? That this has been achieved with poetic shifting voices rather than overt statements of protest or defence illustrates the way in which this densely-packed poetics operates.
Adoption of voices within this work is overwhelmingly conversational in tone (irrespective of the speaking position or adoption of voice/s). The conversational language also operates as a bait-and-switch mechanism. The neat trick of here-now-Queen-Victoria-but-wait-Port-Moresby-Tony-Abbott…? (‘Victoria and Tony 3: Woods and Feathers’ p 26). We don’t (most of us) know the political figures featured so pervasively in this work, but we are familiar with ideas of them. In the past, perhaps we would call this ‘use of popular culture’. In Drones and Phantoms it allows us a moment of scene-setting before the dialogue and musings of politics, war and human nature begin in at us.
Jane Austen woke up in smoky Sydney.
Tanya Plibersek was on TV, and in
her lounge room watching herself, a form
of self-consciousness Jane thought might
always prove promising for wisdom
Maiden has previously indicated that this is their intended function, stating ‘They [the famous or known figures] are recognisable entities with a cluster of connotations and derivations around them, that the reader knows who they are and what to respond to’(2).
It is exactly the right thing to do, in this age when poetry has need to be heard in a noisy world. Subjective (poetic) voices fit with the zeitgeist; everybody has an opinion – or not even, more often fragments of such a thing – broadcast amongst the myriad platforms allowed us. This poetry speaks to us with its assured voice(s) of reason(s) but relentlessly ask us to step up to the stage with it. It is as wise as casual as (our collective idea of) Helen Mirren, yet repeatedly suggests we be mindful of attempting to pin things down:
In what seems neither simile
nor metaphor but maybe economy
of a proud if whimsical nature
The Good Spirit of the Universe will re-use
sounds and patterns.
Maiden’s statement that the reader knows ‘who’ they’re dealing with when presented with famous names is reassuring and the device can operate this way – there is no denying that a familiar figure provides an entry point – however, it would be too neat if it were as translucent as all that (and, it could be argued wouldn’t be poetry without textual layers present, at a variety of depths).
To take this further in self-reflexivity, another feature of Drones and Phantoms is references to other poets, who are not exclusively contemporaries of Maiden. At the centre of the collection lies a poem entitled ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Frank O’Hara’. It takes us through a porthole of recollections of being compared to other poets and O’Hara – without having yet read him – to an extended conversation with O’Hara on a twilit New York evening in a different paradigm. The ‘Maiden’ voice says:
I’d say, ‘I would like to read you, but
of course now there is my current worry
that influence might be retrospective,
and that I’ll recognise your hand
In everything I’ve written, anyway’.
Having also been compared to O’Hara before having read O’Hara, I am temporarily taken aback; inadvertently joining her in this category is puzzlingly good, despite it being nothing more than coincidence. (The prism deepens as I read on; Maiden has written an Anne of Green Gables poem. I had never seen one of these before, but I’d written one…)
It’s an indication of the effectiveness of the work that I find myself thinking ‘What does this mean, this breadcrumb trail of messages of me?’ Pushing aside my own worries about plagiarism-in-advance/recognition-of-influence, it seems as though being somehow interpolated into the text is the natural outcome of being interrogated – indirectly – by its many voices.
Although it could be argued that only poets will feel a jolt of recognition at being compared to poets you haven’t read (and the awkward conundrum this generates), and that the poems featuring Australian politicians will have more resonance for those living in Australia, in the end – that is, at the point of writing yourself in – this doesn’t matter. Drones and Phantoms is a compendium of philosophical dioramas that, through its determined call-to-think and multi-dimensional ethical puzzles, goes way beyond any necessity of knowing the characters’ names.
1. The Poetry Foundation, accessed on September 21, 2015.
2. Maiden, J. Interview by Jason Steger, Sydney Morning Herald, January 28, 2014
MELINDA BUFTON is the author of Girlery (Inken Publisch), and PhD candidate in the nonfictionLab at RMIT University. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Southerly, Rabbit, The Age and Cordite.