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Maiden, Jennifer

MAIDEN, Jennifer


Nationality: Australian. Born: Penrith, New South Wales, 7 April 1949. Education: Macquarie University, North Ryde, New South Wales, B.A. 1974. Family: Married David Toohey in 1984; one daughter. Career: Tutor in creative writing, Outreach, Evening College Movement, and Blacktown City Council, all New South Wales, Fellowship of Australian Writers, and University of Western Sydney, 1976–91. Writer-in-residence, Australian National University, Canberra, New South Wales, State Torture and Trauma Rehabilitation Unit, and University of Western Sydney, all 1989. Awards: Australia Council grant or fellowship, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1983, 1984, 1986. Harri Jones memorial prize; Butterly-Hooper award. Address: P.O. Box 4, Penrith, New South Wales 2750, Australia.

Publications

Poetry

Tactics. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1974.

The Occupying Forces. St. Lucia, Makar Press, 1975.

The Problem of Evil. Sydney, Poetry Society of Australia, 1975.

Birthstones. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1978.

The Border Loss. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1979.

For the Left Hand. Sydney, South Head Press, 1981.

The Trust. Wentworth Falls, New South Wales, Black Lightning Press, 1988.

The Winter Baby. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, 1990.

Bastille Day. Canberra, National Library of Australia, 1990.

Selected Poems of Jennifer Maiden. Ringwood, Victoria, and New York, Penguin, 1990.

Acoustic Shadow. Ringwood, Victoria, and New York, Penguin, 1993.

Novels

The Terms. Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1982.

Play with Knives. Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1990.

Short Stories

Mortal Details. Melbourne, Rigamarole, 1977.

*

Critical Studies: By Elizabeth Perkins, in Linq (Townsville, Queensland), 16(3), 1989; in Overland, 128, 1992, and 138, fall 1995.

*  *  *

"Ambivalent, ambidextrous, ambiguous, androgynous, amorous, ironic"—so Jennifer Maiden characterizes her poetry. "Teasing, intellectual irony, too, has always seemed to me a humane new channel toward pensive seduction for what otherwise, in more direct poetry, can be a jealous urge for power over the reader." Such poetic intent suggests demanding work, resistant to easy interpretation. It also promises, in its fruition, accomplished, complex poetry that is controlled, cerebral, and yet sensuous. Maiden's assured role as an Australian poet of significance attests that these promises have been kept.

The properties Maiden lists, and to which might be added wit, are at work in her eight-part poem "The Trust." In a footnote she cautions that, while the poem is "about" the reader-writer relationship, this is just one aspect of a work that "concentrates on all forms of intimacy." The first part begins in midconversation but soon warns the reader to maintain critical distance, while simultaneously beckoning us into the poem:

	...Don't trust
me yet: I don't know what I will still
require of you, and you don't know
as yet the depth and danger in your trust.
There is no room here to run, and none
in you that I can run from. Here she is!
   ...We can wake her.
When you do, you clasp her shoulders, fear
that somehow your hands don't look right.

Three characters—a woman, a man, and an antelope (unicorn?)—are brought to life within an enclosed garden. The resonant images undergo several transformations, with the writer inviting the reader into a series of carefully staged scenes: "just do /what you like to the oyster-woman, but /note that 'to' not 'with', /and save some fear for later"; "He's /alive and you are quite free to explore. Yes, /ignore that first ignoble moral scruple." The reader is cajoled into erotic experiences with the "characters," the writer standing guard and assuring privacy. In the fourth part the writer becomes an actor:

It isn't to escape that I have come, but
your other's body's thin enough to hold,
is artefactually fragile...
and every pulse is subtle, is a watch
to tell me time and date and where and this,
exclusive as a dream.

Within this enclosure the "others" change shape, dying, with the antelope as a sacrifice, and being resurrected in different forms, while the garden freezes over and disappears.

Like the garden, the poem is enclosed. Its end is its beginning, for its last line is also the first ("here it is. As it is always said /we-begin-here-at-the-end and anything which comes /after that is what we will discuss"). Indeed, within this circularity there is "no room to run." The transitional lines repeated to link sections of the poem often hinge on the impossibility of the escape routes of the real world: "If all things here were penetrably live, /you would trust in an escape by promises."

The poet's voice is sometimes hospitable: "flood the glass /and we will drink to you— /who'll never now be stranger to /our gates, which you must soon accept are gone"; "I have only /come to empty ashtrays, to clean /cages. Take your meal." Sometimes, however, it is admonitory: "and who and why /are these poor creatures married in our arms? /You have no right to pity. It is mine. /I own this army."

The true characters of "The Trust" are the reader and the writer. They manipulate the others like marionettes, an androgynous two in a collusion of mind, offering and enjoying bodies within the garden while dogs howl at the gates. The staged scenes increasingly reveal themselves as synonyms for intimate relationships in which roles are forever changing and that which is eaten later consumes. For instance, the sacrificed antelope becomes a guest at a ceremonial meal: "The woman converts simply to a chair. /The man becomes a table, well. The small /antelope sits feeding now. /It is clovenly exquisite, /picking softly at smoked entrails." The ritual dance in the garden continues through sacrifice, death, resurrection, and cyclic change (winter), impermanence within a cycle of renewal through change. "The Trust" is at once an exercise in the examination of the illusions of poetry ("The lyrical vulture /flexes his wings a little, on the ground /with her, you and no drama: and I wait") and in the exchanges of intimacy. The interplay of themes and adroit precision of language is illustrative of Maiden's work at its most accomplished.

Maiden's career has been extraordinarily prolific, and her collections are carefully shaped. The Trust and The Problem of Evil balance their complex long poems with shorter, lighter selections. "Falling to Prettiness," "Celebration," and "Language" ("I need to learn a language but not english /or at present any further maidenese. /I know some anglo-saxon but it is /a lonely language") contrast with "The Trust." "The Problem of Evil" is a poetic novella of guerrilla warfare that has received several interpretations, for example, the incursion of poetry into the domain of prose or the war between the sexes. The poems that follow it—"Mobiles," "The Sponge"—are set in recognizably domestic worlds. For the Left Hand is a volume on a single theme, a woman who has lived "thirty years in a house with the boxes, gentling." Longer poems "For the Left Hand" (1, 11, and 111) enclose a series of short "boxes," with a segment of her life in each compartment.

Birthstones reaches beyond the jewels of each month. January has five lines on the garnet and "the myriad redness of birth." It is followed by "Truce," on the child within the womb: "You are as beautiful /as blood underwater … Our shadows fuse & melt /& swim a dark survival /that panicked to be felt." "Seal Pup" twists these gentle images of birth and blood; a mother seal is killed by hunters, and her pup "suckles from the dead." The September sapphire, "One chill of mary-blue … defying tenderness between /wearer & worn," precedes the brittle "Serenade" of "mutilated fondness" and "Mars & Venus," dominated by cool tones of blue and white, of "icy perfumes." One of the distinctive touches of "maidenese" is most surely felt in the imaginative pairings of Maiden's poetry.

—Nan Bowman Albinski

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