Jennifer Maiden. The Fox Petition. Giramondo Publishing, 2015. RRP $24.00, 64pp. ISBN 978-1-922146-94-6
Gandhi and Obama. Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt. Julie Bishop and Tanya Plibersek. Keith and Rupert Murdoch. Abbott and—not Costello sadly, but almost as good—an imperious Queen Victoria. There’s even a reference to Elsa from Frozen.
Welcome to Jennifer Maiden’s latest collection, The Fox Petition, a vaudeville of exotic pairings and teasing satires, which, despite the appearance of bygone figures such as Victoria et al (plus eighteenth century Whig politician Charles James Fox and assorted characters from the Greek myths), offers seventeen acutely observed, up-to the-minute commentaries on current Australian and world affairs, a highly idiosyncratic take on the sometimes stranger-than-fiction politics, politicians, celebrities and popular culture.
In fact, it would be fair to say that poetry in book format can’t really get much more contemporary than this. Though apparently published while Tony Abbott was still Prime Minister (just about), this collection is written with prescience, acknowledging:
… Mr Turnbull, waiting alone cunning for game (13)
There are references throughout to relatively recent events such as the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukamaran, Charlie Hebdo, the ‘no’ vote in the Greek referendum, Hillary’s email-gate, the alleged dog smuggling incident involving Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, and the spat between the Government and Human Rights Commission President, Professor Gillian Triggs, all of which recall some of the happenings and developments during 2015. It’s as though a post-modern Juvenal has infiltrated Parliament House or the national newsrooms to deliver acid commentary on domestic shenanigans and world events as seen through a playful—if somewhat misanthropic—lens.
The inventive castings celebrate ‘what if’ scenarios only slightly more left-field than real life. What if Obama really had dinner with Gandhi (‘The Possibility of Loss’)? Would one have anticipated such self-doubt and narcissism from one of the most powerful men in the world, who, despite being ‘the man who finally shot Bin Laden’ (12) frets about posterity?
Charm, charm, that’s all I’ve ever done and maybe some mild medical reform (12)
Poetic formats such as ‘diary poems’ celebrating the myriad ‘uses of’ things as diverse as duets, xenophobia and small dogs will be familiar to followers of Maiden’s work. In ‘Diary Poem: Uses of the Female Duet’ the opening eight lines are startlingly prosaic (and deliberately so) concerning as they do the thrilling fact that Julie Bishop’s entry into politics was inspired by (drum roll) a course at the Harvard School of Business. But then the poet cuts her subject a bit of slack; revealing Bishop’s childhood was on a cherry farm and adding mischievously:
… That sounds a bit more like poetry (2)
Bishop duets with Plibersek while Melissa Parke and Jenny Macklin form another pairing later in the poem. Do the ‘singers’ in this poem harmonise? Not really, but:
They make each other credible, which is any duet’s requirement (8)
These pairings bring to mind word games such as Consequences or Exquisite Corpse, which riff off increasingly unlikely combinations of character and situations. Some of them continue dialogues that have already been established over an extended sequence of poems, a practice Maiden has used across several award-winning collections. For example, the ‘Victoria and Tony’ and ‘Hillary and Eleanor’ poems in this collection have antecedents in earlier books.
Many of these poems open with someone waking up—‘Queen Victoria woke up crossly in Canberra’ (13)—establishing a jokey, nudge-nudge tone that is then subtly inverted and undermined as the poem develops. For the themes of this collection—among them xenophobia—are deadly serious. A snake, mistaken for a native python in the wonderfully titled ‘The Honourable Carina Monckton and the ‘pregnant, pet-and-small-child-eating’ South American Boa Constrictor Released Accidentally by Police on the Queensland Gold Coast’, is hunted by the biosecurity brigade because:
…it must be carrying dangerous germs, like any stealthy foreign invader (37)
Whether skewering ‘… dear Sir Anthony – he loved the title so –’ (14) or ‘tribal elder’ (61) Rupert Murdoch, Maiden is fearless, but then she has for some time been following a long and honourable poetic tradition of subversion through versification. She knows the satirist needs a thick skin, especially if, as in the case of the speaker in ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Xenophobia’, the skin is ‘quite lily but has a honey tinge’ thanks to the ‘powerful genes’ (49) of an Indian great-grandmother. And she allows a moment’s reflection on the effect of such conduct:
No doubt there is actually really an ASIO file somewhere, but it seems too much of an act of ego to enquire (48)
Though she notes the neighbours have resorted to a blunt but more direct message of ‘rat poison and a flag’ (49) to transmit displeasure with her supposed lack of patriotism.
While this book contains diverting, tabloid-style messaging, it’s important not to overlook the medium. Maiden writes fluent, long, rapid-fire poems, with subtle internal and end rhymes, so that just when the rhythm seems in danger of spinning out, she tautens the line and brings it back under control. Superbly confident, she uses that most difficult of devices, humour, to accentuate the absurdities and indeed tragedies of contemporary life. Can ‘the sleepless spirits in my sleep move on’ (46) wonders Julie Bishop at the conclusion of ‘Animism’, a poem that references the ‘bullet-slumped bodies’ (46) of Chan and Sukamaran. Indeed, can the sleepless spirits evoked by this book move on for any of us? The Fox Petition chastens as much as it entertains. Is Maiden’s poetry on the secondary school syllabus? It should be.
Mags Webster’s first collection of poetry The Weather of Tongues (Sunline Press) won the 2011 Anne Elder Award.