Review: Intimate Geography by Jennifer Maiden

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Jennifer Maiden's Intimate Geography collects poems from the last four of her fourteen volumes of poetry, spanning the years 1991-2010. Maiden is an Australian poet whose work inhabits - without being confined to - a distinctively Australian milieu. Her poetry is replete with the sounds and smells of the bush, ‘decrepit currawongs, like breadmad nuns / devouring charity', and fire-fighters ‘black / from incandescent gum-smoke'. Despite revelling in the sensory richness of place (‘the woodsmoke smell has a dark / freezing mountain silence in it'), Maiden's poetry never descends to the parochial, managing to be both rooted and fluid. For Maiden is also vitally concerned with the human: Hers is an ‘intimate geography', an interconnectedness that sings in the veins, expressed as a poetics of involvement utterly foreign to the easy complacencies of globalisation.

Maiden's writing is intensely, painfully attuned to the ‘ache / to feel roundness in the hollow'. The victims of torture and trauma (for whom Maiden runs writing workshops) haunt poems which, amplified by their compilation here, relive the public traumas of the last two decades: Qana, Basra, Kandahar, Abu Ghraib. Maiden explores the syntax of cruelty, the speech and thought patterns of leaders with ‘a sheen of compromise' whose mannered interjections so easily become injections, often lethal (George Bush Jnr. is a recurring figure): ‘one is always / at a tangent to it somehow', ‘like watching / spiders breed'. Maiden is similarly unforgiving of those lesser transgressors who, like the war correspondents drunk with false expiation, stop the mouths of war's victims. Yet this is no polemic, no poetry of blood, but a crystalline poetry that implicates the reader as ‘participant-observer' as it probes for bruises in the moral consciousness. Maiden writes that ‘Having seen we must speak / but slowly': ‘It's important not to write or speak in rage'. There is even a wry awareness of the quiet desperation of tyrants thwarted and condemned by their obsessive ‘need to breathe safe air in a sealed nation'.

Rage and peace are tightly bound in this collection. Between poems about Basra's Highway of Death, Maiden touches ‘the serene molecule - / its tiny crimps and pleats - / calm as a helix, floating through / our heart's brittle holes'. The passage of time is marked by the compounding disasters of war, but also, more subtly, by the growth of the poet's daughter Katharine, from the ‘wild amplitude' of childful energy, to a softly concordant presence (in the final poem, ‘My daughter / understands why this is hard to write'). Maiden skilfully counterbalances the dark wit and sharp edges of her poetry of moral asphyxia with undercurrents of air, ‘equinoctial breezes', whose coruscations reveal the ‘chiaroscuro' dark-in-lightness of endless interplay. Contexts bleed into each other like the ‘ragged mist' of Mount Jagungal, a snowy wilderness whose recurrence creates space for meditation, escape, and gradual epiphany. There is always a softly-spoken consciousness of the possibilities and limitations of language, its ‘liquid stealths and concentrations', ‘the law / that nothing in language stays buried'. In ‘Below One's Best', the autumn wind challenges the poetic voice to a life of action, lived somewhere ‘out there'. ‘One knows / the best is not out there, and yet / there is a power in hearing clouds / fragment as dragon ruins'. Like George and Clare, the characters from Maiden's novels who reappear here as wanderers, this is a collection searching for ‘the deeper real'.

Sarah Kennedy
completed her doctoral dissertation ‘The "Shaping Spirit of Imagination": Metaphors of creation and creativity in the poetry of T S Eliot' at St. John's College Cambridge in 2011. She has honours degrees in English literature, politics and law from the University of Melbourne, Australia. She lives in Cambridge with her family.

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