Jennifer Maiden. The Winter Baby
Hitting Wintry Waters: a reading of Australian poet Jennifer Maiden's volume The Winter Babyby Trivikrama Kumari Jamwal
Politically correct or not, I have to admit that the reason I picked Jennifer Maiden's The Winter Baby out of three available possibilities, was the title. Babies and motherhood get to me quicker than anything else. So, opening the book to the Contents and finding four sections with the eponymous one being the fourth and final one, was a bit disconcerting. Especially since, reading the parts in order showed that the earlier ones had little to do with a 'Winter Baby'.
At first, I rushed through the first three parts - 'Contemporary References', 'Psalms' and 'The Midwife' - eager to get to the fourth part, 'The Winter Baby'. An initial reading is more like comparing notes, sharing the pages of a mother's diary. Spread over twenty one printed pages, this part has eighteen poems, centered round the poet's daughter Katherine Margot. You nod your head sagely with the opening wisdom in 'The Winter Baby' (Maiden, 44): "babies are primal". It is what every mother knows - the solid beloved self-centeredness of her baby, ignorant of the world's artificialities. You follow the growth of little Katherine who at nine and a half months in 'Doing Beautifully'(Maiden, 47) stands with ease holding on to the edge of a couch, reaching out for Mom's pens and books rather than the "decoy" toys Dad puts out; in 'Edges' (Maiden, 52) trying to force objects she is holding to her chest together; her 'First Birthday' (Maiden, 57-58); till fifteen months in 'Memo' (Maiden, 60) with a mother's wish to be loved and accepted on certain terms; her enthusiasm for animal books and her "vowel elongation" in 'Nose' (Maiden, 61); the game with the 'First Tea Set' (Maiden, 62); right down to 'Christmas Poem, 1987' (Maiden, 63) for David celebrating parenting "tired and tense" but "each other's element."
There is a perceptibly acute power of observation at play. The knowledge that Jennifer Maiden also paints (the book's cover has her own oil painting of Katherine at twenty one months) came later but with little surprise - the artist's eye for detail is obvious. The game with the first tea set, for instance:
'The Rocker' is "small"-
The account of a mother polar bear in 'Nature Program' is equally exact:
So is the picture in 'Vulnerability' of
The next thing that strikes is the close attention to style and form. Jennifer Maiden is clearly a poet who is meticulous about how she writes as well as what she writes. Her poetry is a play of ideas, thoughts, expressions and form, diction, syllables, stresses, paradoxes, images. However, early readings capture the mind in grasping the sights and scenes, thought and their articulation, and entice it into coming back to unravel the mysteries of the form that make all this more effective.
So, the mother's diary takes on an enhanced personality, extending powers of precise observation and expression to thought. 'First Tea Set' ends with a mother's realization that somewhere in the near future empty miming will no longer satisfy. 'The Rocker' compares the control of this child's rocker to the wild abandon of a rocking horse, the "less thrills / and fewer accidents" to a "harder to master" but a more exhilarating liberty of action and thought. "Vulnerability', true to the professed "ripe-mooded for metaphors", ponders on the brittleness of a glass stick with scratches that can be snapped into two as a metaphor for human vulnerability born of "tension" that "tears". A deceptively innocent title, 'Nursery Rhymes' (Maiden, 50-51) addresses theology and mythology. 'The Process' (Maiden, 56) charts in charming detail a child's sketching that parallels the process of the development of "a sense of personality" - and perhaps even is a comment on art in our world as these sketches
Just as 'Observation' (Maiden, 59) transforms the picture of rings on fingers, shapely baby fingers and reminiscence about the poet's father's "white fingers ... omnipotent as knives" into an uneasiness at revealing personal details "for art". Not that it is entirely humourless. You do manage an understanding grin as the poet's "daughter laughs aloud" at her mother's likening the clumsily ambling polar bear on television to herself in the morning in 'Nature Program' (Maiden, 49).
It then becomes less disorienting to revert to the earlier two sections: 'Contemporary References', a nineteen-page collection of sixteen poems, and 'Psalms', a six-page collection of six poems. Part Three - 'The Midwife' - although printed as 'verse' reads more like a twelve-page short story or a play and excels in creating atmosphere and character largely through dialogue and conversation among a convict turned midwife, Isobel, the elder child, Eleanor, bewildered at being left in charge of a new born sibling on the death of her mother at child birth, an equally befuddled widower, farmer Thomas, trying to come to terms with the situation, and Dr. Arthur Spencer. Again, it is the details that enliven: the choice of words and the style of their running on, the exchange about the brown and the white eggs, the hinted soft corner the midwife has for the doctor, the shift to the Ogilvies and the unflappable pragmatism of the midwife. At the risk of over-extending an analysis, at times it seems this section is the bridge between the first two parts and the last part for which the work is named: a thinking, articulate woman having a baby and extending that intelligence and articulation into another stage in life in a way that precludes mindless motherhood.
Part Two is titled 'Psalms'. It is initially as unsettling as the title 'Nursery Rhymes' in Part Four is as a heading for a poem that mentions Elektra, the Furies and God as "She". The six 'psalms' are sacred songs and hymns in that they celebrate the human as God's creation and acknowledge and address God, but they demand a shift from the traditional mind set that you are involuntarily put into on reading the section heading. Four psalms are sandwiched between an opening and a concluding psalm talking about the heart. In the beginning the heart is light-accepting and conveying, responsive, bright. The warmth changes to the "brilliance of winter" in the 'Sixth Psalm' (Maiden, 27), trickling "niggardly". There are sensations of "numbing" and invalidation. Where the heart was once "like a ruby in a laser" (Maiden, 22), it is now "like a sullen river [...] to silt orchards" (Maiden, 27). However, the slowness is not hopeless. The poet avers at the end, "This is not frightening". Although there is "mist", there is a sense of life and growth even in the ice at the "light's edge" (Maiden, 27). The benefits of flooding and soaking, in spite of risk or injury, is somewhat reminiscent of the drowning in the "deep down as the Titanic" in 'Contemporary References' (Maiden, 17-18) or in 'For Schools' (Maiden, 6).
The Psalms portray the human condition. The 'Second Psalm' (Maiden, 23) is the most effective, wonderfully using the analogy of being unable to look directly at the sun for long and the contradiction of clarity and definition in a moment of blur and cloudiness. The 'Fifth Psalm' (Maiden, 26), mentions the "negative" and the situation of a "whole bereavement" that makes the human condition "tragic", a "tragedy" that finds mention again in the later 'First Birthday' (Maiden, 57-58). While the presence of God is acknowledged in these poems - even considered reassuring as a comforting and guarding presence - God is also seen as causing "dichotomies" and unfairness. There is the fear and helplessness at the transience and possibility of decay of the flesh even though it may be an incarnation or embodiment of God. The world in which God is also a player is an unequal one, where rewards are distributed to "the articulate" (Maiden, 26). Fittingly, God is akin to the writer who "excerpts" and "re-uses" parts to form a "symmetry" that "has no meaning beyond itself" (Maiden, 25). All in all, Part Two is an intensely personal world, coloured by the happenings outside that are visible to all, yet an individual equation of acceptance and doubt with a supremacy. In fact, any attempt to unravel all of the threads within it soon starts feeling uncomfortably like an invasion of somebody else's private space.
So, the jump back to more neutral territory, although somewhat reluctant since the poems leave you with a desire to delve deeper, is nevertheless nimble. Part One has explanations on literary skills and art, of which the references in Part Four are in continuation, since as Jennifer Maiden admits in 'Respiration' that
In fact, there seems to be a "respiratory need" for poems' effects. Self-revealing expression is demanded from early years ('For Schools', Maiden, 6); although poetry, that may be brought on "like sex or arthritis" in the cold, is an insecure, guilt-ridden, competitive option suffering from a lack of or shallow understanding by the world ('Overproof', Maiden, 2). 'The Nun as Director' (Maiden, 7-8), a little obscure, also addresses the dilemma of the artist about receiving applause, self-absorption, and the "task" of marking limits and boundaries. 'Need' (Maiden, 16) contrasts the brush strokes in a painting to words, the "tongue's anger" that the hands do not possess and underscores the emotional thrust of our thoughts, that makes the longing in the later 'The Rocker' that the poem be the wilder rocking horse unsurprising. Writing a poem like "a James Bond novel" is "fun" as in 'Contemporary References' (Maiden, 17-18) when it is like driving "an Alfa down the page", not that the feeling is sustainable. It is necessary to dive deeper and inundate yourself with more for constant, even painful, reconstruction: an exhortation made a little earlier too for a writing exercise in 'For Schools'
The name of Part One is apt. Apart from stating the long-standing question of the art of poetry, Jennifer Maiden's poetry comments on contemporary issues. Her concern with human vulnerability especially with respect to contemporary life, finds expression in 'Safe' (Maiden, 3-4) where the world finds security in a protected back as a house is built with the security of "the earth of a hill / behind one wall", light allowed through the front windows "sealed in" by blinds. Read just after 'Overproof' on the preceding page, with the "need to shore up the walls with words" while keeping "the freedom of doors and windows" intact, and in the light of her doubts over restrictive security voiced later for her child, there is little hesitation in understanding her when she points out
The paradox of the thrill of apprehension is all the more clear a few lines later when the poet asks us to "Note / the distinction between feeling / safe and being so." The poem is a revealing commentary on the human state caught among varying degrees of safety, without menace, at times even inescapable despair.
A life in the shadow of a scourge is the focus of 'Poem on an AIDS Commercial' (Maiden, 11), a statement with a touch of disapproval on art moulded (commercialized? mangled?) to tackle a menace of life today - AIDS - and on the exploitation of death and fear by high and mass culture. 'Overproof' (Maiden, 2) too is a mite sardonic in its advice to a poet to write ads to prove "sanity". 'The Ballroom' (Maiden, 20) is a telling remark on prejudices against the Aborigines and the rejection of their stereotypical representation. Part One also has typical characters brought to life with the same flair and touch that come to the fore in Part Three. In 'The Lady at the Party' there is Donna, accomplished in an "Assertiveness Course", complete with "thick eyeshadow" and
Donna, with her observation on those "who rule the earth", is more composed than the hapless MP, the sort and in a situation most of us have seen or read about anywhere in the world, caught on the wrong foot in "Off the Cuff" when "the words / are not quite the best yet" (Maiden, 13).
Windows that let in light at other points in the book become the subject of an entire poem: 'The Window as an Epigram' (Maiden, 10). The window itself becomes a short poem framing the lives and minds of women, an epigrammatic picture thrust home with more immediacy in the wake of a recent viewing of Paramount Pictures Productions' and director Frank Oz's The Stepford Wives!
Windows still "excerpt" light but women "distort" them with curtains. The poem ends with an apparent preference for shutters that "slammed out all the night" but also "yawned at all the days" over glass windows. Parallel to the concept of blinds or curtains as blocking light, freedom or vitality, or perhaps a broadening of it, is 'The Membrane' (Maiden, 14). There is a play of seasonal light and darkness in summer and winter; where in the "darker months" of the latter life halts temporarily. The membranes over the snake's eyes remove the need for food and the "darker months" 'membrane' so that the overall feeling is lethargy.
If windows are what permit light and its attendant benefits to enter, and are subject to being shut with blinds, "Women are windows" (Maiden, 10) subject to the same life-giving energies and restrictions, some imposed others self-created. The woman in The Winter Baby emerges as a reflection of the poet's personality: a mix of strengths, caring, expressiveness and insecurities. There is a sense of glorying in being woman that does not just limit itself to motherhood, notwithstanding the name of the work and obvious emotion for a daughter. So much so, that 'Nursery Rhymes' considers the possibility of God being 'She' and
There is a definite and heartening lack of embarrassment at the physicality of being a woman. 'Gladiolus' (Maiden, 15) is almost the flower on canvas, so startlingly clear is the picture painted of it. Even here, in a seemingly unrelated context, allusions are made to the female body. It is "pudendal pink", "womb-shaped" and the "drag queen of the florist's". In 'The Nun as Director' (Maiden, 7-8) a room has "clitoric smallness and pink vulvar peace" Part Four's 'First Birthday' has labour and delivery as a subject, an intensely personal experience candidly talked about, including the "seas / of blood, and slime, and pain" and the baby who "thrust through" as the mother "pushed again" (Maiden, 57-58). In 'Nursery Rhymes'
There is no bashfulness in discussing breasts and suckling
The resemblance of the "remissions" that help understand reality to "the pauses / between labour pains" and the necessity of managing both by learning their use in a psalm ('Second Psalm', Maiden, 23) is unexpected. So too probably is the sexual reference in a poem to do with baby talk, 'Nose'
Or the complete casualness with which "nipples" is thrown in with "eyes" as a comparison for children's sketches in 'The Process' (Maiden, 56). There are totally un-self-conscious and confident references to so-called unmentionables - "the stain in the armpits", attractive accounts of sinful emotions such as jealousy (Maiden, 19), sex and four letter exclamations "fuck" (Maiden, 2). None of this jars, so evidently it has been well-placed to gel with the character of the work.
Not one to fit into facile scansion modes, Maiden nevertheless pays close attention to form. Lulled into easy iambic pentameters by Wordsworth, whom I read just before Jennifer Maiden, I found the contrast even starker. Line lengths may be irregular, but the overall preference seems to be for short lines of about seven to eight syllables. A longer or shorter line is placed for balance or to make a point.
In 'A Summer Emotion', the longest (opening) line
states the case and the rest of the poem works down to shorter lines to build it. In 'Second Psalm', long ten and eleven syllable lines are spaced out in the first half, with an eleven-syllable line roughly in the middle re-stating the central simile
Similarly, 'The Rocker' concludes with longer ten-syllable lines to express the thought
In 'First Birthday', the momentum in labour is marked by short lines
paralleling each other with longer lines in between. At times, lines only look short but are not because of the syllable count, as in 'Observation'
The pace is also set by stress patterns. Stress, un-stress patterns tend to follow conversational tempo. The combination of syllables and stress emphasizes meaning or enhances effect, especially when read aloud. In 'Off the Cuff', a quick list is slowed down for the conclusion thus:
In 'Gladiolus', the description is marked by the stressed adjectives
Likewise, the first gasp after a rush in 'First Birthday'
In 'A Summer Emotion', the pace echoes the word itself
Or in 'The Winter Baby',
a heavy opening line echoes the fundamental-ness of the
In 'This Purring Room' (Maiden, 45) the stressed "drip rain" conveys the 'dripping'. Consecutive stresses sometimes fall on long vowel sounds: "steel bowls gleam" ('This Purring Room') or "too smooth to snap" ('Vulnerability', Maiden, 48) and invariably on listed items as in 'Fifth Psalm'
On the printed page the poems are verse paragraphs. The language, diction and style, however, are conversational, even colloquial. Needless to say, line-ending rhymes are there ('Sherlock Holmes', Maiden, 5) but rare, although there is the occasional assonance and internal rhyme - "light-tight blinds at night." ('Safe', Maiden, 3-4). In fact, there are no fixed line endings. Lines run on and, apart from the line lengths and stresses, slowing down or speeding up is due more to enjambments, run-ons and caesura than punctuation. 'In the Caesura' (Maiden, 54-55) adapts the scene of a baby waking visually to this preference - a style preference that certainly bewilders a grammar checking word processor for one!
There is a sprinkling of paradoxes and contrasts, imagery and some successful similes. 'The Membrane' (Maiden, 14) has "lively poison", while the calmness of the nun/director is brought out as against the seeming agitation of the surrounding objects in 'The Nun as Director' (Maiden, 7-8). 'The Window as an Epigram' (Maiden, 10) is a poem that catches the fancy because it captures a recurrent image of window and light, verbalizes a technique of framing a picture that vivifies many other poems in the book besides talking of women's situations. Jealousy, like a "silkworm spinning", has wings "folded / badly like sheets crowded back / on a shelf" (Maiden, 19).
Observation and description are strong. A gladiolus is made vivid, the poem 'Observation' (Maiden, 59) does not disappoint its title, and the sluggishness and blundering of a heavy polar bear is animated as if the television screen is in front of you as you read 'Nature Program' (Maiden, 49). There is undeniable vigour in the choice of sensory expression. Sight, sound, hearing, taste and touch are brought into play in descriptions and their presentation. In 'This Purring Room' (Maiden, 45) an "ageing air-conditioner gasps and drones", the water in the "heart-shaped" vase "fogs white with mould" from the stems of flowers, in the baby's eyes "the brave brown fights / a satin-subtle hazel hue" and in 'Food' (Maiden, 53) cow's milk has "warmth and noon", while breast milk has "morning's thin rich purity". The final poem, 'Bye' (Maiden, 64), latches on to the auditory tone of a child's husky "bye" to reveal why certain voices appeal and the yearning for poise.
Reading Jennifer Maiden's The Winter Baby is like plunging into icy cold water. There is the shock of first hitting the ice, the gasp, initial discomfiture and gradual settling down as the body gets used to it. I suppose, it depends upon at which stage you pick up the book, with what expectations and background. The contrast to conventionally taught poetry is obvious. Plus, I went for it without reading anything else on the writer or her works, not even the blurb on the book, intending to absorb the work without any filters (except those installed by genetics and sociology). The ice struck hard - at first. The earliest sensation was one of disorientation, a flustered frustration at being unable to grasp. Admittedly, it began as a struggle. But then the water washed over and an equitable balance came on.
It was a comfort encouraged by the drawing in of all the faculties in comprehension and enjoyment, by the self-confidence and ease of thought and expression. The surprises by the contrast between headings and content to start with put you ill at ease but soon become enjoyable and rather characteristic. The jolts are actually fewer than they first seem, probably because of the attention to details of content and form, and organization. There is a continuity of thought and expression, and ideas and images recur in the four sections. It is not that every word has been - or can be - understood or every line analysed. The experience has been a see-saw between intense or personal elements and opinions communicated so that identification is possible, and a sense of reluctance in probing deep-seated individual issues as an invasion of privacy.
© Trivikrama Kumari Jamwal, January 2005