A review of Appalachian Fall by Jennifer Maiden

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Appalachian Fall: Poems About Poverty in Power
By Jennifer Maiden
Quemar Press
2018, ISBN: 978-0-9954181-7-2 (pbk, $18.50aud), Electronic Edition ISBN: 978-0-9954181-8-9 (ebook, $5aud), 2018, 150pages

Anyone who thinks of poetry as a hermetic art form has not read Jennifer Maiden. A keen and articulate observer of current affairs and trends, Maiden’s work explores a political and sociological landscape through the lens of poetic vision. This analysis takes many forms, often in multi-genred pieces that transcend essay, fiction, biography and poetry. In spite of the mixed literary forms, there is a consistency in characters, themes, and in approaches across Maiden’s oeuvre that makes for an accumulative effect. Once we know, for example, George and Clare, or Maiden’s fictionalised Hilary Clinton, their reappearance in new work immediately conjures a backstory. That said, the poems in Maiden’s latest poetry book, Appalachian Fall, work fine as individual pieces.

As the title makes clear, Appalachian Fall explores, among other things, Donald Trump’s 2017 election, particularly against impact of poverty and disenfranchisement. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton sixty-three percent to thirty-three percent in Appalachia, the cultural region of the US stretching from southern New York to northern Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia associated with a failing mining industry, low levels of education and rampant poverty.  Maiden explores this statistic as only a poet can, with a lyrical perspective that blurs the boundary between mythology and emotional fact, and invites the reader to empathise with its subjects. Maiden often puts real-life political figures, poets, and celebrities together in incongruous ways in her work, fictionalising them and opening a conversation that begins with the protagonist waking in the midst of some event. In this book she pits Jimmy Carter against his distant cousin, singer Sara Carter Bayes, who wakes up from her death as a ghost at Trump’s inauguration. In 1978, Carter signed a Bill that protected the Appalachian Trail. He provided verbal support for Trump, though his ambivalence as a democrat known for his gentleness comes through in Maiden’s poem sequence, particularly as Dylan Thomas is also brought in as a counterpoint to Carter Bayes in the second poem that sets the scene for the book as a whole:

Carter had opened
the blue and fawn drapes and afternoon-easy breezes
of Georgia honeyed in. The couch was hard
and straight, the room was easy, but
built on firm edges. Carter poured coffee like midnight
in white thin mother-china. (“Jimmy Carter: 2:/ Dylan Thomas”)

The rhythm and structure of the poems, as with many of the poems in this collection, is discursive, almost dialectical. The conversations that take place within the poems allows for a measured analysis which is both empathetic and complex. Nothing is black and white, and rhythm and progression is as important in the work as political exploration. The poems move in and out of the political arena, allowing for complexity, and often bringing in the personal. The connection between Art and world events is explored meta-poetically, combining biography and lived experience with intellectual analysis and the richness of poetic imagery:

We should discuss
how my belief – no longer just a theory – that poetry
is digital technology and therefore that the internet
embodies it as wholly as a singer with a harp,
an ancient bard obsessed with the mnemonic, means
the experience electronically is gnostic: direct
summoning of the divine, unlike the paper book,
which is a sacred object and a conduit, not a baby
touching its mother’s face. (“Diary Poem: Uses of Book Piety“)

Many of the poems are heavily referential, not just to American politics, although Hilary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt, Trump’s mother Mary Anne MacLeod and US diplomat Martin Indyk join the Carters to ponder current affairs and the increasingly precarious state of the US and the world. There are also references to Martha Graham’s ballet of Aaron Copland’s composition Appalachian Spring. The rhythms of many of these poems seem to conjure tonal variations of Copland’s music – the simple melodies and chord variations, the repetitions, alliterations, and the rolling quality of the iambs:

What songs of use fall gold for its famished creatures:
that moonless one, so far, that stole the future, or
the sunless one, so close, that stole a child? (“Diary Poem: Uses of the Appalachian Fall”)

In a way that Maiden is particularly good at, US, UK and Australian politics are conjoined and brought back to the level of the domestic. Maiden’s own recurring characters George Jeffreys and Clare Collins are here, as well as various politicians including Australian Labor party deputy leader Tanya Plibersek, who is paired with Jane Austin, George Lansbury, PM of the UK Labour Party in the 1930s, who wakes up next to Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull. In the latter, George Lansbury’s granddaughter, the actress Angela Lansbury becomes her Murder, She Wrote character Jessica Fletcher, who then becomes the author of Appalachian Fall:

The light from the priceless harbour
glinted on the keys. If that was the end, she wasn’t
spoiling it. Her hands continued, neat, plump, white
and busily in concert with her brain. (“The Mystery”)

The idea of Art’s role in the world, in a political frame, and especially at the point of apocalypse runs like a thread through the work. Music, art, dance and cult television series Twin Peaks get mentions, but as one would expect, the most pervasive reference is to other works of poetry and poets, including Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, and Christopher Marlowe along with Australian literary giants Peter Porter, Christopher Brennan, Bruce Beaver, Anne Elvey, Kenneth Slessor, and Margaret Diesendorf.  The state of Australian publishing gets a swipe in reference to Maiden’s own publishing trials, in terms of what is and isn’t commercial, attractive, and powerful:

O Frightened Lady: let
my work be as posed as real insurrection, let my threat
be in positioning, not diction, an equality in stature
with the weakness I enshroud. One makes a threat
from below or above, not looking in the eyes. One
look in the eyes from where I stood:
sometimes the eye had power,
but it stored its waiting message in the blood. (“Posing a political threat”)

In these poems, American politics remains present but is also a counterpoint to the timelessness of artistic endeavour. Maiden brings in the work of her referents in a way that deepens the perspective and turns the immediate into the universal as it works against the repetition and progression of history, in a way which maintains a strong sense of wry humour throughout.  To get every nuance of Appalachian Fall requires multiple readings and probably some extra work looking up names that are unfamiliar – particularly for reader outside of the Australian poetry scene. The effort is repaid richly though in a multi-layered, complex and powerful book that crosses genre and illuminates the state of the human race in all its frail, dangerous beauty.