There is something merciless about Liquid Nitrogen, Jennifer Maiden’s sixteenth poetry collection. It’s the totalising effect of its conversational tone, how these perfectly turned lines begin to colonise even your breath, their rhythms insidiously seeping into your consciousness, not unlike how the platitudinous toxins of daytime television colours the texture of waking life. Just as Hans Magnus Enzensberger claimed that the tabloid newspaper Bild was the perfect modernist artefact, with each story perfectly exchangeable with every other, so Maiden’s insistently familiar surfaces of mediated daily life – news stories, horoscopes, real and imagined conversations, philosophical speculations, domestic observations, political jokes – are all subsumed in a humming, artfully realised surface, each sliding imperceptibly into the other.
‘The message of Bild,’ says Enzensberger, after considering earlier Fascist publications, ‘is that no conceivable message exists any more; its sole content is the liquidisation of all content.’ The newspaper is, he says, ‘the total work of art, which liquidates all the dreams of the avant-garde movements, from the dissolution of the distinction between life and art to collective production, by fulfilling them.’ Thus, he says, ‘it’s clear that slavery and men’s cosmetics, military propaganda and deodorant stick, atom bomb and disposable nappy, mass murder and cat food have become equivalents. One thing means the same as the next, that is everything means nothing.’
The time of Bild – this essay was written in 1983 – looks like a haven of rectitude next to the digital era of 2013, but in diagnosing the mass media as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total and totalising artwork, Enzensberger was prescient. He foresaw the present state of mediation, the absorption of mass culture into the most intimate areas of personal life. In Liquid Nitrogen, Maiden tracks this absorption with troubling fidelity. The opening poem, a long meditation called ‘The Year of the Ox’, begins with the apparently personal, a straightforwardly confessional, lyrical voice:
…I was born in the Year of the Ox…. My daughter was born in the Year of the Tiger. My element is earth and hers is fire… I am an old ox of the moon. From mist-grits, my furrow forms at night and ploughs easiest in candid unmythical moonlight…
But then, without any apparent shift in tone, the poem slides radically – ‘For Obama, the nature of the ox / suggests possible salvation…’ – and then moves to the inauguration of the Iraq War. ‘As an ox, I am lying on straw and watching Straw lying.’ The poem continues on, an overture introducing many of the personae who appear in later poems: Hillary Clinton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Julia Gillard, and Maiden’s own fictional characters from an earlier novel, George Jeffrey’s and Clare Collins. They coalesce and vanish in a hypnotically conjured dream state, suspended in the medium of the poem, occupying the same narrative equivalences, the same kind of disinterested intimate observation, as notations about the speaker’s daughter, a memory of reading Dorothy Porter’s poems after her death, and sudden prosaic digressions about poetry itself:
…poetry is disparate concepts combined in binary structures: stress/unstress, iamb/trochee, alternating syllables, stanzas, letters, space. It was the first form of digital technology, hence its importance in early societies, oral then spoken, its varied manifestations of the binary the essence of mnemonic technique.
As Maiden comments acidly in the same poem, ‘I am a machine of memories, no roadmap / is enough to cope with shifting but stagnant mud.’
This is the first time we glimpse the suffocating terror of these poems: the shifting but stagnant mud in which the poet attempts to orient an action, in which even personal memory is delusive. The poem – in a sense this whole book is a single poem – is a simulacrum of memory, poetry the medium that permits these fictions to exist together. Dietrich Boenhoffer, Florence Nightingale, Henry James, Julia Gillard, Confucius, Julian Assange, Kevin Rudd and countless others, real, historical and fictional, wind through the book, figures digressing, most often comically, against a background of historical political violence. They are almost, but not quite, characters: occasions for satire, philosophical and political observations, jokes, sudden segues into anecdote, and they all exist in the same fluidly conversational form.
Maiden’s rhythms invite you to read Liquid Nitrogen as prose, even as a novel, although the skill that shapes these lines, and the wit that informs them, is undeniably poetic. The same characters turn up in different circumstances, curiously domesticated and unthreatening in their casual familiarity, just as they turn up in on television in our living rooms: ‘Hillary was suited / in black and white and cheerfully flirted / with Kevin Rudd.’ (‘Hillary and Eleanor 8: The Audience’) It’s a novel without a plot: ‘A plot / is only a story about safety’.
Poem after poem begins with the act of waking up: ‘Aneurin Bevan woke up in the Lodge…’ ‘George Jeffreys woke up in Langley, Victoria…’ ‘Eleanor Roosevelt woke up next to Dietrich / Bonhoeffer…’ But the act of waking up is as elusive in these narratives as everything else: you think of James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, ‘history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’, but also of the totalising logic of capitalism, its self-perpetuating claim that there is nothing outside it. There is nothing outside the dream; the apparent awakenings are merely continuations of the same static state. In Liquid Nitrogen, this totalising logic locates itself in the very centre of subjectivity itself, in the most intimate moments of the personal and apparently private. The state, the capital, has no borders. Perhaps the only defence left to the individual, paradoxically, is to lie, to conceal the truth, ‘a public habit lying it is mine’. (‘Emerald Cut’)
As its title indicates, liquid nitrogen is the book’s informing metaphor. It first appears in a poem prefaced with the statement: ‘A Defence Academy lecturer has stated that WikiLeaks encryptions are useless because the US has decoding computers so huge they are kept in liquid nitrogen not to overheat’. Liquid nitrogen is firstly the medium that permits the hot work of decryption to occur, the necessary coolness around the passion of reading, which perhaps also is the passion of spying, of uncovering what is hidden. Liquid nitrogen is also used in cryogenics, to remove warts and cancerous lesions, to preserve cattle semen and in molecular gastronomy, surely one of the iconic excesses of contemporary consumerism, to make super-smooth ice cream. The frozen gas occurs through the poem in both malignant and benign forms, ‘stunningly cool but alive / with information’. And it is, of course, the poem itself, ‘the frozen suspension which is risky / but also fecund and has beauty’.
The poems show how much Maiden has learned from Frank O’Hara – the rhythms are insistently evocative of his work – especially in how the apparent speech-like ease of O’Hara’s poems depends on an unerring ear for the intricate poetic rhythms and supple thought of each line. And like O’Hara, Maiden can casually twitch away this apparent ease to reveal the lyricism that is its hidden engine, as in the poem ‘Emerald Cut’:
Warrangamba Dam water floods weeds to Hawkesbury so the emerald-cut shines smooth and fine and chill as liquid nitrogen again, here from the dead dam depths and under it the goddess turquoise, like semi-precious sky, like any shattered sun to shine like water-diamonds…
These ruptures of lyricism work as sudden codings of truth, perhaps most importantly emotional truth. This is most obvious in ‘My Heart has an Embassy for Ecuador’, one of the finest poems in the book. Here the repressed panic gathering behind the poems leaps out of the coversational mode into lines of gelid lyrical splendour:
My heart has an Embassy
for Ecuador where I will seek
and aftershocks undermine
my hope and my means to work
and the Americans
have wormed into my psyche
with their black knack at fear.
The only escape in the poems from the surveillance of the subject/state is the imaginary Embassy of the heart, which of course we know to be eternal imprisonment, and its recognition of the truth that ‘falls down like water / from giant granites of despair’.
The poet herself says that the poems in Liquid Nitrogen have developed from the ‘parallel’ poems of Friendly Fire (2005) and Pirate Rain (2010). The poem permits interactions that otherwise could not occur. ‘Without compromising the necessarily parallel nature of the public and the private’, says Maiden, the ‘deliberate, encompassing, intense liquid nitrogen’ permits ‘their sustained growth and interaction’. I’m not sure about the ‘parallel’ nature of public and private utterance, which seem rather ever more convergent: in my reading, these poems dramatise this convergence to the point where private and public are at best blurred distinctions.
In the final poem, ‘Well Inside Fireground’, Maiden suggests that the best we can hope for is a contained conflagration. The poem’s title is typically ambiguous: there may be a well, a source of water’s truth ‘trickling’ in the fireground, but we are also ‘well inside’ the area of burning earth. Here an imagined stockman fights a nascent bushfire on his own, at last confining it to two trees. His battle is
a strange one in which you lost the war
and in the futile aftermath hit once
and found it had leapt elsewhere, which
was the closest that you came to victory.