When John Tranter reviewed Jennifer Maiden’s first collection, Tactics (1974), he noted its ‘brilliant yet difficult imagery’ and a style ‘so idiosyncratic and forceful in a sense it becomes the subject of her work’. Tranter prophesied: ‘If she can resist her strongest verbal compulsions enough to keep the clarity of her early work in her more demanding exercises, she will certainly develop into an important writer.’
Friendly Fire, Maiden’s fourteenth book of poetry, is a long way from Tactics. In it, Maiden’s imagery, though still brilliant, is more forthcoming. Her style, though still more idiosyncratic, accommodates, to a striking degree, subjects: the war in Iraq, television news, Elvis Presley, Condoleezza Rice, Princess Diana, conversations with her daughter; all juxtaposed to equal the way we live now.
Reading the poetry, you might doubt whether ‘important’ is the word Maiden would choose for what she has achieved. Her poems jump from large public events to small happenings: from George W. Bush to the sight of clouds in the Monaro. In this way, they suggest how what we habitually call important finds its place alongside the haphazard, provisional, small. Still, the meaning of Tranter’s prophecy holds good: there aren’t many writers who can mix poetry’s lyric, confessional, and satirical modes as deftly as Maiden. With characteristic self-awareness, she describes herself ‘trying / to construct, in my endless quest, / the perfect lyric and involve Abu Ghraib’.