By Tara Walker
Jennifer Maiden’s 2018 collection is a series of imagined conversations between political figures, poets, religious leaders and long-dead relatives. Maiden twists the unimaginable into the imagined, scattering deep truths among golf courses, mountain tops and inauguration parades.
Both the title and the subtitle of the collection present recurring motifs. “Appalachian fall,” according to Katharine Margot Toohey’s preface, was partially inspired by the 2016 US presidential election, “in which President Trump’s victory was dependent on voters from impoverished and threatened regions, such as Appalachia.” More recently, commentators have written that
for the election of Donald Trump. But Maiden’s collection does not seek to attribute blame for the rise of Donald Trump—instead, her collection is deeply humanizing. It does not excuse Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, but her poems locate the vulnerability embedded between the cracks of celebrity.
One of the best examples of Maiden’s talent for humanizing the untouchable is “The round, pretty eyes of the Hebrides: A duet poem.” Here, Maiden imagines Trump, in the oval office, visited by his mother, Mary Anne MacLeod. With lines like “Indeed, I was brought up speaking Gaelic: a practical language quite unsuited to guilt or religious ostentation,” readers are reminded that Trump’s mother was an immigrant, who came to the United States in poverty. This is positioned in complete contrast from the opulent displays of wealth and conspicuous consumption the Trump family is known for. The poem also makes it clear that the two are not speaking to each other, even though they are in the same place; rather, they are the protagonists in their own monologues:
turned off the phone, quieted by her presence
as usual, but as usual did not address her, in terror
that if he did she might just go away. He could
monologue to himself, however, and sometimes
so did she.
The disconnect is sad, but also comical, as Trump defends his foreign policy decisions, and MacLeod reflects on her marriage to Fred Trump, and the rich who “have such a gift for seeming poor.” The line corresponds directly to the subtitle of the book, “Poems about poverty in power.” Maiden hints at the fact that Trump tried to appeal to working class populations and those experiencing economic crisis, promising the return of manufacturing jobs and the coal mining industry. In this way, Trump’s appeal to those experiencing poverty created an oxymoronic power. The subtitle also suggests that there is poverty in power: Power strips away insight and history, and the ability to imagine different versions of the present. With these poems, Maiden reimagines politics from an international perspective while poking fun at the absurdity and chaos of globalization.
Through the eyes of Trump and numerous other figures in the text, Appalachia is a metaphor, a stand-in for populations that are disenfranchised, and also possess a down-home authenticity that might be manipulated for political gain: “I’ve just calmed down Appalachia/like a stallion/with a clutter of Confederate statues” (“George Jeffreys :23: George Jeffreys Woke Up on a Gold Course in New Jersey”)
Maiden creates strange and intriguing pairings of Australian, English and American political and literary figures, both currently living and long-dead: Jane Austin and Tanya Plibersek, (“Tanya and Jane: 3: The Wombat and the Tea,”) Queen Victoria and Tony Abbott, (“Victoria and Tony: 7: The Veil”,) and Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt. The historical figures are always written as just waking up: “Eleanor Roosevelt woke up in yet another hotel room, this time in San Francisco in fresh March,” or “Jane Austen woke up in Sydney in September, 2017.” Maiden imagines these cultural figures travelling through time and space, often in order to deliver specific messages to contemporary politicians. These awakenings are not imagined as particularly violent or unexpected. Instead, Maiden sees space and time as fluid entities that repeat and reshape human understanding, resulting in remarkable but somehow logical conversations. The conversation between Queen Victoria and Tony Abbott, for example, hones in on on gay marriage, with startling twists and turns. In “Victoria and Tony: 7: The Veil,” Abbott and the queen study a street mural that depicts Abbott as marrying himself in a bridal gown. The conversation turns to gay marriage and homosexuality:
‘…When I was very young
I consented to a bill outlawing homosexuality,
but did not let it include women as that act
between women seemed to me physically
impossible… These days,
of course, I would outlaw neither.’ He asked
‘But the ineradicable?’…
She said, ‘It is sex that is ineradicable, not marriage.’
Maiden portrays Victoria as a kind of accidental reformist; while long-dead, she still sees the inevitability of progress. Like the other figures Maiden brings to life in these poems, Victoria becomes more than a flat historical image—in the course of a four-page poem, Maiden manages to flesh her out and complicate her narrative.
For Maiden, like the characters she gives voice to, Appalachia is not a geographical region, but rather an emotional and metaphorical landscape. Appalachia, she suggests, exists all over the world in different constructs, and in greater complication than news media explanations of the 2016 US election suggests.