I, Clodia and Other Portraits Anna Jackson, Auckland University Press, 2015
Anna Jackson has published five collections of poetry including Thicket (Auckland University Press, 2011) which was a finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards. She currently teaches English Literature at Victoria University.
Anna Jackson’s new collection contains two sequences that step up from everything she has previously written to a lightness that is fierce, a spareness that is complex. Poems become voice, voice becomes reaction to/against, reaction become autobiography, autobiography becomes invention. The pleasure that the poetry generates is multiple; from the exquisite loop of sound to the ideas that pierce, to the stories that accumulate, to the silent patches that are not in fact silent.
The first sequence, ‘I, Clodia,’ signals a return to Catullus, but now his muse, his beloved (Lesbia, Clodia), speaks. There has been a wide line in recent times of re-visioning, resiting, reclaiming, re-presenting women from the shadows of history; women who were spoken on behalf of, who were seemingly passive, are given voice. Anna’s version prompts thinking in myriad directions. The poems are laid across an underlay Catullus carpet. I followed Anna’s directive and read his poems in the order proscribed so that I might absorb the intriguing underlay as I read. In the end, it felt like Anna had given flesh to the bare bones of Catullus’s Lesbia (Clodia). Invented because Anna was working with the protruding bones of a skeletal figure, yet this sequence also gains fire and contextual zest through diligent research. The poems come to life within the context of the times hinted at — the events, relations, circumstances. The degree of research for such a slender sequence could have rendered the historical (the facts, the near-facts) cumbersome, but instead history becomes the lily pads of the poems. Drawing the eye close, moving ever so slightly on the drift of water, encouraging the mind to make little leaps.
What of the voice? No whimsical, petal-of-a-voice here. This is where the layers utterly captivate me. Draw me into a woman brought to sparking life, and all the issues and ideas that emanate. Clodia addresses his charges (‘but to counter them one by one in order’) and declares her love (‘Oh, I loved you, and being loved by me did/ you not take more than you could ever give me?’). She throws his questions back at him (‘Whom shall I love now?’ ‘Whom shall I permit to visit?’ ‘It seems we are occupied with the same questions’). She is fierce (‘You had better be leaving’) and in his moment of speechlessness, she replenishes her own stanzas (‘I’ll fill my/ stanzas up while you can be silent for once’).
We come hard up against the authority of the male poet on the page. His authorship legible, enduring. She, however, ephemeral. Catullus writes: ‘but a woman’s words to her eager lover/ should be written on running water, on the wind.’ Clodia counters (by way of Anna): ‘I can just see you/ scuttling about on the shore, peering/ suspiciously at the ocean and calling it/ a fickle thing’. Ha! He is desperate to read her, yet would not want her words set in concrete, with script and ink that lasts. In this sequence, Clodia exists beyond the contrary longings of Catullus; she exists beyond him in the wider world of political relations and within the intimate moments of her own reckoning.
Anna appeared with Daniel Mendelsohn at the Auckland Writers Festival this year in a standout session on translation. Anna suggested that she was ‘not translating words but ideas,’ and that she wanted to see ‘how far she could push her translated versions, her subversions.’ She had the advantage of translating ‘imaginary texts, non-existent poems.’ So for her, traversing the hiatus between Latin and a second language posed different challenges. The conventional translator faces the untransportable word, gendered endings, punning options, difficult rhymes, different rhythms, inappropriate cliches, time honoured truisms and cultural trapdoors. The list is endless. Anna, though, was traversing a different gap as she worked with English translations and sought to translate the hints, the shadows, the contradictions, the silences. She was after a way to give poetic flesh to longing, loss, love, not-love, circumstance, conflict and so on. Anna has stepped into the skin of a long-lost other and gifted us a mesmerising mouthpiece. The deftness of what is revealed and what is kept back renders the white space poignant, illuminating, fertile.
You need to go for a long walk or eat a bowl of soup before you move into the second sequence, ‘The pretty photographer.’ Now Anna steps into contemporary shoes in order to re-present portraits. The Diane Arbus quote at the start is the perfect entry point (‘A photograph is a secret about a secret’) because the poems are like miniature mise en abymes. You fall into elusive, intangible selves, the dry dust of story, as the autobiographical self is laid like a transparency over the invented or borrowed self. If these are photographs, at times it is like entering the photo negative, where things are dreamlike, with the melancholy of the dark room adhering, the upset of the negative image clinging. The past is caught in splices of looking, looking through and then looking through again (‘I’m going to look right through you/ furiously stapling my feelings together’). It is as much about the photographer as it is the subject.
So many standout poems that linger (‘ Diane, unexploded’ ‘Afraid of falls?’ ‘The photographer in the library’ ‘The photographer’s hallway’ the whole thing really!). So many lines and phrases in the collection as a whole to pin to the wall. Here are some that struck a chord:
‘silent and tethered’
‘a look of such lovely lamentation’
‘the sight of women’s arms/ lifting and rising in and out of the water/ black like black eels in a swarm/ curling and calling/ one to another’
‘She picks out her coldest onion,/ her tears tight on her face.’
‘We were always walking towards the day we’d be parted.’
‘The truth is, I have feelings for you/ in every substance – including/ a cathedral of sea.’
‘I had a dream I was a ghost/ and only one man could see me …’
‘I’ll return/ to the person I was drawing/ and the dawning of the night’.
My copy of I,Clodia is battered and worn as I have carried it out and about with me for months. Sometimes I think the right book finds the right reader, not because you will necessarily get what the poet is trying to do and say, but because that book strikes a deep internal chord — the chord of humanity, the exquisite chord of a solo violin partita, the chord of that which is missing and that which is missed, the chord of women emerging from the shade. This is a poetry collection that matters.
Auckland University page
New Zealand Book Council page
Anna Jackson’s poem, ‘Afraid of falls?’ on Poetry Shelf.
Anna Jackson’s interview on Poetry Shelf