On poetry, portraiture, and mourning a Dorking.
The fraught affair du coeur between Catullus and Clodia must be one of the greatest love stories of all time. In her new book, I, Clodia, and Other Portraits, Anna Jackson divulges imagined secrets and inhabits voices that falter in their own portraiture, even as the poems themselves are sure-footed and witty, with both loveliness and torque. Here, Anna talks about what it’s like when a pet bird dies, and the precarious space where poems might just be stories.
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JOAN FLEMING: First things first: Clodia’s sparrow, the dead bird of your book’s uncomfortably beautiful cover. Jeffrey Eugenides writes that the sparrow in Catullus’s poems is the supreme metaphor for the real love story, the love story that depends on disappointment and dysfunction. The sparrow, and then the sparrow’s death, represents the “two poles” of unrequited longing and disenchanted entanglement that are familiar to those of us who have experienced failure in love. But what about Clodia’s literal relationship with the sparrow? Isn’t she just a bit too dramatic about it? I thought you might have some secret insight, given that you are a husbander of hens and a keeper of pets yourself.
ANNA JACKSON: Oh where does Jeffery Eugenides write that? I think a few things about the sparrow. Firstly, I think its significance is overplayed. Not as a symbol—I agree with Eugenides, unrequitedness and disenchantedness (perhaps)—but in narrative terms. It is the difficulty with turning poetry into narrative. I’m thinking of the film about Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares [Reaching for the Moon] in which we keep seeing them having baths and washing each other’s hair, and I wondered why and looked to see if there was a poem about a hairwash, which of course there was—one poem. But I’m also thinking of the Helen Dunmore novelisation of the Catullus story, which has the sparrow being really Clodia’s one true obsession. In I, Clodia I have a sparrow poem but it is ambiguous, I think—whether it is really even about the sparrow’s death or whether she might have other reasons for her red eyes. The Catullus elegy, in response, becomes what I’ve always suspected it might be, something of a joke, mourning a sparrow’s death in such a high register.
But this summer, after the book was published, my hens hatched out baby chickens, including one Dorking—a breed of Roman hen originally brought over to England with the Roman conquest, and still the same bird it was then. In comparison with today’s breeds, they grow slowly and hatch later, so by the time the Dorking egg hatched, the other chicks were out of the nesting box, and the mother was running around with them, so there was no one to sit on the chick and keep it warm its first two days. I found it limp and cold alone in the nesting box, and to save its life I had to carry it around under my jersey for two days. It grew to be the tamest, sweetest bird, always happy to be carried around, and it stayed small, and stripey, struggling always to keep up with the bigger, faster, yellow chickens. It seemed to be thriving, though, and happy in the flock, until one day it just sat cheeping miserably unless I carried it around, where it would lean close to me and sleep. Then as soon as I put it down, it would cheep again until it was picked up. By the end of the day it was just lying down still, and when it died, I cried and cried until my eyes were red and sore, and the Catullus poem did not seem so overblown or a joke to me anymore. A week later I made myself cry all over again reading the lovely G.S. Davies translation of the poem into Scots. He translates the line about everyone grieving who is “venustiones” (usually translated as charming—lovable, but perhaps also loving) as “ilka man of decent feeling” which I find so very beautiful in its restraint and in the whole sense of culture it carries with it—a culture of feeling what you decently should feel, no more or less, but in this poem that includes feeling very much for a poor wee bird.
JF: That is an extraordinarily parallel, Anna. And that just happened? Poor little Dorking. Even the name moves me. “My heart in hiding / stirred for a bird”! The Eugenides idea is from his introduction to My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, a wonderful collection of love stories. Most of them are failed love stories, really, which explains why I like them.
Which poem in I, Clodia went through the most revisions? What other bodies did it cycle through before it resolved into the poem it needed to be?
AJ: I feel like I don’t revise at all but when I was working on the Clodia poems, instead of erasing, I seem to have copied each draft and then erased and revised, so I have a record of the revisions I was making. It is really interesting watching a poem find its way. The false starts, all the way through, as the poem keeps veering off track, seem very funny—how could I, even for a moment, have thought that was the way to go? But every time, I save the poem, in a way that really seems very sure-footed to me.
“The grittiness of spring” used to part of a longer poem, that I really liked, but which had to be dropped because there was something wrong with the chronology, maybe the season, maybe the order of events, I can’t remember. But I let myself keep the line about the grittiness of spring, even though it was no longer doing the work it was doing to set up the longer poem. I can’t remember how the joke unfolded, but it was hard to give up. And “Galliambics” was set in the heat of summer, and so had to be reworked completely. And I changed the last line—Helen Rickerby said “I don’t know but I feel it, and it is agony,” was too melodramatic. I told her it was a reference to the most famous Catullus poem and couldn’t possibly be changed but I knew she was right, the tone was wrong. “I feel crucified” might not seem much less melodramatic but the tone somehow works in a way that it didn’t. If I could I would make one more change—in fact, I have already rewritten it. “Oh, in hendecasyllables” has always felt a little leaden to me, not just because of the elegiac metre (it is in dactylic hexameter) but because of all the expounding of plot it does. I was so pleased with the plot twist, which moved the narrative along so effectively, I tried not to notice how the poem stalled the sequence as a poem. Then, when the book was a book, and I read it through as a reader, not the writer, I felt the sequence hit a dull note at that poem. So I rewrote it as free verse, much shorter and sharper and brisker in tone. I wish I had rewritten it before the sequence was published.
JF: You create a terribly strong portrait of Clodia in the book’s first section. She is wry, winking, overcome, exasperated by her own submission to the love she claims both she and Catullus hate being in. Then, in the book’s second section, the voice of the photographer registers strong discomfort with the very idea of portraiture. The pretty photographer calls her year “the year of the portrait disaster.” Are you as uncomfortable with portraiture as your pretty photographer? Is ‘persona’ a more comfortable term for the biographical and autobiographical elements of your poetry?
AJ: I like imagining being the pretty photographer, who I think is rather like me in a different life, but no, I don’t share her discomfort with portraiture, I loved my own year of portraiture. I think she is more concerned with being a serious artist, or at least she has her own rules of artistic rigour. Portraiture is perhaps more threatening to a photographer—always an art that verges on not being an art, since the camera makes the picture—than to a poet. Though as a poet, perhaps my poetry also verges on not being art, perhaps I quite like that precarious space where you might be making art or you might just be telling stories. When people ask “what makes it poetry?”—if it just runs down the page—I think, does it matter, if you like it?
The pretty photographer’s Christmas Eve
The pretty photographer has never given a photograph
as a present. One Christmas when she had bought
no presents to give she spent Christmas Eve
wrapping her entire collection
of vintage tea towels, selecting the Eiffel tower
for her mother, songbirds for a friend
she hadn’t seen in years and would not have thought
to buy a present for.
Usually she chooses books online.
This year, the year of the portrait disaster, she has
ordered nothing and so at ten at night
on Christmas Eve she writes
a list of names, selects the same number
of photographs, then
matches one of each to the other.
The night is almost over, the sky lightening,
when at last there is one name left on her list,
and one photograph on the table.
The name left on her list is her brother’s.
The photograph is a portrait:
Her brother on her balcony, half his face
lit up by the sun.
She sets up a flash, a timer, steps out onto the balcony
and makes a portrait of herself leaning backwards
against the dawn sky, develops
the film, prints the photograph, takes
an etching out of a frame and frames
the self-portrait, wraps it and gives it to her brother
who gives her a book by Paul Auster.
The portrait of her brother
she hangs above the bookcase,
where she used to watch the shadows
drift across the empty space.
JF: Are your poems truth or fiction?
AJ: To answer this question, I want to quote from the Ben Lerner book 10.04 when he talks about how much more comfortable he is writing as a poet than a fiction writer, because poetry is expected to be both autobiographical and fictional, or either or both. I did like making up the Clodia story. I think most of the poems in the photographer section are fictional too, though I borrowed a lot of the details from my life, like watching the arms in the swimming race, and getting stuck on the outskirts, both real and metaphorical. But novelists do that too, don’t they?
JF: I am curious about your friend / muse(?), Phoebe. Her idea that “the coldest onion” is a brilliant name for a bar was the seed for “Saoirse at the fridge.” What else has she said that you’ve turned into poetry? Or, if not into poetry—“the coldest onion” already is poetry!—then, into a poem.
AJ: I’m not sure what other lines or images in my poems are Phoebe’s! Phoebe is a brilliant conversationalist. But so am I, sometimes! Especially in conversation with Phoebe. I think what I meant was partly that to be a poet can just mean listening to yourself thinking, or, to make it easier, listening to yourself talking. “A bad day to be an aspirin” is a line from a text to Phoebe—Phoebe is someone you don’t want to just write “A good day for ducks” to.
JF: Is poetry a luxury or a necessity?
AJ: That is quite imponderable! I read poetry almost every day, but I don’t know how much I would miss it if I couldn’t. If I couldn’t read at all, that would be intolerable; it is one of my worst fears. There are other things it would be hard to get by without, coffee, wine, music, being able to walk, but people do get by without them and I suppose I would too. Poetry is one of those things you wouldn’t want to have to get by without. But do you mean not writing poetry? If something meant I couldn’t write poetry at all while I was part way through the Clodia sequence, or the Gas Leak sequence, I’d have felt quite frantic, like a broody hen removed from her nest. And if I was told now I would never write poetry again, that would be a different kind of difficult, having to think about who I really am. But ordinarily not writing poetry is what I do most of the time, so it doesn’t seem to be a necessity.
JF: Have you ever had to ask permission from a friend or beloved to publish a poem?
AJ: Not exactly. This is also a bit difficult to answer. I think my writing is getting less personal, and perhaps it better had.
JF: You say your ending for the Clodia sequence is a “happy” one—Clodia and Catullus are reunited, “or at least reconciled.” But I read the ending as more ambiguous than that. There is still an active yearning there, which suggests to me some kind of dissatisfaction. In the portrait poems, too, there is an insistent sense of the gap between desire and satisfaction, whether it’s to do with intimacy or art. The photographer dreams, “not of her come-hither / eyes but the ‘with’ withheld / a hallway out of reach.” Saoirse sees two planes sky-writing something in the sky that she can’t read, “one / undoing the writing of the other.” Amanda smiles “with a smile that doesn’t appear on her face.” All this makes me think of the gap between the ideal and the real, not just in relationships but in poetry. Do you feel that each of your poems approaches an “Anna Jackson Poem” ideal, and gets close, sometimes a hair’s breadth away, but can never quite touch, like an asymptote?
AJ: That is really two questions, isn’t it? I like this observation about the asymptotic quality of the poems, or of the feelings or stories behind them. Even the circular poems I think leave a loose thread hanging out—the son in the place of the father needs to leave, the Jane Eyre story leaves the loose thread of the daughter. The photographer sequence ends with a last photographer poem wrapping the sequence up, but the photo of the brother that she hangs on the wall means the loss of the blank wall she used to watch shadows cross. But if the Anna Jackson poem ideal is to be asymptotic then maybe these are just them? I’m not sure I’m trying to reach a poem that is more mine than the ones I’ve written. But I do like the idea of the Clodia poems being only translations of better poems in the original Latin, that these versions only gesture towards but can never quite touch.