I, Clodia, and Other Portraits, by Anna Jackson (Auckland University Press, 2014), 70 pp., $24.99; Conversation by Owl-Light, by Alexandra Fraser (Steele Roberts, 2014), 72 pp., $19.99; Fallen Grace, by MaryJane Thomson, (The Night Press/HeadworX, 2014), 32 pp., $23
I Clodia, and Other Portraits centres around a novel response to the poems of Catullus. Anna Jackson imagines how Clodia Metelli, the lover that Catullus addresses as Lesbia, might have expressed her own feelings in poetry. A very academic project? Possibly, but other local poets have also gone back to Roman models to provide a frame for their current interests. Ian Wedde, for instance, found that Horace’s odes gave him a form which broke a drought in which he said he was unable to find a balance between ‘writing as small talk’ and the ‘grandiloquent’.
Much of the attraction of Horace and, in Jackson’s case, Catullus, appears to lie in that most intangible of attributes, tone. Catullus died in c. 54 BCE, but his Carmina has a contemporary flavour in the directness with which he expresses turbulent and sometimes violent moods. Karl Stead has had a long relationship with these poems and has domesticated them by referents such as Ahipara, a TV crew outside the house of Catullus, Air New Zealand and the noise of a chainsaw. In his poem ‘Catullus 65’, he chose to honour the memory of Allen Curnow by associating him with this great predecessor.
Jackson acknowledges Stead’s help with her Clodia poems, but her own approach is wholly original. Her Clodia pushes against the relentlessly importuning voice of Catullus and his claims and threats. She reveals concerns beyond his interest – her children, her brother, her husband – while she herself is truer and less flighty than the object of Catullus’ feelings.
This Clodia, like the personality of Catullus in his own poems, lives in the language. Some readers might enjoy the play of metre or phrases that subtly echo Shakespeare, Sappho, or Tennyson, but Clodia speaks well enough for herself, as in:
Haunt me, I command you,
Don’t you ever think of letting go,
Sky-soft, wind-sore, this day is nearly over.
Who am I, Clodia, but a ghost once loved by a poet?
The complex and precarious nature of Roman politics is never far away, but the most satisfying aspect of these poems is the creation of a credible and engaging personality, well able to hold her own against the desperation of a grumpy lover (and she writes just as well, too).
Much of Jackson’s poetry is based around portraits of people, either fictional (e.g. Jane Eyre in this book), or real. As in an earlier collection, The Gas Leaks (2006), other poems in I, Clodia create a subtle distancing from the subject, with layer after layer of perceptions that belie the initial impression that some intimate aspect of the person is going to be revealed. Convoluted confessions at second-hand, such as ‘Sabina and the chain of friendship’ or ‘Timothy, after the conference’, are matched by other ostensibly more straightforward narrative pieces in the first person, like ‘Evelyn, after tennis-playing’, with a conclusion that wraps the events in metaphor:
still in the shallows of my sleeping brain
the sun shines on a net, stretched taut
across a court we didn’t think of ever leaving,
wire netting we can see right though
enclosing us inside it,
where we play.
The stylish I, Clodia sequence creates its own questions, none of which are easy to answer. Can it be compared, for instance, with the poems Cavafy wrote about Alexandria and the Greek cities of Asia Minor? Cavafy was the poet of that city, living every day with its history and able to use its past as an analogy for the present. Jackson’s Clodia seems more remote, truly a whispering ghost far from here. Is the sequence no more than a tour de force, akin to the elegant ghazals produced by the court poets of the Mughal Empire in its final days, a poetry of decadence? I didn’t have that impression. This Clodia is too alive, ready once more to enter the pantheon of great lovers, woken for a moment from her endless sleep.
Alexandra Fraser’s Conversation by Owl-Light also contains a series of love poems. These are more uneven in quality than Jackson’s sophisticated musings in the persona of Clodia, but contain innovative experiments in the use of biological and other scientific images. These are employed in a search for suitable over-riding metaphors for framing the experience of a relationship. In ‘The cranial nerves of the dogfish’ she plays with the notion that a memory of an encounter will somehow be preserved, like the formalin which taints her hair after a laboratory session. This deliberative avoidance of romantic vocabulary is also seen in ‘Am I in love with you on Wednesdays?’ Here the mathematical references are overdone – Donne’s compasses would be a better model for how to fluently sustain a metaphor, as Donne appears to be the inspiration for the strongest part of the poem, a dawnsong.
This variability in quality can distract from the fact that the collection includes some fine poems. One is the playful ‘Anatomy student’, with its presentation of sex as a conjunction of bones, and its low-key finale:
Yesterday you held a preserved
human heart in your hands.
I have left my beating heart somewhere in your vicinity
Do with it what you will.
‘The same moon’ speaks to the moments when people can connect, even if by sharing the same experience while apart, while ‘Conversation by owl-light’ demonstrates Fraser’s willingness to get gritty in the rough and compelling lines, ‘rat-skull mousetail lizard-claw remnants / of a once warm and living thing’. Fraser can also be effective in very simple poems, such as ‘Love’s compass’, with its invocation of a spell that will lead unerringly to a lover, or in more complex speculations above love in alternative universes (‘On reading Many-worlds theory’):
Somewhere there is a world
where you and I live embedded
quantum dreams of ourselves
no words to misunderstand
Just plums thoughtlessly
gathered tasted sweet fruit
which cannot be misread.
There are several exuberant and passionate poems that get it right and the overall impression is strong enough to overcome the moments when there is a rather mechanical sequence of related images, as in ‘Some memes to shape you’, or an anodyne ending, as in the final lines of the poem ‘Mind pirates’. As far as classical allusions go, Alexandra Fraser does well herself, with her Demeter/Persephone poems a fine counterpoint to those that directly recall members of her own family.
This first collection, a typically well-produced volume from its publisher Steele Roberts, ranges through an absorbing variety of styles and subjects, including a final section with reflections on illness and death. There is plenty of energy there – these poems are about something – and it would be good to see more of Alexandra Fraser’s work, preferably with tougher editing next time to polish some of the more ambitious longer pieces.
MaryJane Thomson’s Fallen Grace, published by Wellington’s Night Press (a division of HeadworX), is more of a chapbook for circulation among a small circle. As an artist and photographer, she might have produced a work with greater impact had it contained more of her photographs. The attractive format with the stitched cover, and the three photographs included with the text, hint at how a more ambitious production might have looked.
The poems themselves are limited and this is accentuated at times by rhyme, which makes many of the pronouncements little more than homilies. As a result, the poet herself can seem to be ‘doing poetry’ rather than writing poems that start from something she has experienced. ‘Pondering belief’ appears to be one poem where the author is present, ‘sitting cigarette in hand, muted music / staring at feather, as it sends you low’. ‘Nerve at work’ and ‘Petals’ are also less declamatory, more particular. The scope of most of the poems is too ambitious, too inclined to carry a message, to make this a successful collection.
JOHN HORROCKS is a Wellington-based writer and reviewer.