anna jackson: pasture and flock

Acknowledging Jackson’s achievement of an unpindownable relationship between real life and textuality, questions arise about the aesthetic values that sustain it. How is writerliness construed in a representation that sanctions verisimilitude yet is nowhere bound by it? Where are boundaries set between immediate textual presentation and its re-presention as an otherness-in-time-and-space? What have a stanza, a line break, rhymed words, to do with experiential living? Similarly, given the formal conventionality that is adhered to (a self-centred lyric voice, abundance of literary allusions, left-justified margins with regular line lengths, self-contained pieces that usually occupy single pages whether stand-alone or as part of a longer sequence, regular titles capitalisation grammar syntax and predominantly iambic speech rhythms, orthodox use of rhymes similes metaphors and especially homonyms and puns, preferred forms like the sonnet, albeit in a relaxed manner) what is it about the inner relations of the poems that has them sparkle in so many directions?

     Sometimes it feels as though
     my life was buried
     under a marble slab a long time
     ago, the crows, holding tight
     to their children and purses, reading
     other inscriptions, but I say, so long as your heart
     is still beating, there is beauty to be found.  
        (‘Heart and slab (after Sappho’s ‘Some say cavalry…’))

When reading Jackson, one is reminded of reading Dickinson, or of receiving Keats’s desperately extended ‘This living hand…’. And, in order to return this aesthetic posture back to its real world origins (post-flight, one assumes), we have Jackson’s own fulsome Endnotes dedication: ‘Thanks to Johnny, a fine chef, for making such an excellent mess of my kitchen, and Elvira, a cooking show aficionado, whose friends made such an excellent job of my garden [see ‘The cooking show’ and ‘Le Corbusier’], and thanks for Simon, my linen and thread, my pasture, stars and sky’. We seem to have arrived back at where our discussion started (see remake6). Yet the poems ask if that is the case, or can ever be the case? That is the crux of these poems: their flourish on departure from ordinary existence rather than on affirmative return to it, although one knows one must and does return. Or the distinction is simply left to collapse. Once departure has occurred (certainly figuratively, perhaps also literally), the place left to return to is already somewhere else:

     Searching for their target, that elusive body of water
     That returns to me precisely nothing at all.  
        (‘James K Baxter as the whale’)

Nothing is ever the same. This is the scariness that permeates each of these poetic sorties. The sentiment goes beyond an obvious (and unquestioned) sense of intimacy and warmth in relationship with family members, with other writers, with a plethora of personal friends and acquaintances (flocks of things!), without the least sense of irony or insinuation or a deliberate skewering of things-other to the poet’s own purposes. Yet a personal authenticity cannot be separated from their phantasmagorical proportions. Harmony is disharmony, consonance is dissonance, security is insecurity, knowledge is doubt:

	     After twenty years
     of marriage what is surprising isn’t really
     so much the person you are with
     but to find yourself so
     out of place in this scene, cold
     but not able to get out without stepping
     over bees, so many bees.  
        (‘Bees, so many bees’)

This sense of freedom within entrapment (being ‘at home’ in an estranging otherness) is particularly evident in the more recent poems gathered in Part 3 of Pasture and Flock, from which the above passages are taken. It is a world without a single route to follow (for all the mention of poetic corridors!), without clear sides to be defended and arguably without a distinct or secure final bottom or top, earth or sky. Everything wants to stay uncapped, every gesture insists on another. It is a variety of dance or decamping that neither leaves things entirely intact nor renovates them into something better. It is essentially an endorsement of vital movement, Jackson’s special absconding no matter where from or to.

The scoop

The element of repulse from reality, prominent in Part 3, is traceable throughout the work. From early on, in a world where most people build concrete structures or at least dream of doing so, this poet dreams of dreams: ‘Some people’s dreams are vast / enough to build houses on. / I am always falling’. On one level, human or animal figures within the poems are representations of what they seem to want or need from the female speaker—her persona is a projection of such expectations. Even God, as a kind of ‘lover’ in a world of would-be male lovers (as holds in The gas leak), must bear the repercussions of the speaker’s quick wit, as He ‘run[s] His cursor / down the screen of my life’. Or this title: ‘”Indeed I can quite freely step inside.” (God)’. Senses of words pop or spin from one possible axis of meaning to another: ‘I don’t suppose you’d need / to have won prizes / at long jump – just a leap of faith’, and, when she—a university teacher—assumes the role of tutor to her children, ‘I find the children the Bible but / they want to see the holes… the difference / between holy and holey’; nor is spouse Simon (if it’s not too stretched a suggestion) absolved in this land of unsure inhabitations: ‘here is a husband / like a ceiling’.

‘Indexing’ is another poem that collapses emotional intimacy into radical self-referentiality:

     You index achievements, I index my dreams –

          bears, 3.4.1971, 21.19; 6.4.1971, 23.45; 11.10.1971, 21.38-44; 1.1.1972, 01.22 etc.
          birds, 7.4.1971, 21.48-49; 13.5.1973, 23.40; 6.10.1982, 22.10; 12.6.1984, 22.11; 14.10.1995, 02.40; and brothers, 12.12.1990, 06.40; 11.05.2010, 03.13

     But perhaps it is our appearances
     in others’ indexes that count.

     Well, I am in your index,
     and you are in mine.

Along with the intimation of fondness, what strikes the reader here is the nimble intelligence that creates a metonym of index-entries as records-to-intimacy. The opening lines reveal as much:

     And then it is all over, and we leave life behind
     like a daytime movie, emerging dazzled –

Something similar occurs in the preceding poem, in which the speaker, having licked a stamp and despatched the letter, while ‘waiting for a reply’, self-reflects thus:

     But where am I being sent?
     And when I arrive, who will open me?
     Roughly, with a finger, or gently, with a knife? 

Mayakovsky is not the only one residing in ‘The invisibility of poets’ in this misplaced (or mis-delivered) world. As well as the geometries of space, where inside and outside, up and down, prove arbitrary measures that depend on one’s relative orientation, there is a similar tension and attraction in psychological and emotional terms, between apartness and togetherness, familiarity and unfamiliarity, refuge and exposure. Verbal dexterity in the poems is matched with psychological perplexity, whereby familiar clothing, books, basements, rooms, enclosures, faces or places, may at times bring some ease, while at other times these same or perhaps different faces and places, lacking these qualities, or threatening them, can metastasise and deeply unsettle: 

     It is the room I want, room
     to deny myself, the spaciousness
     of humility, not the empty air
     of the scrambling vines
     but the rich earth
     where the potato digs down.  
        (‘Giving up’)

The room’s four walls suggest an urge to seek both containment and the unfettered. Yet even refuge is attended by dangers. It’s as if the speaker fears dissipating into the ether (necessitating her finding security in a form of safe(ty in) belonging: ‘forgetting / to remember’). Language is essentially a clutching at something that may or may not be there—or that positions something identifiable somewhere, however momentarily, however precariously. Adherence to the conventionality of language is matched by a waried knowledge that it never actually adequately achieves much. Time (‘in terms of time’) is less an efficient imposition of uniformity than a necessary means of inescapable assertion—‘the years were getting longer / by the minute’: ‘every year will be like an ocean liner’. Mischievously, time lengthens and contracts, either repeats or retraces its steps, like ‘the length of the swim / depending entirely on how often / you want to swim back, and forth’ (‘Doubling back’). Standard measure of any kind is exposed as an insufficient indicator of significance or assumed effect, after all effect (as affect) is only ever conjectural: ‘It isn’t easy, working always / with ricochet’ (‘Speaking as one of the billiard balls’). Sporting activities, say swimming billiards badminton or tennis (the poet appears to be an advocate), provide a microcosm of the processes of life: in tennis, striking the ball ‘from anywhere to anywhere that we can reach’ and keeping in tune with the ‘satisfying, solemn thud / against the strings that keeps it all in play’ (‘Evelyn, after tennis-playing’). Life demands playing, win lose or draw, against forces generated over time or arriving precipitately: ‘in any case, the effect that is intended / isn’t the effect that the impact / is going to have on me’ (‘Speaking as one of the billiard balls’). Rather than delegate meanings, life is a spawner of them.

This is the world of ‘Unknown unknowns’ where no-one ‘can know where the poet goes at night’ or ‘what other worlds God might have dreamed up / too secret… / to be manifest’. Or:

     It wasn’t the home I had left behind.
     It wasn’t anything I’d asked for.
     But you can’t throw a marriage,
     children, a job, back
     Into the sea…
     I just wish it could end like it does 
     in the story, and I could go back
     to nothing while I still got
     to be alive, have
     a turn at being 
     the fish for a change.
        (‘The fish and I’)

Fish, dogs, chickens, sheep—any member of any menagerie biological or sociological evokes a world-realm that hankers after belonging and shelter and tenderness. The particular wish that abides in us has less to do with an expected particular fulfilment than with the fact that what happens to us is almost always something that arrives unexpectedly from an un-present or not presently present or else from a not wanted to be present or else wanted to be so but only at a distance. Bewilderment, according to Jackson, is a function of hope. Such is the nature of desire—a felt need not always satisfied by satiation or denial and something that may not even want to connect with its object beyond simply gazing upon it in relation to an unresolved yearning. Where

     it isn’t this one after all
     that is the imaginary world
     too sentimental, too beautiful,
     too privately pleasurable
     really to be real 
        (‘Unknown unknowns’)

and where:

     to wake in the morning
     unravelled, the bits of me that have travelled
     not even me? 
        (‘We were at the British Museum?’)

In all of this, relationship, especially family relationship, is assumed as integrative. Identity is the aspiration albeit—as mentioned above—often in an unforeseeable, untellable, way: ‘so diffuse by daylight, by night so strangely defined’ (‘It was an honour, John’). One requires a form of light that enables one to ‘see the sky in the sky…’ (‘Margo, or Margaux’). Perhaps, at best, moment-by-moment existing in life provides ‘A membrane to hatch through?’ (‘Wondering how to see it’)—or a plethora of membranes, not necessarily singular or discrete.

Things held (to)

For all the press of analysis undertaken here, I cannot claim to have prised open the hand that has written these poems, for with ‘the birds outside, singing, and when I / sing back… how can I tell / if they are singing with me companionably, or if / they are alarmed (‘Office pastoral’). In this knife-slit world, where is the place of refuge where writing and existing might safely coincide? What refuge is there either outside or within writing? Here, from her recent, more sombre set of poems, is Jackson’s encrypted response,

     I am far too preoccupied searching the sea for my true opponent
     to whom I address these poems, my sonar system, 
        (‘James K. Baxter as a whale’)                            

suggesting that the poems are signals emitted (encryptions) rather than straightforward declarations of intent. Nestled in the signal system are anguishes, peals of affliction and laughter, less a seeking liberation or confession than a surreal choreography. Closer to what is sought is a resonance of receptivity that coalesces in a melee of active exchanges that stretches beyond merely saying this or that, agreeing with this or disagreeing with that. Whale-order communication systems (‘Language isn’t big enough’, ‘The long road to teatime’). It is not oneself that one asserts; one expresses susceptibilities, capacities for kindness, uncertain navigation of the waters between:

     other inscriptions, but I say, so long as your heart
     is still beating, there is beauty to be found. 
        (‘Heart and slab (after Sappho’s “Some say cavalry…”’)

We’re finally (kind of always) where we started, among ‘the treasures / of my mind’ (’My friendship with Mayakovsky’). The non-unitary self from which the poems radiate (‘sonar system’) achieves a fitting homecoming in the final, again dedicatory, poem in Pasture and Flock. As topsy-turvy as anything else we’ve discussed to this point, not excluding ‘Salty Hair’ (the sea and the sky are among favoured eye-stopping places), where this discussion set out, this last poem is literally a case of ‘falling upwards’ (the authority of Paul de Man, deconstruction maestro, is not needed to claim this phrase). The speaker, another version of Jackson, is rooted ‘so hard’ to the ground that looking up into the sky she feels herself drowning in air; maybe it is her hair that falls upward, or outward, as if she is caught in a current under water. It reminds us of the ‘hundreds of blades of grass’, shown on the cover of the book, on which she is standing, although ‘there are so many more / untrodden on’. The grass blades beckon (threaten?), intimating yet further untrammelled experiences. It must be early morning, and she must be standing outside in the cold looking up, wonderingly, because now she remembers herself and Simon (I provide the name), last night in bed, calling her his ‘sheet of linen’ and himself ‘the threads’. This brings her back to the present, embracing the linen and threads, associating them with her present pastoral whereabouts: ‘I think, who is the blades of grass, who is the pasture?’ The environment is disturbed, the stars in the sky are short-circuiting and, when she pulls at her coat to warm herself, she becomes aware of the weird smell (‘of something unusual’). The stars start to plummet and the sheep—appearing from out of where and according to whose will?—inch closer. In a swoop back to the opening, those present suddenly start to ‘plunge into the sky’. This poem ends with the bemused upward falling that was perhaps there all along, only now she is the ‘sheep and flock’, Simon is the ‘pasture’ that she falls from and into as well as ‘the stars and the sky’. Though the grammar allows either—or both, or neither. We end whence we began, essentially nowhere (‘to find yourself so / out of place in this scene’, ‘Bees, so many bees’).