On Speaking and Unheard Women: Interrogating Classical Silence in the Poetry of Anna Jackson and Helen Rickerby

By | 1 October 2020

Clodia Pulchra would know. The speaker of Anna Jackson’s ‘I, Clodia’ sequence in I, Clodia and Other Portraits was a Patrician woman embroiled in some of the most notable scandals of the late ancient Roman Republic, as well as being closely involved with key political figures of the period. She also tends to be omitted from many a Roman history curriculum. We don’t know much about her, but we know she spoke.

Today, Clodia generates conversation as the alleged basis for ‘Lesbia’, the lover named in the work of Roman poet Catullus. ‘Lesbia’, of course, could be entirely fictitious. Like the haughty mistresses in other Latin love elegists’ work, she is no one and everyone: a target for desire and frustration. We have no sources reflecting Clodia’s perspective, or the verses she is rumoured to have penned. Jackson’s poems, styled as letters to Catullus, allow us to eavesdrop on their tangled intimacy through Clodia’s playful voice:

Do you think I have nothing to do but wait


for you to return with your limping


dropping your obduracy

like a dead bird

at my door?

(‘Whom shall I kiss now?’)

The sequence is rich in intertextual and intratextual meaning, with the titles of several poems cased in brackets as if to lend them a veneer of authenticity. It is as if we were reading fragments of actual ancient texts, the parentheses denoting the gaps we have had to fill. Perhaps this is real history, Jackson suggests, mined from what we were never permitted to see. I am reminded of what Rickerby writes about a palimpsest, ‘a parchment from which / the words / have been scraped off so it could be used / again / but the old words still show through’ (‘Ban Zhao’). If Lesbia was indeed Catullus’s way of ‘writing over’ Clodia, Jackson imagines what lies underneath.

Jackson’s Clodia is not only a reader-interpreter of Catullus’s letters and poems but a poet in her own right. If Catullus had reduced her to a character in his work, Clodia responds in kind, wryly comparing their love affair to a poem of ‘efficient’ and satisfying metre (‘A Thousand Kisses, Then a Hundred’). She cements herself as a skillful wordsmith in ‘No Rough Verses’, written in Catullus’s favourite metre, the English equivalent of which is the hendecasyllable. But the most revealing poem deals explicitly with silence. ‘A god in his way’ is Clodia’s reworking of Catullus’s adaptation of Sappho’s fragment 31, in which Sappho finds herself unwillingly silent, overpowered by the presence of her beloved. Clodia’s rewriting finds Catullus ‘mute at last’. His brief silence leaves space for her own words:

This respite is something to praise! I’ll fill


stanzas up while you can be silent for


pen laid down, your fingers, I trust, not


       paper unblotted …

Where Rickerby exposes and interrogates Hipparchia’s silence, at one point representing it visually as a group of empty brackets, Jackson fills Clodia’s. Not only does she give this popularly overlooked woman a pulse, but the chance to wrestle textual authority away from her man. Yet just as Rickerby had to resign herself to the fact Hipparchia cannot be heard, Jackson, too, shows us the charade behind her vocal Clodia. Like Cassandra who foretold her own doom, Clodia knows her end – that she will live only in the curves of Catullus’s ink, an archetype, an outline. In ‘Medea, he calls me’, Clodia responds to Cicero’s character assassination of her as a husband-poisoner in court, before turning her attention to Catullus himself. ‘I am the heartless Jason in your version of our story’, she tells him, in contrast to Cicero’s depiction of her as scheming Medea. Whose version wins? Cicero might have had the courtroom, but Catullus’s poems had thousands of years. Hipparchia’s rival had the dinner party, but history had the rest of time. In the last poem of the sequence, ‘[unheard]’, her fate is sealed: ‘Who am I, Clodia, but a ghost once loved by a poet?’ But this is the old story – he gets the glory, she gets the ghost.

This essay was sparked by the seeming resurgence of interest in the buried stories of fictional ancient women. Three critically praised novels were released within the last two years: Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, Madeleine Miller’s Circe and Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships. Each professed to immerse readers in a different view of Homer’s epics, those great paeans to male valour. The women in these tales were never truly silent, these authors declare. They resisted, persisted, and they spoke up against all odds. Women’s speech is important, these feminist retellings confirm, and rightly so. But what does it really mean to speak, and what price must be paid? ‘Every woman has known the torture of beginning to speak aloud,’ Hélène Cixous writes in ‘Sorties’, ‘heart beating as if to break, occasionally falling into loss of language, ground and language slipping out from under her, because for woman speaking – even just opening her month – in public is something rash, a transgression.’ For a woman to speak on social media, the world’s public square, she must prepare to be a target of vitriol. Beyond that well-known fact, however, there is something deeper in the act of speaking itself. As Rickerby observes:

42. Some things we tell because we don’t want them to have power over us. Some things we never tell because we don’t want them to have power over us.

43. There are things we didn’t think we could tell.

44. There are things we didn’t think we needed to tell. ‘Why didn’t you tell anyone?’ Let’s pretend that everyone didn’t already know.

45. I didn’t want that to be what you think of when you look at me.

(‘Notes on the unsilent woman’)

Speaking brings a personal toll. I have never been talented at speaking about myself (though I do wonder about the extent to which writing is inherently confessional.) With Me Too and Black Lives Matter in the public mind, there seems to be an expanding market for women and people of colour to talk about the things they have to live through. To share their truth. Yet must their writing be viewed as instructive, as specific to their struggles as a marginalised individual, while work by white men can be considered relatable, universal, representative of all human experience? And how much energy needs to be expended in educating and offering up our pain to others? Speech is a burden. Sometimes this has to do with trauma. While the #MeToo hashtag was saturating social media, I doubt I was the only one to wonder about the psychological impact, the emotional labour, that came with women airing these intimately painful experiences.

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