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

By | 1 October 2020

Sometimes the cost of speech is less than trauma per se, but equally palpable. There is, in any case, an undeniable appeal to silence: its shield of invisibility, its safety, as Rickerby admits. ‘Sometimes, like today, I don’t want to leave the house. I don’t want to speak. I don’t want to write.’ She recognises her ‘feminist duty’ (and indeed, her writers’ obligation) to speak, and to do so with ’big, bold words.’ But to speak is to be known, to be laid bare. Jackson’s Clodia poems are premised on the idea of a meeting of the minds between Clodia and Catullus, yet there are hints that the Clodia we hear is a guarded one. ‘Look at what was my little bird, / yesterday – this was / somebody, closer to me than…’, she writes, then interrupts herself: ‘you had better be leaving.’ (‘Pipiabat [used to chirp …]’). She elects to keep some part of herself from Catullus and furthermore from us. To keep some part for herself, before her words find their way into one of his poems and she can no longer claim them as hers. Open up, we say to someone reluctant to discuss their feelings, get it out. Share, insist social media platforms, where there is no private way to unburden ourselves. Where all our speech is inherently personal yet all for public consumption and distortion. There are risks to being known. It veers dangerously close to being owned.

Being aware of the pain associated with speaking, we might ask what demands we can make of women of the past – those we want to act as role models and precedent-setters, but whom we can only strain and strain and still not hear. While we think about the plight of the unheard, there is still meaning that resounds in silence. Whether their speech is no longer available to us because of neglect by history or the gentle ruthlessness of time, absence is still the presence of something, even if that something is loss. And for those rendered both unheard and uninterpretable, some glory resides there, too. Writes Anne Carson: ‘There is something maddeningly attractive about the untranslatable, about a word that goes silent in transit.’ (‘Variations on the Right to Remain Silent’.) There are few things more confronting than what we struggle to comprehend: the indecipherable cannot be consumed or possessed; merely witnessed, with awe or disquiet. Aeschylus’s Cassandra may appear, to the Chorus at least, to be impossible to understand. Carson redresses this to some extent in the act of translation, because it is also impossible to look away.

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