JW: In The Gas Leak (2006) the three family members are each sensitive to their surrounds and yet disconnected from one another. It’s a fun book to read, though, despite the melancholy tone. What place does humour have in your poetry?
AJ: The middle part of The Gas Leak is told from the perspective of a teenage girl, so the poems in that section are kind of darkly ‘right’ about everything. I think humour is often closely aligned with melancholy. The – more directly you try to write about grief, the more comic it becomes – I think one of my funniest poems is ‘Salty Hair,’ in Thicket, which really is about being prostrate with grief, unable to lift your head off the pillow that is so sodden with tears your hair is salty.
The Gas Leak as a whole is about the gaps in family life. You’re all living in the same family, but in a way you’re all living in a different family. Everyone in the family has so much that goes on outside of the family. You want to be known as someone who is somewhere else, but within the family that side of you is only present as a kind of ghost of yourself. So I see families as haunted spaces.
The relationship between Catullus and Clodia as presented in his poetry and in my I, Clodia sequence is absolutely structured around humour, around the witty exchanges between the two of them. Humour – what they called lepidus or facetus – is what makes a poem out of a request or an accusation, or a story or observed detail. Lepidus and facetus both mean a wit that is a form of elegance, gracefulness, an urbanity, that involves a shapeliness, a neat turn, when applied to a poem. Catullus was part of a poetic movement that was turning away from the grander, more civic poetry of earlier generations and towards a more urban poetry, narrower in its concerns, but polished in style. But another Latin word for wit is salsus – salty. So wit in Latin can be connected with sharpness, and perhaps grief, too.
I, Clodia begins with witty repartee between herself and Catullus, and ends with Clodia not only haunted, but spectral herself.
[unheard] Are you here still, your mourners long departed? Can you hear me, if I call in your Greek metre, can you see me, my hair whipping my cheekbones, my eyes stinging, the fog lifting and falling? Time for the sky to fold itself into the lake – I like a foggy whip. Haunt me, I command you, don’t you ever even 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?