anna jackson: pasture and flock

   Home is no home some learn
   sooner than others  
              (‘Sylvia in the supermarket’) 

   homogenous plurality 


Anna Jackson’s Pasture and Flock: New and Selected Poems (2018)[1] includes poems from her previous six volumes, beginning with early work that appeared in AUP New Poets 1 (1999), and ends with more recent poems written since 2014 (Part three: ‘From just behind her eyes’). Part one comprises six sequences that span five of the six volumes; and Part two contains a range of individual poems in roughly chronological order, again spanning five volumes. Organising material in an overlayered manner such as this invites us to re-examine Jackson’s entire oeuvre to date, raising the question about whether it should be expected to demonstrate a settled thematic and stylistic maturation over time.

Indeed, what we do discover is a fluid poetic occupancy of various locations and surprising shifts in time. On reading Pasture and Flock, it is clear that for this poet it matters very much what company one keeps and what are the forces that bind things together or have them fragment.[2] An exploration of relationship dynamics prevails throughout, whether this involves hanging out with a friend or family members, being alone in a room, teaching literature, being with others in a garden or henhouse, on a tennis court, within a city, taking a swim, waking from a disturbing dream, or celebrating the achievements of other beloved poets. Through it all, Jackson shows herself to be quick-witted, ebullient and impressively erudite; we, as readers, are drawn into a quirky world that is woven into the very warp and weft of the poems.[3] As we progress, it is important to attend most carefully to the impact of discrete details within individual poems, as well as individual poems within sequences, and sequences within the overall organisation of the book: and all three of these processes in reverse. In these poems, meaning and purpose defy any simple form of incrementalism.

Within the various situations explored, what matters more than the forming of agreeable human gestures is an active enquiry into exactly what kind of a world might receive the spirited array of unconventional gestures on display, perhaps even ones that society might benefit from. A first intimation of the poet’s bon vivant contrariness is found on the cover of Pasture and Flock.

A pastoral scene, seemingly arcadian, is evoked with trees, undulating slopes, shards of grass and, in the foreground, a pair of grazing hens. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that all is not quite as straight-

forward as it appears. Stark black markings cut into a white background—with one exception: the conspicuous red combs and wattles adorning the hens’ heads! While actual pictorial details (twigs, branches, trunks, grass blades, the thickened lines that form the horizon) are distinctly prominent, they straightaway merge into a single inclusive impression (‘homogeneous plurality’, as the epigraph puts it). In this sense, the hens are simultaneously a companionable pair, free-range, marooned in open space, and sequestered within a plethora of artistic framing devices. Beyond the [in]hospitability of the compositional field, another thing worth noting is that the two hens are the only entire objects that occupy this discordant wasteland, itself part fabrication part fractal. Furthermore, there is an accompanying idiosyncrasy in the language. Pasture and Flock (featured in red, along with the poet’s name and the hens’ combs) conventionally refers—at least in the pastoral genre—to a flock of sheep rather than a flock or brood—actually only a pair—of chickens.[4] So that, even before the book is properly entered, the world of convention that is adhered to is at the same time in process of overturning.

The book exits in a similar manner. The closing poem, which gives the book its title, makes explicit the connection between flock and sheep (this time sans hens). Not only that, but on this occasion the entire flock subsumes the person of the speaking ‘I’:

                I feel like we are all
      going to plunge into the sky 
      at once, the sheep and I,
      and I am the sheep and I am
      the flock, and you are the pasture
      I fall from, the stars and the sky. 
            (‘Pasture and Flock’)

Tellingly, the pronouns used (‘we’, ’you’, five ‘I’s), here as everywhere in Pasture and Flock, function in a non-prescriptive manner. Wavering between the particular and the inclusive, they sometimes act as numerators and sometimes as denominators. And, sometimes, neither: when they lose all specificity of reference and dissolve into a vague groundlessness (denominator = zero). To elucidate, in the above passage, the ‘I’ starts off as a collective ‘we’ together with ‘the sheep’, reverts briefly to an individual ‘I’, only to next announce an equivalence to the sheep (‘I am the sheep’), which themselves immediately demarcate into ‘sheep’ and ‘flock’, potentially either singular-and-singular or singular-and-plural or plural-and-singular or plural-and-plural. Now, if that sounds a bit baffling, suddenly in the poem we are returned to an earlier-referenced ‘you’ (in effect, a protagonist-of-equivalence in this and other poems to the poet’s real-life partner ‘Simon’, a recurring dedicatee in Jackson books).

The same ‘you’ who only ‘last night’ had announced that she is his ‘sheet of linen and I am the threads’ is in turn described, quite denominatorishly, as the everything, the pasture, that ‘I fall from’—upward! In this lolly scramble of identity, the closing reference to ‘stars and the sky’ as good as belongs to none as to one-and-all (it, me, you, them). This is the Jackson gambit: an unremitting torsion or strain runs through everything on show: here & there, now & then, internal & external, between a wife her husband & their two children, between the poet & their spellbound readers, between words & the multiplicity of things they evoke.


Needless to say, the poems constantly verge on the antithetical, the phantasmagorical. This happens in a poem like ‘Salty hair’ (it chimes for me with the nearby ‘Sarah’s hair’), which presents a domestic scene in which the speaker wakes to find that overnight she has sweated profusely:

      In the morning my pillow is wet through
      to the sheets. I have to wring out
      the salt from my hair before
      I can lift my head.

Maybe it’s humid or she has a fever or has dreamed badly, had a nightmare? Or perhaps there is another physical or psychological cause, some emotional disturbance? Whatever the source of upset, a daily routine is quickly reinstated: ‘morning, pillow, sheets, hair, head, coffee’. But no sooner do we start to get our bearings than we realise this will be no ordinary day. Details swerve towards disquiet in the extreme: she must ‘wring out’ the salt from her hair; she imbibes ‘five cups of coffee / before I can speak’; and, when eventually she manages to open her mouth, instead of words, ‘an ocean pours out / from my eyes’:

 		               I know
      just how glaciers must feel
      when spring comes on, loosening
      from the inside out, leaking all
      those hard-won centimetres
      out in a rush to the sea.

All we can say is that the poem appears to detail a process of introspective upsurge, and the ensuing chain of images allows the distress the protagonist feels to be externalised to provide some sort of relief or catharsis (it is hoped!). Associations skip from the immediate present (‘salty hair’), to an imagined excess of water (‘wring out’), to a sheer grandiosity (‘how glaciers must feel’), to utter exorbitance (the sea ‘overflowing’ beaches).

Any attempt at connective logic collapses (note the volatility in prepositional references: ‘before’ twice, ‘out’ five times, ‘inside out’, ‘each / and every’, ‘more and more / with more still’, ‘insides turning endlessly over’). Disproportionate outflow—the sense of being swamped beyond the limit of one’s capacities— inexorably extends to an ever-widening expanse of nature, like deep-melting glaciers ‘leaking… / out in a rush to the sea’. Their emptying into an already filled sea sees the sea twice italicised to suggest that what has flowed into it from the glacier, as it ‘inside out’s itself, obliges the sea to try and contain the influx (‘oh I know how / the sea feels’ – ‘swallowing more and more / with more still coming at it’.

                                                               … your
      own insides turning endlessly over
      and beaching themselves on each 
      and every shore.

What is recounted is seemingly preposterous. Yet the offhand confiding manner of the telling renders the speaker’s plight at once scary and peculiarly delightful. It’s as if there’s enchantment in the very anguish she must endure. Until the sea (each further object provides an extension of the individual’s personal predicament) finds itself bundled on ‘each / and every shore’.[5]

Things eventually run aground on the nonsensical deposit, from out of nowhere, of several ‘you’ pronouns (five!) along with their stated wish that ‘the shores would go away’. ‘You’ refers to the sea but also to the speaker in self-monologue, part of the poem’s inner-communing, as well as their combined wish that the shores (the extraordinary wordplay might well extend to the unwonted imposition of other people’s sures or surenesses, that is, to an imposed expectations of self-containment or properly coping placed on any one individual by another, or others) ‘would go away’ (disappear!). It gets complicated. Does the inventiveness that impresses us here actually belong to the poem’s ‘message’—or am I at risk of getting myself carried away in its sheer poetic extraordinariness? The final thank you expressed ‘for holding out your sands’ is another verbal slippage on ‘hands’ (but that meaning is only insinuated because a less personally ambiguous appeal on the speaker’s part might reveal a hankering after an actual proffering of support from a source outside of the poem, which is unlikely to be its inclination or that of the poet, whose own sense of independence and firm grasp around the entire prospect of overwhelm remains resolutely intact). The overall effect is of an artful, voluble, beset, self-delighting ingénue.[6]

§to be continued§


[1] AUP: Auckland.

[2] Some interesting selection choices have been made. Of the 25 pieces that comprise the original sequence ‘The pretty photographer’ from I, Clodia and other portraits (2014), only 14 are included in Part two as individual poems. This reclassification can best be explained by observing that the pieces belong to a series of individual portraits rather than to a formal sequence (which presupposes a greater degree of continuity in terms of action, place and person). It is interesting because it suggests that for Jackson the very act of categorisation is necessarily a contrivance (circumstantial), short-lived (tenuous), and notional (arbitrary). For her, all relations are ultimately fluid: ‘I hope readers notice the symmetries’, she says of her structural intentions (Endnotes, Pasture and Flock). In an interview with Paula Green, she adds: ‘I selected six whole sequences rather than fragments from more sequences, to tell whole stories as much as I could, and I think another story tells itself through the sequence of sequences too maybe’ (RNZ, 3 April 2018). Of course, not all the sequences are included whole, and there are other variations, something I will return to.

[3] The application of italics is something I take from Jackson. The back-cover blurb to The gas leak (2006) draws attention to her ‘pioneering and offbeat and insistent use of italics’.

[4] ‘A vibrant red comb indicates the bird is healthy and sexually mature…. It is also thought that combs and wattles help chickens recognize their flock mates’ (Feb 18, 2019) <, accessed 21 Jan 2020>. Deaux Chicks In The Brooder posts: ‘Most agreed that a group of female chickens should be referred to as a brood but hens with a rooster would be called a flock’ <see, dated 6 Mar 2014>.

[5] ‘Beaching’ is a beautiful verbal pun (on the beaches that are beached onto) and may be taken as a distant allusion to the later whale-with-barnacles poems that deal with the roles barnacles play for whales (or poets) in defence and attack. See especially ‘Office and barnacles’ and ‘James K. Baxter as the whale’.

[6] In the otherwise unrelated ‘Sarah’s hair’, we find the speaker captivated by the takahē-red beak of the child’s hair; moreover, in the immediately preceding ‘After the nit shampoo’, the everyday affliction of being a caring mother is offset with son Johnny’s captivating comment that his sister Elvira’s hair ‘is clear / as God / and glass’. ‘G’ and clarity coalesce. Though, for now, perhaps enough perversity around the subject of hair.

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