Review by Sean Robinson
The fifth poem in Jacob Polley’s latest collection expresses the challenge to the reviewer. Its title, ‘Jackself’s Quality’, becomes the poem’s first line, whilst the second asserts that it ‘can’t be bought/or stolen’. This book of poems is so imaginative, moving and original, that its ‘quality’ cannot be extracted and repackaged in the form of a review – so I begin by simply imploring you to go out and buy it.
The collection opens with a quote from Gerard Manley Hopkins: ‘Soul, self; come, poor Jackself’. This acknowledgement of influence gives us a clue as to how we ought to read Polley’s own poems. Those who have encountered Hopkins’ work will know that it is essential, at least at first, to read his poems aloud: so unusual are they in both their ‘sprung’ rhythm and their syntax, that the tongue is as important an organ as either the ear or the eye in appreciating their sound and sense. Roethke has said of free verse that ‘there is, invariably, the ghost of some other form, often blank verse, behind what is written’, and haunting Hopkins’ poems are the accentual metres of Anglo-Saxon verse. Likewise, rattling underneath the free verse poems in Jackself are rhythms that owe much to the four-stress lines that structure the ballad and other English folk forms. It is by reading aloud that one can hear the music which the eye might otherwise miss, and also solves any problems of meaning that an unfamiliar notation creates. The first poem, ‘The House that Jack Built’, is the most striking example of this, perhaps because the rhythms that run through the collection have not yet been introduced.
the first trees were felled
and sailed in, wrecked, then slept
an age in the northern sun, blackening
to iron were found by horsemen
leading their horses and raised as
cloud’s axles, rafters of night, a god’s gates
were passed through, seen
from miles off, rolled the sun
and moon along their lintels, rooted,
put out leaves for a second time …
In this long poem, the sole protagonists are trees, explicitly introducing an ecological concern that becomes more subtle in the rest of the book, but never disappears. One soon gets used to the notation. A large interword space, mid-line, indicates a pause approximately akin to a semicolon; an indented line indicates that the previous line should not enjamb.
By invoking Hopkins, and preparing us on the cover for ‘nursery rhymes, riddles and cautionary tales’, Polley has given himself permission to use highly enjoyable and perhaps unfashionable devices. For instance, the start of ‘The Lofts’ is full of unashamedly ‘lovely’ alliteration, further evidence of Hopkin’s influence:
Jackself has climbed into the lovely lofts
of Lamanby, their floors ankle-deep
in silver dust, and the floorboards
spongy with woodworm
Also unfashionable in some circles will be the direct use of traditional oral forms, appearing three times unconcealed, as in the ballad ‘Jack O’ Lantern’. This poem comes after the emotional climax of the book, and the form is stressed and stretched with evident mastery, to anatomise the wrenching anxiety of grief.
The wind bangs in the barest rooms
of bedlam no again
the leaves are rooms, the no the moon’s
a no the year a vein
The poems are funny too. The rhymes are often humorous, and Polley has a particular talent for comic rhymes that end the poem; final couplets for the ear, though not the eye:
the rain’s turning to sleet
snakes eat their old skins,
dogs their own sick
Jackself steps out from under the eaves and squats
to give his reflection in the first puddle
on the gravel path
There are childish puns, such as the title of a poem about the unsuccessful attempt of two children to build a replacement father, ‘Snow Dad’. And there is even literary humour, though it is no less puerile, such as the distortion of Marianne Moore’s famous description of poems as ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’ in ‘Les Symbolistes’:
see, Wren says, clapping Jackself on the back
as he wretches that’s a proper poem for you
agony to bring up,
with real carrots in it
This humour helps to make the tragic elements of this collection all the more moving in contrast. There have been several books of poetry in recent years which use comedy to explore grief, such as Denise Riley’s excellent Say Something Back, which explores the death of the speaker’s son, and contains the heart-breaking and pathetically funny rhyme: ‘Oh my dead son you daft bugger / This is one glum mum. Come home I tell you’. Or Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers, in which the mischievous ‘Crow’ of Ted Hughes’ collection shows up at the bereaved household of a widower and his two sons and causes havoc. In Jackself, too, there is bereavement, and in common with Porter’s book, a child’s eye view which is particularly poignant and moving. Here, quoting from ‘The Hole’, I have stopped before the deceased person is named to avoid spoiling the story which unfolds through the book.
and who’s to say he’s in the box he isn’t in the box,
the adults say to the older ones he’s leapt clear
and left his empty body in the box
for us to get rid of he was always leaving
us to tidy up but there’s a hole in the grass
to hurry his mess into
is this what they mean by grieving
wet-combed hair, flannelled ears
and a look at the hole in England…
Jackself, like Grief is the Thing With Feathers, is one in the growing trend of concept collections in which the poems deal with the same theme, occupy the same world, tell one story, or contain the same characters. In this book, the character is ‘Jackself’, a child who occupies the Cumbria of Polley’s own childhood. The world is created in part with proper names, like the speaker’s home, ‘Lamanby’, a name which becomes talismanic, associated through its repetition with home and safety. There is also local slang, like ‘lonnings’ (small lanes) and nicknames, like ‘Mugginshere’ or ‘Mudder’, which go unexplained, but allow the reader to feel as though they are inside the speaker’s world by being inside his language – working out from the context that these stand for father and mother. The other character is ‘Jeremy Wren’, Jackself’s mischievous friend or, at times it seems, alter ego:
your head doesn’t hurt
though it’s bigger inside
than out Jeremy Wren,
whole of heart,
tell us what pains you
my hole is bigger inside than out
and the heart of my pain
is a black bull’s heart
Here the speaker appears to changes across the stanza break, although due to the repetition one comes away with a sense of a mirrored or split personality. In several individual poems it is unclear whether we are dealing with one person, or with close friends, although by the end of the collection it appears to be the latter. This ambiguity does not undermine, but rather enhances the collection by blurring the distinction between individuals and wearing away at the idea of a unitary self. The repetition of phrase and rhythm are used here in nursery rhyme fashion to explore the more troubling aspects of childhood and adolescence, and are at once entertaining and unnerving, as are so many nursery rhymes.
Sean Robinson is studying for a masters in poetry writing at St. Andrews under Don Paterson. An erstwhile policy wonk, he graduated in 2013 from Oxford with a bachelors in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and worked for some time with the Civil Service, until deciding to chuck it all in to do something useful, and write poems. He is from London.