Jacob Polley, Jackself (Picador, £9.99), 80 pp.
Jacob Polley’s new book, Jackself, is a collection of story poems, snippets of conversation, thinking and remembering. The poems are unified by the character of Jackself, a shapeshifter who emerges, along with Jeremy Wren and other members of his gang, to surprise the reader across the collection. Jackself is Polley’s fourth collection and in it he leaves behind the five-line-stanza so prevalent in The Brink, or Little Gods, in the hunt for something more abstract and to discover bold and expansive forms. That is not to say the writing lacks structure. On the page many of the poems look sprawled, lopsided, indented, with words set alone and not a full stop to be found. But it would be unwise to mistake this lack of aesthetic convention for a lack of linguistic structure. Polley’s poems sing by their own tune, their own rhythm and form, and they sing beautifully.
A theme that permeates Jackself is that of the body; whether it’s calf muscles containing entire continents, ‘the dark continent/Jackself peels from the flank/of a Friesian cow’, or teeth hidden in an attic, ‘sunbeams fizz/off a canine here and there’, Jackself’s character is manifested through an all-encompassing reach that spans every page of the book, a reach maintained by fingers and fists, eyes and ears. And the scale of his character is something to behold.
In the narrative poem ‘Applejack’, Polley depicts Jackself’s reach through his ability to transform and transgress borders. As he decomposes along ‘hedgehog paths/and badger paths’, Jackself becomes sky, water, sun and wind. During this elemental metamorphosis Jackself’s human functionality deserts him, ‘his skin skin his/talk all gone’, there are ‘holes in his foxgloves’, to be replaced with the sky’s emptiness and crab apples. Yet still, it is the buzzard’s wing that carries the sound of the poem, Jackself’s new voice, his ‘grain of wind’ must be uttered through some sort of bodily function, maintained in the world of the poem as a limb giving flight. The poem begins with Jackself crossing a physical border, the border of sunlight, under a ‘water-damaged sky’. Such an image of a broken sky is both haunting and visceral, but at the same time quite plain. What Polley asks of the reader is not difficult. The picture of a sky after a storm is something everyone can imagine, the thick smell of rain on concrete or cobblestones, the clouds clearing, wet trees, a stillness. And this is where Polley’s collection achieves so much. The poems take images in nature, or moments of a day, or the cycle of a wing beat and make us experience them like we are right there inside each one.
Take, for example, the process of photosynthesis. As ‘Applejack’ comes to its end, Polley depicts a leaf turning towards the sun to drink in the sunlight, a movement too slow for our eyes to see: ‘leaves let go/to dry-curl and turn on the surface/of the sky’. Here the poem asks us to experience a leaf without time lapse mechanics (or David Attenborough’s narration), and we are the better for it. Polley’s collection constantly encapsulates hours in nature and re-digests them for human consumption, for Jackself’s consumption, in a few short lines of description, deft coinages and internal rhyme. But what for?
The run of images here is so vivid and focused and miniscule, yet it is what comes after that opens the poem up, and refocuses the leaf and its lifecycle to hint at an image of man and nature fused and coexistent. The sunlight that fell on the leaf also falls on the road, the tarmac, man’s dominion: ‘small/panes of it where the tarmac gives out’. So the run of images represents two great modern opposites, the edge of the concrete where mankind gives way to fields and rivers and animals. And this again is where Polley’s character of Jackself succeeds. ‘Applejack’ imposes a version of man incapable of ever existing without the ‘muck/under a rotted log’, or the ‘bent pale stalks’. Indeed such components of nature actually become vital to Jackself’s existence. In need of no alarm clock, it is the ‘tree’s roar’ that wakes him, forces him out of sleep and into a world where such boundaries are constructs lost and forgotten and self-imposed.
In ‘An Age’ Jackself waits at a window for an entire ‘pollen age’ to end. Working in a similar vein to ‘Applejack’, the poem’s opening lines heap emphasis on process, mundane processes to be particular, the everyday, as Jackself decides to stay in today and ‘just be’. Images of restriction, Jackself locked up, helpless but comfortable, make up the first two stanzas and are contained within two similes. The first ‘like a tool in a tool box’, and the second ‘like washing on a line’ are both generic observations, and ask little of any reader. But the third and final stanza is where the poem takes off, and Polley’s method becomes magic. Much like swimming in the ocean, coming up to the surface, little sound, a glimmer of sunlight, relative darkness, then the world hits you, the crash of waves, the taste of salt, sea gulls maybe, chidren shouting, this stanza is all the more compelling for the initial grey mundanity of the poem.
In a truly moving final segment, Polley offers us a glimpse into the world of a pollen age, describing this passage of time as a post-human period where nature has become mechanised and human industry naturalised. In place of wind farms, flowerbeds have become workshops, ‘when bees/browsed the workshops/of wildflowers’, and telephone poles have turned to spider’s webs, ‘cables/of a spider’s web dusted with gold/by the…breeze’. This poem, again like ‘Applejack’, looks to a new paradigm of human existence, a vision in which nature and man are one and the same. And we are left, holding the book, looking around at the walls, or the people, or the windows with a sense we have gained something.
Alongside such explorations of the post-human, the collection also re-examines the rich sensuality of childhood. In ‘Nightlines’, for example, we are presented with a ‘slippery-stoned ice-cool/fishpath where no one has stood/for a thousand years’. This passage is rife with nostalgia, with a sense of newness of experience, a longing to look and touch and feel with young eyes, as if Jackself is remembering childhood evenings when he would wade into river beds hunting for fish. As well as the sounds of water in the language, the repeated S, and the oozing, liquid of ‘cool’ and ‘stood’, this passage resonates with something every adult cannot avoid, a longing for childhood. As the shallows chuckle, and Jackself sinks deeper, Polley whips up a spell, a meditative run of sounds that, for a second, dissolves the thousand years between then and now. And the bliss lasts for a line or two, before time catches up and the fish awake: ‘carp and sticklebacks, the perch and pike and bream/are shaken out/of their gullible, muddy-minded dream’. It is with such ease and speed that Jacob Polley is able to conjure pure nostalgia within the poem, and then dispel it before Jackself can taste it, and the perch go on swimming.
I will end this review with an observation. Not mine, but Jeremy Wren’s observation. An order almost. A pact between character and reader. It comes in one of the shortest poems of the collection, ‘The Whispering Garden’, when Wren looks up to see a ‘Wall Brown butterfly/blinking its wings’, and that is what the collection asks of us, to look up, look away, look inside, look back, look anywhere, but look properly, look for more than a second, listen maybe, and you might find something worth keeping.