Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

"Jackself" by Jacob Polley (Picador, 2016)


The first poem, "The House the Jack Built" in Poetry (Chicago), charts the history of trees. It's time-sweeping and mythic. Here's an extract -

their ashes were buried in
with a scattering of grain
like stars              each small clay
heaven still hangs in the earth

   were overgrown,
steered clear of
   called dragon's ribs
      devil's cot          were nested among, rotted
down beside
   harboured foxglove

Gaps (they turn up throughout the book) seem to replace commas (though the comma after "overgrown" seems to perform the same function as the gap after "clear of"). The indents and stanza/line-breaks don't look worth the effort to me. There's variation in the collection though - after this plant-based first poem, the second poem "Every Creeping Thing" concerns animals and has AABBA stanzas, the B lines indented. The giant words DON'T//WAKE//HIM fill a 2-page spread (p.8-9). On p.38 that spread's alluded to - "WAKE UP/ Wren yells". Later,"Tithe" has very spaced out, normally sized words - 39 spread over 2 pages.


The book begins with a quote from G.M. Hopkins - "Soul, self; come, poor Jackself". Then "instead of a soul/ Jackself has a coal" (p.5). The coal imagery is continued later - "Jackself, if only you'd found that meteorite/ at the bottom of the coal hod" (p.14); "he needs a quest, thinks Jeremy Wren,/ who's been watching Jackself from the coals/ of the stove" (p.46), the latter quote suggesting that Jeremy might have been the spark to ignite Jack's too dark soul. In "The Lofts", there are further clues - "skeletons of past Selves ... Edwardself, Billself Wulfself". Then "back they go, the Selves/ Aself, Oxself and coracle-ribbed, ape-armed Selfself" and "Annself". Later, on p.30, "the locks of his head are picked/ and the distance he's kept from his different selves/ is all undone". When Jackself wants "to try to just be" he returns to the lofts. He licks his reflection in the way that "snakes eat their old skins,/ dogs their own sick" (p.37)

The book seems to be broadly chronological, Jack being school-age throughout. We see various aspects of Jack channeled through folkloric and idiomatic usages of "Jack". Jack and the Beanstalk is alluded to - "fie, foh and fum/ I smell your backwash in the coconut rum" (p.31) and perhaps again in "The Misery" when he goes to slay a monster (actually a rabbit). Perhaps Jackself is the less legendary component of Jack's character. The book doesn't end well for the self - it seems to disappear.

More poems

"Lessons" is the most prosaic of the poems so far until the end where it becomes a staircase of lines - "his mind a corner/ of beehives/ his fingers a box of matches/ his nose the afternoon rain/ his ears yesterday/ his eyes green eyes/ his tongue an earwig/ before it hatches". I don't know if the poem title "Applejack" is supposed to be anything to do with the US drink that's like Calvados. Towards the end the persona has a moment - "he returns/ nowhere to somewhere by/ standing there/ in sunlight, its flickering/ over him like     likelike/    he's been this way before". In "Peewit" he has a fit - "a breeze/ starts to ratch in the dust         the foxglove/ jangles             his legs/ break and he goes down, his eyes a white/ flutter in his head//    the boys circle him/ where he fits,/ grinding his teeth so hard they sing".

In "The Goose Shed" (which has dialogue and but for the line-breaks is Flash - good Flash) he meets Jeremy Wren. He's more explicitly poetic than Jack. I presume he's not a figment. Already there's mention of ghosts. They become friends, go fishing together, go out into the surrounding countryside to smoke and get drunk. We learn little about their parents, but we know that Jeremy's doesn't like him returning home smelling of smoke.

"Nightlines" goes mythic again - "all the streams of England run into/ Jackself's fretting ... their hooked lips/ mouthing into the waterworks and bloodstreams/ for all England". "It" uses end-rhyme with sporadic regularity. Later, "Jack O'Lantern" (one of my favourites) is in xAxA stanzas, the rhyming lines indented.

"Cheapjack" begins with "as an elephant has memory/ so Jeremy Wren has merchandise". The imagery's borrowed from marketing - "he offers Jackself the patter ... sell a man a second shadow ... Jackself lies awake,/ his commercial inhibitions coming undone"

In "Jack Frost" (it's cold) Jack is "wearing his homemade thousand-milk-bottle-top winter suit ... and the lametta wig he's kept all year in the Auto-Arctic Unit" ("lametta" is tinsel), slumped on a playground roundabout at 3am having imagined putting frost onto things. Then Jeremy Wren appears wearing "a mantel of tinsel and gauntlets and greaves of kitchen foil", also playing at being Jack Frost.

At the start of "Blackjack" (he's sad) "it's been raining for days". Jack imagines his bathwater carrying his mucky portrait away ("a skin on the water's surface, like engine oil"), the image being in the sewer "from the current on an old bedsheet". He recalls when he started to drink bathwater. He "squats/ to give his reflection in the first puddle/ on the gravel path/ a lick"

In "Pact", Jeremy Wren (who's previously shown signs of being troubled) commits suicide. Jeremy Wren haunts Jack, who sleeps rough for a few days in "The Misery". Even here, the poems aren't without humour - in "A Haunting" there's "don't talk to me about issues, Wren says, look at this old sheet I have to wear". Jack slips closer to madness. The final poem, "Jack O'Bedlam", is 15 AABBA stanzas.

Here's some of the imagery that's scattered through the collection -

  • "eight-legged/ and shrivelled like a dead/ star ... an old spider" (p.25)
  • "listen to those hollyhocks/ those lupins,/ Wren says I've watched the bees/ stealing in and out/ with their furry microphones/ to record the voices inside" (p.27)
  • "the gulls/ flash and snap, like washing on a line" (p.32)
  • "his black shoes are Frankenstein to walk in" (p.42)

Other reviews

  • Kate Kellaway (The poems need to be read in sequence and benefit from being read aloud. ... it is to Coleridge rather than to Hopkins or any nursery rhyme that Polley is most indebted.)
  • Martha Sprackland (she's one of the two "early readers" acknowledged in the book)
  • Joe Carrick-Varty (a collection of story poems, snippets of conversation, thinking and remembering ... On the page many of the poems look sprawled, lopsided, indented, with words set alone and not a full stop to be found. ... 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.)
  • Martyn Crucefix (Polley’s language is charged, improvisatory and colloquial. It is fluid and rhythmic (more modern, less ballad-like than some reviews have suggested). It has a crusted, superfluous quality to it that reminds me of Shakespeare, or what Hughes has described of Shakespeare’s excess, and Jackself is not thinned out by constant ironising, rather it’s thickened by a weight of language, history and imaginative hard work. It’s very impressive – but needs a few reads before it gives itself up. ... The book lights up differently with the appearance of Jeremy Wren, a more wise-cracking, cynical, entrepreneurial and ultimately more troubled young man than Jackself. ... Hard to end such a book and I confess I didn’t find the ballad-like ‘Jack O’Bedlam’ very satisfying, but perhaps I’m falling foul of the novel reader’s desire for narrative closure)

1 comment:

  1. Dear Tim

    I was surprised and pleased when Jackself won last year's TS Eliot prize. There are so many celebrated poets around these days that I find it really hard to keep up.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish