by Jacob Polley
REVIEWED BY ROSANNA HILDYARD
Jackself is a scarecrow made up of lean meat and fat, frost, daws, lanterns, digestive biscuits, roundabouts and cow parsley. Jackself is Polley’s alter ego in this series of narrative poems, which work equally well individually as they do patchworked into a collection. Jackself is a wild pagan figure, a wodwo from ancient England, Jackself follows a snotty teenager growing up around the crumbling farms of Lamanby, in Cumbria.
Although Jackself is a hodgepodge of tones and references, it forms a remarkably coherent collection when read end to end. It is structured as a poetic bildungsroman, charting Jackself’s loss of innocence as he comes to terms with grief. Jackself is the love story of two friends: Jackself of Lamanby and Jeremy Wren, who bully and wrangle with each other, go fishing in Lamanby’s deserted tarns, and stay out at night to drink white cider and Malibu together ‘way out among the hedgerows’.
Jackself is lively, hilarious, cynical. In ‘Les Symbolistes’, Polley has Jackself, describe eating his own father as though in some weird rite: ‘carved so thin / I could read a rose-tinted poem through each slice’. It is a precisely conjured image, both disgusting and authentically symboliste. Yet it is Jeremy’s response that brings this scene to life:
A POEM! Wren roars
you’re creepy as a two-headed calf
and I’ve always thought so.
Poetic preening undercut. In fact, Polley does not have much time for self-conscious literariness: another moment comes in ‘Jack O’Lantern’, in which Jackself wishes to chronicle a frightening autumn night featuring ‘bedlamites’, ‘banging’ wind and dead ‘apple cores’ in a childish quatrain. But each time he tries to form his verse, the nursery-rhyme rhythm is broken, visually and rhythmically, with irritation:
the wind’s inside the apple core
the moon bangs like a drum
and no again the sky’s a door
the year a slum
Jackself’s stubborn refusal to give up becomes increasingly funny as the truncated poem continues, reflecting a clash between teenage perfectionism and writer’s block.
Yet for all the humour, Jackself is bleak. This is a poetry book about the failure of poetry, of inarticulacy and two people’s inability to speak to each other. It is almost no surprise when, midway through the book, a fuming Wren suddenly turns on Jackself:
I’ll show you, he says
and he storms home, stamps upstairs,
throws a dressing-gown cord
over the rafter in his bedroom,
pulls the slipknot over his head
abruptly, leaving no note of explanation or farewell. Jackself is left dumb.
If Jackself has faults, they are due to its own inventiveness. Written as nursery rhymes, riddles, and cautionary fables, Polley must navigate several traditional genres of anonymous English literature as well as rushing through his particular narrative of a specific time and place. At times, telling apart the story of England’s Everyman Jacks from Polley’s own Jackself can be confusing. Yet on the whole, the narrative structure, each poem jumping from Jack to Jack, O’Lantern to Snipe, holds up well. Polley’s control over these deceptively simple forms and genres and his sense for aural and visual space, means that his poetry can bear the weight of intensely imagined language.
This year’s line-up for the T.S. Eliot Prize was a particularly rich one, but did appear to show a lean towards poets from the Reiver country and the North of England – J.O. Morgan from the Scottish Borders, Ian Duhig in the Vale of York, and Ruby Robinson and Katharine Towers from Sheffield. Polley, who lives and works in Newcastle, has been nominated twice before for the T.S. Eliot Prize, but it is Jackself that has finally won it for him – and in a collection which celebrates chance, superstition and English, colloquial tursn of phrase, it seems fitting that it is third time lucky.
Rosanna Hildyard is an editor at Eyewear Publishing, and a graduate of Oxford university. She is a writer and critic, currently living in Brixton.