In Roald Dahl’s ‘The Swan’, two boys hack up a bird and tie her wings to a third boy’s shoulders. Then they try to make him fly. The boy escapes up a willow tree, but one of the bullies shoots him in the leg. He staggers, he spreads his wings; later that morning, three people see a great white swan circling the village. Much of my time with Jacob Polley’s latest book of poems was spent deciding whether Jackself was a boy or a bird. In the course of a few lines in ‘Jack Snipe’, a stocky wader becomes a teenager heeling off his trainers. ‘Peewit’ frustrates your ability to say whether it’s a child or a lapwing that limps across boggy ground:
a little one
drab barely skyborne, with nothing
of the gut-unravelling acumen
of the scavenger this is Jackself
Edward Lear sketched beaky hybrids like these: think of the Old Person of Cromer, perched on one leg reading Homer. Jackself exists in a twilight zone of nonsense verse and fairy tale; to ascribe him a fixed identity would dispel his charm. In Dahl’s tale, the boy becomes a swan, which is impossible, but only literally. Children’s books disappear into other worlds all the time. Why shouldn’t Jackself do the same?
Polley’s fourth collection, which won last year’s T.S. Eliot Prize, is a story sequence of 34 poems set in the phantasmagoric Cumbrian farmland of Lamanby. Picador calls it a ‘fictionalised autobiography’ in reiver country, and it ventriloquises the Jacks of English folklore, incorporating nursery rhymes, riddles and ballads. Here is Jack Sprat subsisting on ‘strong drink and soft food’, contemplating his ‘limited Jackspan’; here is a child lunging towards the moon in the guise of Spring-Heeled Jack, the Victorian folk legend who terrorised Londoners; here is Jack Frost at 3 a.m., wearing a ‘lametta wig’ and a suit made of thousands of recycled milk bottle tops, ‘slumped on the unspun roundabout/among the gallows-poles of the moonlit playground’.
Jackself is a marionette theatre in which readers can assemble the character’s identity as Geppetto carved Pinocchio; its cover depicts a cartoon schoolboy with dismembered goofy limbs ‘inspired’ by Jockey (1988), one of a series of paper dolls designed by the German toymaker Franz-Josef Holler. The short verses supplant one another like the frames in a comic strip, and come off as nightmarish gags – at once ludicrous, kitsch and frightening – but what seems to occur in a dream sequence announces itself, on another level, as a take on what it’s like to be a person. In ‘Applejack’, which steals its title from the brandy popular in colonial America, Jackself might be having a metamorphic fit, or he might just be a teenager retching from one too many. There are ‘sloshings in him’, and then we’re shown
Jackself on all fours,
his skin skin his
talk all gone
hound’s tongue oxeyes
grain of the wind
in a buzzard’s wing
bones, empty as the sky
We try to visualise this thing – part-dog, part-plant, part-bird’s-wing – and we end up stuck. But we also understand what the lines want to say about the pleasures of losing ourselves, about the fear of your body behaving in a way you don’t quite recognise and can’t at all control.
Sick of school dinners (‘cartilage stew and spreadable carrots’) and stuffy classrooms (the desks ‘fabulous/to the touch with carbuncles/of gum’), Jackself finds companionable forms in the not-quite-human. His ally, discovered halfway through the book in a ‘goose shed’, turns out to be called ‘Jeremy Wren’. It’s because we don’t trust in Wren as a real boy that we come to believe most strongly in Jackself’s isolation. Wren’s name sounds familiar – like Christopher Robin, say, or Jenny Wren who reattaches the maid’s nose in ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ – but we can’t quite place him. He’s like an imaginary friend, the fruit of a lonesome mind that’s learned to flirt and toy with random parts of language in the way that children play with whatever’s lying around. Wren tells tall tales, like the one about his ancestor Christopher ‘who built the Southern domes’, but his origins are closer to home. He reincarnates ‘The Cheapjack’ from Polley’s second collection, Little Gods (2006); he’s a wheeler-dealer with an ‘order book,/a Biro behind his ear’, and the wares he peddles are fodder for hocus-pocus: ‘a belt of Eden serpent’s skin/a fairy’s skull, a stone age stone/a map of sleep, a stick of rock/from Pompeii’s only sweetie shop’. He leads Jackself astray, goading him to stay up late, crunching across the grass wearing his Neverland drag: ‘snow-globe deely boppers, a mantle of tinsel and gauntlets and greaves/of kitchen foil’. ‘Help me,’ he pleads with Jackself, ‘keep everything just as it is.’ But he can’t, and it won’t. Four poems later, Wren will be dead. What began as a game – ‘Jackself steps off/a thirteenth floor’, as ‘Jeremy Wren puts a finger-pistol/to his temple’ – becomes sourly literal after the boys row over their joint suicide note, and Wren decides to go one better by turning fantasy into reality. He wraps ‘a dressing-gown cord/over the rafter in his bedroom’, pulling the slipknot over his head and kicking away the catalogues (for women’s underwear) on which he’s balancing. Falling is funny in fairy tales, and not in real life. In Jackself, we’re never sure whether we’re in one world or the other.
Born in Carlisle in 1975, Polley is a native of thresholds; ‘I come from what used to be called the debatable lands,’ he recently told the Poetry Society. If Jackself is about fantasies, or teenage violation of orthodox identity, it’s also about plainer disappointments, those of class, location and aborted ambition. Polley knows that people are made by places, and he knows too that being stuck in any place is a decent reason to get out of your mind. There are moments in Jackself – when Jackself and Jeremy Wren are ‘drunk/on white cider and Malibu’, for example – that recall his novel Talk of the Town (2009), a Bildungsroman-cum-detective-story written in Cumbrian dialect. In it, we meet Chris Hearsey tacking between the two arcades on Botchergate, both ‘fulla old air’ and ‘the fruities with their ladders of lights and wheels all flashin’. We kill time in the snooker hall above Woolworths; we trip across Gill Ross, a girl who, rumour has it, ‘carries on in graveyards’; we find ourselves loitering by Danny’s Discount shop. It’s full of trivial things (the grit in Chris’s eyes is likened to the ‘sugary dust yer get leftovver in a bag of cola-cubes’) but it’s also a work of hellish urban pastoral: cue the murder of a tramp, by a group of teenagers high on booze from the ‘offy’ and hairspray inhaled from a ‘placky bag’. Polley’s characters are always mistaking a lobotomy for a high. His works abound with automatons, people who’ve become lifeless and puppet-like – and treat the people around them as things to use or maim.
A dark ballad from The Havocs (2012) takes the form of a dialogue between a boy who’s had his mobile phone pinched, and the mother who’s discovered his stab wounds:
My son, you walked from Langley Lane?
I walked from Langley Lane.
I took small steps and often stopped
to breathe around the pain.
My son, you walked from Langley Lane.
I walked from Langley Lane.
I held myself to slow the stain
and walked from Langley Lane.
These lines recall the murder ballads of Nick Cave, beamed through the Arctic Monkeys’ first album: songs that describe the grot and glitter of adolescence in a post-industrial Northern city. ‘Langley Lane’ makes cruelty seem predestined, as if the boy’s assault were part of the world’s running order. What we visualise (a ruptured chest) is pitted against what we hear (the equanimity of the ballad stanza), a four-beat line alternating with a three-beat one. The chiming regularity is creepy – a merry-go-round in a horror film – but there’s fun in the infliction of the wound, in the recurring rhyme: ‘pain’, ‘stain’, ‘Langley Lane’. The ‘plot’ of the stabbing is secondary to the carousel of rhythm, which we don’t want to get off.
Across Jackself, too, metrics and syntax malfunction, and then set themselves going again, like robust mechanical toys. ‘Jack O’Lantern’ describes Jackself’s addled brain after Wren’s funeral. It too is written in ballad form, but you wouldn’t notice that from glancing at its glitchy quatrains.
no again the leaves are slime
the year a bloodshot eye
the trees the rooms of bedlamites
with bars across the sky …
and no again the bedlamites
have wedged the no again
the wind is bare and yellow spoons
are banging on the brain
The caesuras cause the ballad rhythm to stutter, making it difficult to fathom how these skittish lines, which ought to bear a strong resemblance to song, might be voiced. We can’t make it go de dum, de dum, de dum, de dum. How do you sound the silence between ‘no’ and ‘again’? The gaps signal moments of diversion and miscomprehension, as though something has gone amiss in Jackself’s thinking. His loony melancholy ought to make us forlorn – but we’re never sure how seriously to treat it. Is Wren’s suicide any more meaningful than the end of an ‘Itchy & Scratchy’ short, where Scratchy has to die so that he can be reborn in another episode?
After Wren hangs himself, there’s a dirge, or a parody of one, that tasks language with making sense of his dying.
they’ve put Jeremy Wren in a box
the children ask, is Jeremy in the box
yes, Jeremy’s in the box
say the pale adults who hold their leaky faces
above the children’s heads it’s hard for
Jackself to hold
in his head the box that holds Jeremy Wren
The caesura here registers a breach of sense: ‘children’s heads’ and ‘it’s hard … to hold’ belong on either side of an absence. They’re mutually defined by a space they share, like life and death, or speech and silence – or, as Polley tacitly acknowledges, Jackself and Jeremy Wren, held magnetically together in the force-field of their parting song. We could say these poems are about forms of inspiration, and forms of tragedy, but Wren’s death is silly as much as sad.
Such incongruities are typical of a book that constantly frustrates our ability to say what’s true or possible or happening. I could tell you that ‘Mudder’ and ‘Mugginshere’ are Jackself’s parents, for instance, but only because one is a phonemic replica of ‘mother’, and appears in proximity to the other, who pops up at home with a briefcase. Or I could tell you that all of Jackself’s ancestors lived in Lamanby: in ‘The Lofts’, he finds ‘the skeletons of past Selves, their skulls/packed with sea salt and tea-leaves Edwardself, Billself/Wulfself’. But these narrative threads remain elusive; they are presented to the reader and then quickly withdrawn. Jackself is about never being quite a person; about not making your life cohere into something like a linear story.
Jacks, in folklore, meet mixed ends. The one we all know, who ‘fell down and broke his crown’, was supposed to be Louis XVI, and Jill, who tumbled after, Marie Antoinette. (In 1795 the rhyme was altered, so Jack survived to bind his head with vinegar and brown paper.) Jack Sprat escaped his eating disorder by striking up a partnership with his wife; things worked out for Jack of beanstalk fame; even Little Jack Horner got his plum. But Polley’s Jackself defies our capacity to wrap him up. There’s nothing like a soul here, nothing that holds his motives constant. Jackself is always running out on us, feinting, staging a costume change. Halfway through ‘Peewit’, he collapses, and ‘the boys circle him/where he fits,/grinding his teeth so hard they sing.’ His eyes become a ‘white/flutter in his head’. Perhaps he’s epileptic, but as the other children ‘heft him’ up, his ‘bird-soul batters/into him’, and he evaporates: ‘Peewit’s no longer between them has flown.’ With their victim vanished, the boys can only ‘go round and round/in the dark and cold’. They, themselves, ‘are not ever found’. Were these ever Jackself’s schoolmates, or were they only spirits from the marshes? Has he literally disappeared? Does it matter?
Look away and elsewhere. The greatest of Polley’s creditors is R.F. Langley, with his sequence of ‘Jack’ poems, and derogation of sense-making:
But just as it
occurred to Jack that he might count the flock,
bird after bird displayed an ash-gray rump.
They’ve turned away and opened up.
about to go.
Jacks embody lines of flight, the freedom to be born again, and it’s to lines like these that Jackself owes his own will to skedaddle, or as Langley has it, to ‘melt into the blue’. In the end, Jackself does become a sort of morality tale; as we try to pin poems (or people) down, they become more evasive, edging beyond our capacity to make sense of them. Polley is obsessed by strains of delusion, and their kinship to verse. His two epigraphs hint that reading his book will involve learning to disorientate yourself. One is from a sonnet of Hopkins’s from which Jackself borrows its title, a poem about the discordant moments of being the same person. ‘Soul, self; come, poor Jackself,’ Hopkins wrote, ‘I do advise/You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile.’ The second epigraph comes from one of the most famous anonymous ballads, ‘Tom O’Bedlam’, to which Jackself returns at the close, with a song in which a bedlamite is ‘summoned’ to journey ‘ten leagues beyond/The wide world’s end’. What is there to find?
Wren is hopping on the window ledge
come out, come out, he cries
poor Jackself swears
there’s no one there
and fills in both his eyes
A ghost, a mad creature; pieces of child and bird, frightening, wild. This final poem ventures the possibility that not all company is good, nor all forms of imagination. But, then again, poems offer more latitude for talking with the dead, even for rewriting your ending.