Tall Tales

Joanne O’Leary

  • Jackself by Jacob Polley
    Picador, 67 pp, £9.99, November 2016, ISBN 978 1 4472 9044 5

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
birdsfoot rosehips
    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.

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