Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Jacob Polley is one of the few poets writing today who could write something as simple, beautiful and poignant as The Tarn:
“A star-cold dark and silence over
which you hold your face
to look as many lovely others
looked and left no trace”
It is a poem that reaches far beyond its single sentence and four perfectly balanced lines to see in one moment the indifferent immensity of the universe and the lovely, fragility of life.
These are poems of loss, but not grief, just the acknowledgement of what was and has passed. A pair of gloves are disturbed in a drawer where they have been unused for years. He tries them on, but finds:
“A loose glove profits no man’s hand.
Once I put my hand in yours, hand of my hand,
Hand whose holding bettered me, and then let go.”
From the everyday fact of finding an old pair of gloves that were once possessed by a person, he is able to powerfully suggest the relationship, the loss, and his need to be himself.
It is the same sense of independence and integrity that he found when first riding a bike. The old bike lies at the bottom of the river where “The current turns one wheel as if / You had just laid it down to run/ from year to year, from light to shade.” Once he was steadied by his father’s hand, but he rode to find
“your balance always was your own.
You rode on after dark alone.”
There is a sense of the instability, the unpredictability, of the world, the resolution needed to face it. In “The Havocs” Jacob seems to be writing about the beautiful but threatening instability of a world without order. “In the making of havoc there is me.” But havoc is the source of beauty: “This is the verse of havoc, when the night recedes to a shade/ of lyrical blue, the moon pales and memory is released like/ a scent from the oblivious ground.”
In “A Book of Water” he would understand a book as beautiful as a stream – “its spine of muscled silver/ its words too quick to read” – but “Its one page read disorder / in letters tall as rain.”
As a poet he snares a meaning as ”long as the/ weaver/ of such/ brief lucidities/ lurks/ beneath/ the tongue.” In a powerful, masterly poem, “Following the River” Jacob imagines being one “who/ walks between waking,/ through water’s silver door” and having seen the course of the river flowing through time to “long after stone had fallen/ from stone” he saw the river “flexing in moonlight, /a lens through which the moon herself/ inspected her airless empery.” And having dared to look he finds that “now upon my right hand/ I wear like a silver glove/ the acid-scald of mortal impudence.”
“The Havocs” is poetry of the highest order. In poem after poem, from the briefest lyric, through ballads and sonnets, to the challenging title poem, Jacob Polley writes of the eternal themes of love and death, life and transience, with a rare power. Each poem is anchored in the precisely observed particular - a doll’s house or the phases of the moon or even buying kindling from Spar – but it also reaches far beyond its immediate concern to explore the human situation in language which is as beautifully crafted as it is precise.
Jacob Polley has won many prizes for his poetry. This is his finest collection.