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Jackself is the fourth collection from one of Britain's finest poets, and sees Jacob Polley at the height of his powers.
In one of the most original books of poetry to appear in the last decade, Jackself spins a kind of 'fictionalized autobiography' through nursery rhymes, riddles and cautionary tales, and through the many 'Jacks' of our folktale, legend, phrase and fable - everyman Jacks and no one Jacks, Jackdaw, Jack-O-Lantern, Jack Sprat, Cheapjack and Jack Frost. At once playful and terrifying, lyric and narratively compelling, Jackself is an unforgettable exploration of an innocence and childhood lost in the darker corners of Reiver country and of English folklore, and once more shows Polley as one of the most remarkable imaginations at work in poetry today.
Paperback; 197 x 153mm
Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Jackself by Jacob Polley. Picador. £9.99
Jackself is a child with a child's many personalities, exploring, feeling, fearing, finding, seeing, escaping.
In one poem, An Age, he is staying in "like a tool in a toolbox". He looks out of the "cracked window" "high in the lovely lofts/ of Lamanby" and watches the gulls "flash and snap like washing on a line".
The wonder of this powerfully original collection of linked poems is how the voice of Jackself is able to encompass so much. It catches the realism with that cracked window and the beautiful with the lovely lofts and then surprises us into recognition with the snap of that washing line.
The child's eye sees when "the bees / browsed the workshops / of wildflowers for powder / of light".
But the imagination can be surreal and funny. Jack Frost may be tapping his "ice / ferns and berries of ice", but he also has a "lametta wig" and that wig has been kept "all year in the Auto Arctic Unit / that hums in the cellar beneath Lamanby".
Jackself can be delirious with words, "out among the hedgerows . . . drunk on white cider and Malibu" and drunk on the images of "the moon's bone china rim" and the consequence, as his mate, Jeremy Wren, says "as he retches that's a proper poem for you / agony to bring up / with real carrots in it".
That self-mockery and crudity counteracts the lyricism. Jacob Polley is now writing poetry which is richer, more complex, more tangled and exploratory than the beautifully crafted observations of his early work. This is a poetry of maturity which draws on memories of a Cumbrian childhood to weave threads of beauty and darkness in a way which entrances and disturbs.
In those "lovely lofts . . . great cauls / of cobweb hang from crusty chains, frayed rope, horse tack / and the skeletons of past Selves". Jeremy Wren, in Pact, "throws a dressing gown cord / over the rafter in his bedroom / pulls the slipknot over his head / . . . and hangs".
Spring-heeled Jack would climb to the moon "scrabbling a crater rim / for finger holds" so as not to suffer "her one sad stare", but he is watched by Wren from his "ghost-hole".
And Jack Snipe "heels off his trainers / balls up his socks" and wades out into the estuary, feels "how cold the heavens are / and squidgy between his toes".
The final Jack is Jack of Bedlam. He, like the poet, is possessed of words and memories which will not leave him be: "Bind these days in the book of moons / poor Jackself needs to sleep /if north is south / then Jackself's mouth / is fifty forest's deep".
Out of that deep forest of his childhood, of his Cumbrian past - the opening poem The House that Jack Built looks to the time when "the first trees were felled" - Jacob Polley has elaborated a fantastical mashing of childhood rhymes, riddles, folklore tales and memories. The poems have a mythical logic of their own. Lamanby is a childhood place of lofts and moons, of bees and "spiders' lyres".
At the heart of the book is a double-page crammed with the words "DON'T WAKE HIM" in the largest, blackest font.
Jacob Polley with his fine poetic facility has freed himself to move through the fantastic imagination of childhood. In Jackself, Jacob Polley has found the full range of his poetic voice.
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