Jacob Polley: ‘Little Gods’ (Picador, 2006)

Review by Ben Wilkinson

The back cover blurb to Jacob Polley’s second collection claims that the poet ‘has been guided more and more by old-fashioned lyric inspiration of the sort all too rare in contemporary English poetry.’ Exceptions spring to mind, of course: Simon Armitage’s Book of Matches, for example; a collection by a poet who had a clear influence on Polley’s first collection, The Brink, combining colloquialism with well crafted rhythmical precision. But where Armitage’s Matches were an attempt to contemporise the sonnet with varying degrees of success, Polley’s new collection reveals a very real, yet unsentimental, return to the gentle power of the lyric form. Take the following lines from ‘April’:

Whatever the leaves were saying must wait:
Rain has filled the trees with its own brisk word.
There's thunder in the darkened slates.
The pond's green eye rolls heavenwards.

In fact, what becomes quickly apparent in reading this collection is the influence of Auden, Eliot, and Crane echoing throughout many of Polley’s poems. But while there may be no prizes for guessing which poets have informed his writing, Polley nonetheless manages to add a vibrancy and contemporaneity to the traditional forms he operates within. For example, the four-foot lines and tight rhyme scheme of opener ‘The Owls’ don’t hold the poet back from creating this moving stanza:

I hear the owls in the dark yews
behind the house - children out late
or lost, their voices worn away.
They've forgotten their names and wait

The metaphor of children as owls succeeds in this particular poem (perhaps the best of the collection), where even the loaded lines ‘Little gods, they’ve forsaken us / as we have them!’, avoid the pitfalls of misplaced exaltation, quietly resonating thanks to the poem’s tone and the poet’s down-to-earth expression.

However, this is not to say that all of Polley’s lyric poems work to equal effect. As with any poet attempting to revisit, revive, even reinvent a particular poetic form, a dangerous tightrope demands to be walked. Sometimes, for example, the burden of a prescribed rhyme scheme causes the lines to jar clumsily, knocking the shine off an otherwise good poem, as in the closing lines of tercet piece ‘Greenwich’:

Was I mad? Poisoned by mercury,

fluoride, or the television's oracular fumes?
Your face is still the flame
my eyes draw on. Must I put out my own eyes?

A similar problem occurs in the cumulative rhymes of ‘Telephone’: what opens promisingly is restricted by the poem’s structure, and for this reader, seemed to cause the piece to end a little predictably. But then Polley is a poet instinctively at home with the freer poetic syntax that shone in his earlier work, and perhaps the crossover to more traditional forms was inevitably going to result in the occasional shortfall. After all, the tightrope isn’t an easy one to walk, but Polley’s efforts are nonetheless impressive, and when he succeeds, the results are often breathtaking. Take the opening stanza of ‘Skin and Bone’:

There's not much of me left. I'm light.
I've sharpened my face. I smile like a knife.
I carry myself like the moon through the night.
If I ran now I'd run my life 

Or the poignant and emotive closing lines of ‘October’:

Although the moonstruck pond stares hard
    the moon looks elsewhere. Manholes breathe.
Each mind's a different, distant world
    this same moon will not leave.

Polley’s work often swells with such gentle power and emotive undertones, and it is certainly refreshing to see a poet writing modern love poems that display affection and intimacy whilst avoiding an overt sentimentality. ‘Darling, open the window’, writes the poet in ‘Fife’, ‘Let the sea breathe into our room’; or in ‘Brew’, nervously watching a lover drink tea on the verge of a possible break-up: ‘the obsolete clock still ticks / as I measure my time, sip by sip’. Interestingly, Polley also picks up where Sylvia Plath left off in a poem called ‘Mirror’, bringing his own distinct voice to the object’s monologue: where Plath’s was ‘the eye of a little god, four-cornered’, here the mirror flatly states ‘rearrange the room and you rearrange me’, before closing with the beautifully fragile line, ‘Break me and every piece of me is full.’ But for this reader, the strongest pieces in the collection are those rare moments where tradition and modernity are married in such a way as to successfully deconstruct notions of either. It isn’t difficult to see why ‘The Cheapjack’ was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for best single poem. Polley constructs the pleading monologue of a conniving wheeler-dealer to impressive effect, the lines well structured and the rhyme carefully executed so as to make startlingly apparent the desperation of the speaker in the final verse. The opening stanza is instantly engaging:

What do I have for as near as damn it?
What do I sell but I'm giving away?
   Might I pick my own pockets
   and slit my own throat
and dump myself dead in a shop doorway?

Unlike many of his contemporaries, then, for the most part Polley avoids the lad-lit slang and turns of phrase that so often spoil otherwise good collections, to produce poems of impressive rhythmical control, well pitched poise and tone, and universal significance. Though it falls short on occasion, Little Gods is a considerable step up from The Brink, and as such, a daring and ambitious project on Polley’s part. It is a book which marks him out as a poet who is not only refreshingly different, but also unafraid to take risks at a time when many other poets of his generation are playing it safe. Even if Polley sometimes misses the mark, the occasional shortcomings of Little Gods are definitely worth the rewards.