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Little Gods

by Jacob Polley

(Picador / 56pp. / £8.99)

Review by Fiona Sampson

JACOB Polley’s 2003 debut, The Brink, was a critical and fashionable success, short-listed for the T.S.Eliot Prize and awarded a Poetry Book Society Choice. Its short, tough, well-wrought poems, with their satisfying-in-the-mouth vowels, seemed as indebted to song lyrics as to British poetry after Auden. Though younger than Paul Farley and John Stammers, Polley had joined the Picador Family of working-class male poets in a bravura of understatement and (occasionally bad) attitude.

This second book changes all that, and fans looking for more of the same may be disappointed. However, readers interested in the shiftiness and complexity which characterise most human experience will find much to reward them here. Once we understand, from the first poem, that the Little Gods of the title are owls – and further understand that these owls may have been transformed by metaphor into lost children – it becomes apparent just how far Polley has shifted, and how shifty his new territory is.

The cover illustration has a tray of glass eyes “darting hither and thither”; and Little Gods is a book of darting apperceptions, fragmentary illuminations, often daringly unanchored by any conventional working-through. Take, for example, the final poem, ‘Wild Hyacinths’. Here it is, complete with Patersonian absent final stop (a move repeated elsewhere in the collection):

Where are we, darling? The breeze
brings a blue scent. Evergreens
gather in the darkness

Hyacinths are a literary enough flower to do a great deal of symbolic scene-setting, from the myth of Hyacinthus to Eliot’s “hyacinth girl”. Polley’s qualifier, “wild”, not only releases us from any suggestion of Auntie Joan’s plant-pots but adds Shakespearean “wild thyme” to a mix suggestive of time outside of daily life; indeed outside life itself.

Yet this is also an evocative snapshot of a real-time night, far from home, and of the disturbing, almost uncanny, beauty of nocturnal scents. So it’s perhaps not surprising that Little Gods includes two masterly versions of Baudelaire, the arch-proponent of this kind of uncanny psycho-geography. Both ‘The Sun’ and the famous ‘Spleen’ are deft, indeed almost demotic, with their full- and off-rhyme:

then the bells swing, suddenly furious,
and howl at the sky like homeless spirits,
and through my soul drive slow hearses
without pipes or drums and Hope goes to bits

This is fine, confident writing, which knows exactly where it is going and how to get there. Elsewhere, where individual poems might be going seems beside the point. A piece like ‘Elder’ operates by staying put, drawing-in aspects of its topic – the physical presence of the tree and its associated customs – as does the volume’s longest poem, ‘Rain’, which extends Polley’s exceptional gift for image-making, or indeed -recording, over five septets.

As rain comes to a halt in the last stanza, the scattered rhymes consolidate in a surprisingly conventional image: “But at dawn, in the silence just after the rain, / the wet black earth of the bare field lies – / frankincense for you and I”. En route, though, it has undergone a whole series of extraordinary transformations; including into a representation of itself: “[…] past the windows, frame by frame – / film after film of Edwardian rain”. It is this capacity for doubling which makes Polley’s new writing so interesting. If the represented rain in a poem is “like” a representation, how many doublings of reality are going on? Like two minuses making a plus, doubled distancing brings us suddenly close to the subject of the poem and to poem-making.

It’s a trick Polley pulls off repeatedly. In what we must call the title poem, ‘The Owls’ calling “in the dark yews / behind the house” are transformed through metaphor into lost children. The challenging element here is that it is not, of course, the lost children who call at dusk, but the “mothers / who miss them”, for Polley’s children have lost their voices along with their “fingers and human faces”. Outside the metaphor, “No-one calls into the trees”. Inside it, the owl-children “wait / to be called again”, transformed by the names they’ve lost into the humans they used to be; and yet, “they’ve forsaken us / as we have them!”. This identity, like that of all shape-shifters, is unstable: more owl than child, by the third stanza they have voices again, “as empty / and unlovable as glass”. They are both “forsaken” and “glorified”. The poem is, in other words, a representation of metamorphosis.

It is also a sonnet, with all the freight that implies: one of several in the book. Polley’s ability to balance exquisite form with surprising material it never quite subdues keeps this collection alive and breathing in a way that is rare in the era of the workshop poem. His is an unusual nexus of influences: not only his mentor and editor Paterson but Hughes, “green” middle-period Harsent, even – especially in his fruitful flirtation with unstable perspective – Hamilton. It’s a rich mixture: one which suggests that, even with all his poetic achievement to date, Polley still has a great deal of growing room.

Fiona Sampson is editor of Poetry Review.

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