Sunday, January 06, 2013

The Havocs by Jacob Polley – review of new poetry collection

Ben Wilkinson explores a poet committed to his nightmares

'Something of substance' … a beekeeper. Photograph: Gil Cohen Magen/Reuters/Corbis

"Who says havoc is a vice of the young?" asks the speaker in the title poem of Jacob Polley's third collection, The Havocs, which has been shortlisted for this month's TS Eliot prize. You'd be hard pushed to level the accusation at Polley, whose commitment to the nightmarish, creepy and unstable has intensified with each of his books, and tends to feed his best poems.

Polley's first collection, The Brink (2003), published while he was still in his 20s, was notable for a pared-back diction and descriptive flair. Its colloquial patter in poems of postmodern pastoral, father figures and secular spiritualism saw Polley combine the influence of Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and Simon Armitage in approaching his own vision. But the book also zoned in on nature's chaos and human malevolence. Here was a crow conjured from the biblical tale of Cain's murder of Abel, or the "floating knuckle" of honeycomb in a jar, "attesting to the nature of the struggle". A second volume, Little Gods (2006), gave this supple lyricism a more formal grounding. Melding an intense music with the transformative power of metaphor, its incantatory poems delved deeper into death, despair, disappearance and dismal weather, with Baudelaire as their presiding spirit.

The Havocs presents itself as a rangier book than its predecessors. Tripping through assorted rhythms, sonnets, end-rhymed quatrains and the looping lines of its centrepiece, it is as formally vibrant as the luminous letters that adorn its cover. A few poems even find Polley cracking jokes: in an attempt to define "havoc" by taking cues from Les Murray's "The Quality of Sprawl", the title poem frames our societal anxieties with a warped sense of humour. "As if I was a pencil and havoc sharpened me," scoffs its speaker, "havoc is committed to care for the elderly, education for all, and narrowing the gap between rich and fabulously rich."

No comments: