The Havocs by Jacob Polley. Picador Poetry, 64 pp., £9.99

In metre, language, subject matter and genre, the poems of The Havocs are deeply and consciously rooted in many centuries of tradition. One of the finest is a translation / adaptation of “The Ruin” from the Old English Exeter Manuscript. Strikingly successful poems use the techniques of the Old English riddle, while others, such as “Langley Lane” and “The Bridge”, evoke the spirit and style of the Border ballads, or, like “Following the River”, of the dream vision poems so popular in the middle ages. Throughout the book, I found myself enjoying the shapeliness of Polley’s constructions, the virtuosity with which he moves between forms, and the delicacy and precision with which he uses traditional devices of rhyme and metre, assonance and alliteration.

Such craft makes the poems memorable, sharpens the impact of scene and story, suggests tone and emotion, draws us into the world of the poet’s imaginings. This is very much a poetry of the body and the physical senses, crammed with arresting images. “The Bridge” begins “The trees are leaking shadow”. Of a pair of gloves Polley writes “Creaturely and soft, they lie together”. To take a longer example, “Following the River” begins

Mist had dressed the sun
like a wound when I came upon
the figure of water standing
in the naked shape of neither
man nor woman but trickling
and lapping between the two.

At the same time, it’s very much a poetry of the alert intelligence and the haunted imagination. Polley’s writing is rich in semantic ambiguity (we see little glints of it in “lie” and “dressed” in the quotations above) and his metaphors are chosen not only for their local force but for how they play into larger themes. “Leaking” is a brilliant visual image for the appearance of the shadows under the trees. At the same time, it keys into the whole volume’s concern with instability, destruction, loss and decay. The description of the gloves as “soft” has an immediate sensuous evocativeness but also (like the image of dressing a wound in the following quotation) suggests both creaturely vulnerability and the tenderness of the speaker’s regard.

Intelligent, beautifully shaped, sensuously evocative, most of the poems in The Havocs seized me with an immediate sense of pleasure. What makes this pleasure deepen on rereading is that so many of them contain at least as much uncertainty, darkness and chaos as they do order and light, while others explore the paradoxes involved in trying to grasp fugitive, impalpable and indefinite emotions and experiences within the cages of definition and form. Each rereading so far has seemed like a subtly different experience, a fresh grappling with darkness and uncertainty or a fresh raid on the inarticulate.

I wrote this for Acumen 77 and would like to thank Patricia Oxley for her permission to post it here.


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