Jacob Polley – “Doll’s House”

You can link to the poem by clicking here.

“Doll’s House” deliberately unsettles the reader by suddenly lurching off and becoming a different kind of poem to the one it seems to be at the outset. As a poem about a doll’s house might be expected to, it starts out seeming very formal and contained, with its clear stanza shapes, strong rhymes and a close fit between metre and syntactical cadence that gives the beginning an almost jogtrot rhythm. Admittedly even within the first stanza there are signs that more is stirring in the depths of the poem than appears on its surface. Lines 3 and 4 have a portentous tone and an imaginative suggestiveness that seem out of keeping with the cosy feeling of lines 1 – 2 (carefully underlined by the finickily sustained alliteration on /t/), and the rhyme of “fire” with “desire” brings a sudden incongruous reminder of sexual passion. What really pulls things apart though is a brilliantly engineered formal disjunction at the end of the stanza. The rhyme pattern of the stanza completes itself or almost completes itself with the assonance of “cakes” with “plates” but the sentence refuses to recognise that it’s come to its end. Pushing on to end in “outside”, which by rhyming with “simplified” and “provide”, gives a much stronger rhyming conclusion than the assonance of “cakes” with “plates”, it makes us hear a seven line stanza even as we see a six line one. The break between the stanzas we see is like a sudden yawning hole in the stanza we hear. It’s as if the walls of the carefully constructed building come apart in one corner to let in the living world that Polley has been telling us blinder faith must provide, and also as if we’ve been suddenly snatched into the house without having to make that effort of faith after all.

After this, everything is imaginatively unstable because we keep sliding between levels of suggestion on which we are our own natural size looking at a miniature doll’s house and others on which the doll’s house seems to become human scaled and we are either inside it and on its scale or giants or gods outside it. This instability brings a rich, fraught, contradictory suggestiveness. We spin helplessly from nightmarish imprisonment in the house (“you have held your breath to peer / along the shelves of depthless books / lining a room where nothing’s read”) to an invulnerable transcendence tinged with a sense of wistful exclusion (“and now, effortlessly giant, look / up to the eaves and in at the beds”). Ambivalence and ambiguity are everywhere. “Be brave. To live is not to fear” simultaneously tells us not to fear and creates fearfulness. “To live is not to fear” may be telling us that living isn’t necessarily fearing, or that it is only by conquering fear that we truly live, which is quite different. “Despite the scale of what’s at stake” might mean because the scale is so big or (humorously) because it’s so small. On one scale or level of suggestion the couple stiff as pegs are stiff because they’re only (clothespeg?) dolls, but on another (when we think of them as life size) they may be stiff with terror, or dead. Towards the end a humorous note sounds strongly as it suddenly seems preposterous to imagine the child crouched by the doll’s house as a god, but scales slip again immediately and “an empty house / where not a plate nor day will break” has the same kind of desolation as the little town in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, a town that the imagination finds so lifelike that its lifelessness seems almost unbearable. Such is the cost of invulnerability.

Keats and many other poets living and dead haunt Polley’s doll’s house. Some of these hauntings seem more obvious and are perhaps more conscious and deliberate than others. I don’t think it’s just the subject or metaphor of the doll’s house itself that reminds me of Longley’s “Glass Flowers”. Be that as it may, line 7 swarms with echoes of Yeats’ poetry even for someone who doesn’t know Yeats’ work very well – the “creaking stair” that “women laughing, or timid or wild” climb up in “Presences”, and too many powerfully symbolic winds to list, among them the shrieking wind and the dusty wind of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”, the haystack- and roof-levelling wind of “A Prayer for My Daughter”, and the wind scattering the torn petals of the symbolic rose in “Meditations in Time of Civil War”. (I don’t personally feel that the wind of the Sidhe that blows so often in Yeats’ early books touches Polley’s “Doll’s House”, though others might disagree.) Behind “heaven like an empty house” we hear Wallace Stevens’ “empty heaven and its hymns”. The couple “tucked together rib to rib” obviously make us think of skeletons in a graveyard, especially as the bedsheets bound around their legs suggest a winding sheet, but they also remind us of the love-cars in Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” that “lay together, hull to hull, / where the graveyard shelves on the town”. Lines three and four echo Keith Douglas’s “Simplify Me When I’m Dead”. The syntax of “now, effortlessly giant, look” is stirring a strong but frustratingly buried memory for me, and I think line 20 is strongly reminding me of something other than the laughter of the children in “Burnt Norton”, but again I can’t be sure or pin the memory down.

One thing these echoes do is extend the imaginative perspectives around the poem’s conflicting feelings about how the safety of the doll’s house world is bought at the cost of simplification and lifelessness, and, on a different plane of suggestion, that the safety we try to give children in their world of dolls and imaginative play isn’t real or attainable. Behind the giant child looking at the doll’s house is the giant adult looking at the child, and this level of meaning in the poem ties in with the torn petals in Yeats’ “Meditations”, coming from a section in which he’s imagining his descendants, and of course with the wind of “A Prayer for My Daughter”. Another effect of some of the allusions is to point to a more professional concern, suggested by the reminiscence of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. This poem is also, I think, a meditation on the paradoxes of how close a work of art can come to creating its own life and how it seems that it must fail to do so absolutely. If you look at line 23 alone, its allusion to Wallace Stevens gives a despondent twist to Stevens’ declaration that “Poetry / Exceeding music must take the place / Of empty heaven and its hymns” by transferring the emptiness to the doll’s house. Line 24 appears to seal this despondency but even this appearance is equivocal; it can’t rescind the rationally impossible but imaginatively compelling sudden little laughter of line 22.


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