Reading poetry for pleasure seems to be out of vogue. It is a rare thing to hear someone claim ‘Oh I devoured this poetry anthology yesterday; I literally couldn’t put it down’. And truly, it is once in a blue moon when you can pick up a book of poetry, and read it like a narrative, cover to cover. This rightly tends to put people off. However, with Jacob Polley’s ‘Little Gods’, this is exactly what I did. Way back in October, I was sorting through my assigned books to take away for Reading Week, and mistook the slim volume with the graphic cover for a novella. To be honest, I was putting off ‘Great Expectations’, a book I was told, rather depressingly, to approach with low expectations.
So it was while sitting on some grubby steps in Montmartre, carefully avoiding both tramps and dog poop, that I was first introduced to Jacob Polley. Contemporary, Northern (he hails from Carlisle), and appropriately obsessed with owls, Polley doesn’t dwell on conventionally ‘poetic’ themes of star cross’d lovers and daffodils, but tells of running away from home, making a cup of tea, watching the rain, working in a skanky corner shop, a child’s nightmare of Halloween. Small snapshots of ordinary lives, tiny vignettes as clear and contained as the profile of a face on a cameo. While being delicately wrought and ethereal as spider’s silk, Polley’s strange collection also has a visceral earthiness – in ‘Black Water’ he scornfully tears down sentimental metaphors common in love poetry.
And there’s no testing the blade of her shoulder/ There’s no catch hidden in her throat/ And your heart’s no more than meat’
The imagery in many of his poems is stark to the point of cinematic. If ‘Little Gods’ were to fit into a film genre, it would undoubtedly be kitchen sink, probably directed by Ken Loach, featuring lots of ominously lowered skies, cruelty to animals and dour Northerners. In ‘You’, the reader can palpably see the runaway protagonist warming their hands on the side of a cow and ‘palming dust from under the fruit-machines’ in an abandoned arcade. Polley’s also toys with the uncanny in his more unnerving ‘horror’ poems, among them ‘Mandrake’ and ‘Night Doll’; which are brimming with notions of everything that scared you at that sleepover when you were twelve, and watched that 18-certificate movie which you were definitely not psychologically prepared for.
If this is all sounding rather depressing, Polley does lighten up; showing almost devout tenderness in ‘Brew’, which for some tastes may be prove a little saccharine, ‘As I wind honey round a spoon/ to sweeten it, doesn’t this prove/ I even hold your sweet tooth dear/ Among all your teeth? The heart of the verse is more than just meat. It is a subtly layered, compelling, and intensely readable collection.
Poetry shouldn’t be reserved merely for English Literature students, pseudo-intellectuals and hipsters. Certainly not when it’s this good.