The Misery by Jacob Polley

Since I can’t find this poem online i.e. in the public domain, I won’t reproduce it here, but will quote relevant parts and try to write this review/analysis such that it’s understandable and enjoyable without a copy of the poem. That said, even if you just buy Jackself to read this poem, it would be money well spent. Read me waxing lyrical about the entire collection here.

This is a poem about grief. But I’m not being morbid when I choose it as my favourite poem of Jackself. Because, as the title hints, Jacob Polley personifies bereavement-induced misery – not simply by capitalising its letters, not simply by calling it a ‘monster’, not even by implying that its lurking presence is disturbing and ruining Jackself and that it will ultimately devour him if he doesn’t fight against it. This is more than just an extended metaphor: Polley takes personification to a new level, blurs the line between fantasy, reality, and metaphor to the point where the image is more than just an image, more than a tangible conception of an abstract feeling. This has two effects: firstly, to make the poem thrilling and stunning to read (for anyone who delights in language, and innovation therein), and, secondly, to give us, in this personified sadness, a sort of a new character, an intriguing and off-the-wall one, whose role we have to figure out.

So, firstly, am I exaggerating the thrill of Polley’s linguistic creativity? How does he personify the Misery in such a striking way?

Take this example, where enjambment (when a line could be read as end-stopped or run-on) allows Polley to create ambiguity as to the animate-ness of the pond in which this monster, the Misery, is ‘laired’:

‘across the fields, into a copse where a black pond lies

staring, Wren drifts with the chimney smoke

and settles like goose-down on the water                                   wake

up, Wren says, and the pond

blinks’

(Jeremy Wren is the spirit of Jackself’s dead best friend, and as such the source of his grief.) Who is ‘staring’? The pond certainly ‘blinks’, which image is easy to conceive (we only have to think of ripples on a pond), but the earlier attribution of another watching verb to it gives the sense that, even before Wren’s spirit animated it, this ‘black pond’ had a distinctly live quality. Wren speaks to it, and it wakes, suggesting that the earlier ‘lies’ is implying slumber rather than location.

In this poem, the ‘cold’ is ‘fuming’ and the ‘green silence kicks’: there’s a distinct sense that everything is alive, not least this monster which, rather than living in or having a lair, ‘is laired’ – Polley chooses a verb whose very sense the monster seems to inhabit to give a sense of its conscious and physical existence.

Apart from the clue in the title, the Misery isn’t actually named as such until the penultimate stanza, only after the monster of the pond has lurched forward to attach Jackself (as rain, it would seem), ‘writhing down on top of him / with all its grisly weight’. Now it is more than just animate, it’s a threatening, tangible force, a burden to be fought rather than a simple taunt, and as such is exalted to a degree of personification worthy of more than capital letters. It’s worth noting though, that it’s a more recognisable metaphor at this point, more similar to the imagery of downpour and storminess which we’re used to being associated with grief; but Polley doesn’t let this stale his style, and his original touch is still to be seen when ‘the pond smashed miles / into the night’. He doesn’t stick to the dry reality of water splashing and raining but offers us a new image, a new conception of it shattering, more brittle, more destructive than what we’re used to hearing, across a dark sky.

Secondly, then, what is the purpose of this embodied grief? By firing this new character into life, by bringing it onto his stage, Polley is trying to tell us something about the emotion which it personifies.

And I think this has to do with adolescence, growing up, and dealing with distinctly adult issues which one hasn’t encountered before. This concern, which runs through the collection, adds another tier to the intensity of the metaphor and the message. If grief is chiefly defined by the way one deals with it, the way it manifests itself, then Jackself’s grief is distinctly teenaged.

As we see in the example above, Wren, the embodiment of Jackself’s bereavement, settles himself and awakens the monster on a murky pond ‘across the fields’: Jackself’s grief, from the off, is black and distant, it reeks of a ‘boys don’t cry’ approach. His face is ‘battered, sorrow-bright’. What, exactly, does ‘sorrow-bright’ mean? Possibly so sad that the blaze of sorrow burns through all other emotions and dominates his features with its fire, but, more likely, this exposes denial, suppression: a forced ‘bright’ smile, a brave face. He only ‘lifts his grief-mask / a little to listen’ when he picks up on the scent of adventure in hunting down the beast. His ‘deep blue / indifference to brushing his teeth (note the enjambment, again, here, which forces us to dwell on, as we urge Jackself to acknowledge, his ‘deep blue’ or depression) only begins to ‘thaw’ away with ‘a tickle … electric’ at the story of a monster to be slain, the lure of triumphing as a victor. Polley gives the poem a superstitious, olde worlde feel at this point, reminiscent of the age of knights and their brave conquests: ‘to the door of Lamanby they come’ (the tales of this monster) like an angry mob armed with pitchforks and torches. ‘Jenny Reid’s testimony’ rings of the old, incriminating witch-hunt tales.

As Wren recognises, his friend’s depression can only be ‘dislodged in a slump’, can only be tackled or even acknowledged by Jackself, when it is veiled by the temptation of victory, when it can give Jackself recourse to his ‘weapon chest’, when it is disguised as the adventure which every little boy with his ‘rucksack, horned hat and Gore-Tex breastplate’ dreams of in play.

Teenage aggression, too, plays a big part in the poem. Coaxing the monster out of its lair, Jackself throws jibes which sound like the taunts of a cocky Year 9 to his supposed best friend: ‘I bet you’re loved like a motorway / service station litterbin’. And the response is equally childishly belligerent; it offers the threat of ‘skinning you’, whilst conceding an affinity, conceding that Jackself has struck a chord: ‘how does he know / it thinks’. Even the point where the monster touchingly realises the magnitude of Jackself’s mission – it’s about more than just play swords and imagined adventure, this lad ‘brings his heart’ when he seeks out the monster – is only drawn to our attention by its rhyme with ‘a voice like a fart’ in the previous line, reinforcing this childish, pubescent feel and seeming to mock those sincere feelings which Jackself has been denying. Finally, instead of letting it devour him, Jackself ‘rips out the Misery’s / throat with his teeth’. We could dismiss this final animalistic turn as an obvious demonstration of the hormone-charged pugnacity characteristic of teenage boys, or read it as an observation on the age-old coping mechanism of lashing out against help.

But can this comment be reduced simply to the coming-of-age sphere? Jackself’s ‘grief-mask’ seems to describe pretty shrewdly a denial and attempt to shun pain which most adults will have witnessed if not experienced. At the close of the poem, we get the golden nugget, the clue to why Jackself could so accurately pinpoint the monster’s experience, the reason why he can devour the Misery, rather than letting it take him over:

‘but skin me, Jackself says,

and you’d see I’m

monster underneath’

It takes a while to get there – the stunted, bitesized lines make us feel the difficulty of Jackself’s revelation, or maybe they mirror his own slow and gritty self-realisation, but ‘monster underneath’ is what we get in the end, prominent, naked, in a line all by itself. At the core, Polley is telling us through Jackself, we’ve all got a touch of the monster within us.

And this isn’t the simple, clichéd, black, slimy monster that we’re used to: this is Polley’s new, complex conception. Its very life source is witty, electric language; this monster isn’t repugnant or evil. Exposed by a grief-weakened teenager, it is characterised as much by vivacity as it is by sluggishness, as much by vulnerability as by aggression, and as much by humanity as by distance.

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