Statement of Prejudice: Polley is a writer I’ve had a vague opinion about for a while, as being a fairly nondescript and slightly pretentious Poet (caps intended), and I’m aware of a fascination with Wordsworth which is totally fine and above board and legit but a bit like finding out someone’s favourite band is Led Zeppelin. I am totally aware of and have just now come to terms with the shallow nature of this opinion, however.
Reality: I am in two minds about this book. Heavens! The shock may kill you. But The Havocs is composed of some genuinely cracking little poems and an uncommon skill with the whole rhetorical/rhythmical craft thing and a capacity for evoking a Frost/Hughes-type dark-and-deeply wintery pastoral without invoking those poets’ nihilism/overweening lust-for-dominance respectively; it also clunks on occasion and has a bad habit of enjoying its own vocabulary at the expense of the lyric exploration.
It’s also a book that richly rewards a second run. If I’ve name-dropped out the wazoo already it’s because Polley is a writer deep in an English-language tradition, and to approach The Havocs without that in mind is to miss a lot of the book’s finest qualities. The opening poem, “Doll’s House”, is an intricate lyrical essay on the act of observation and the fear of writing poems in which nothing moves (as in both emotively and locomotively), as in ‘the shelves of depthless books / lining a room where nothing’s read’. It’s also delightfully creepy and should put the howling fantods up anyone looking for a comprehensively comprehensible arrangement of Polley/poet’s voice/reader. That the effect is somewhat undone by the unsatisfyingly lax “Hide and Seek” on the next page is kind of a shame: the second poem’s sort-of-a-riddle goes on for too long without quite coming to the boil.
Between “Doll’s House” and the next truly stand-out poem, “Keepers”, The Havocs maintains a tone of the implied menace of recently-departed things through recurring instances of silence, absence, and negation, JP’s constant resort to childhood giving the speaker a child’s lack of agency, an inability to counter the darkness with light, the meaninglessness with meaning. “Keepers” does introduce the possibility for upsetting the status quo, as the child speaker spies on the pure white space-suited beekeepers through the hexagon-shaped wire fence (nice), and the poem recalls Saint Ambrose lying ‘in his crib while the bees dances / over his lips, conferring eloquence. Slipping / from book to dusty book, I’d wondered when he spoke / if goodness had lit like honey his every cell.’ That is one neat, tight, evocative bit of metaphor-making, and it even sounds good. ‘But we were who we were’, is an ambiguous conclusion to such a busy and almost hopeful poem, suggesting waking from a dream, returning from Narnia, a voice still searching for Ambrose’s gift.
The title poem and “Virus” both share an explicit strategy of employing words outwith their common usage, and both take this opportunity to make the book’s key political-social-type statements. Naturally, nothing is quite clear cut, and I’m still rather unsure of how to deal with them. Initially, both were in the column marked ‘bad poem’ in my notes, and on first reading, “The Havocs” is frustrating and dull, a succession of clever-clever subbings of the word ‘havoc’ into stock phrases, as if Muldoon had never been, and some fairly standard liberal-y assertions about social justice, human rights, Batman and ‘narrowing the gap between the rich and fabulously rich.’ It’s not a whole lot better on closer examination, barring a slight self-aware self-deflation as it emerges that the caped crusader is the poet and his havoc is the one that I the reader am not taking seriously, just as the poem predicts. But it still comes in a little underweight politically; these are fine statements, but it feels like half the argument, and its broken syntax leaves a string of half-finished ideas that do little to serve the interests of political engagement. This is one occasion where a little declarative speech would go a long way. But then I find myself trapped in the vortex of ‘aha, maybe the speechlessness is what he meant all along’ and ‘aha, that still sucks’ and ‘aha, maybe the problem is you being a crappy reader’ and then my head hurts and I regret giving up drinking even temporarily.
“Virus” expresses itself with a little more clarity, being a nice little Foster Wallacian game of imagine-what’ll-be-slang in the future around an odd little tale of fractured meaning, poverty, art chic and brain damage. Underlying both poems is a protest against the devaluing of language in art, commerce and governance, against neglectful reading of ‘big books we felt too heinously / short-lived to waste our eyes upon.’ Respect is due for even attempting to address a social issue (an inclination notably absent from the majority of the TSE shortlist), and if the message is a little incomplete the execution is at least playful and in keeping with the book’s discomfiting tone.
A quick note should be given to the neat, sparse short poems interspersed throughout the book,in particular “Spike”, which I hope you’ll forgive my quoting in full:
From the wood, a winter fruit
with pips of air inside,
its core like light, like light slowed down;
like nothing, crystallised;
fetched from the dark like light itself,
like light itself grown old:
we touch what can’t survive our touch
but scalds our hands to hold.
Good stuff. Though I can’t budge a feeling that more could have been done with that second doubling of light. Heigh ho. Similarly, “Potsherds” shows a keen observant eye, skill with complicated syntax, and a flair for the rich conclusion: ‘only those parts / of the world whose keeping / required of us an art.’ The poem has a message to convey and does so unassumingly and directly, and is extremely pleasing for it. Shout-outs also to “The Ruin”, an impressively authentic-sounding rendering of an Anglo-Saxon poem and “The Weasel”, a poem about a drunken break-up and breakdown to the rhythm (or tune if you’re feeling frisky) of Pop Goes The Weasel that finds five rhymes for its refrain ‘white winter flowers’.
There are some mis-fires, like the weird ballad about a stabbing, “Langley Lane”, which upon googling doesn’t appear to refer to any particular real-world event and seems to have entered the book without any emotional teeth (it might be telling that the one poem that intends to provoke an emotional response, “Gloves”, is more sentimental than moving, and reveals little about the father-son relationship at hand), while the book en mass could be accused of leaving too much to the reader or hiding an individual poem’s paucity of meaning behind an extensive vocabulary and attractive surface sheen. Though, again, a sheeny surface is by no means a given.
Tl;dr: This is an occasionally frustrating, occasionally dry, but ultimately unsettling and memorable book, with a coherent and befitting aesthetic, impressive formal wit and productive engagement with its predecessors. Plus a fine example of my prejudices being precisely wrong. Totes worth a peek.