Jackself by Jacob Polley could be described as an elliptical and truncated Prelude for the 21st century. Like Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem, Jackself presents a childhood in Cumbria. However, as a product of post-modernity, this version of ‘the growth of a poet’s mind’ is allusive, eclectic and much less certain about the nature of self or individuality. A ‘Jack’ is a generic male, usually young, often inferior or ‘common’, sometimes bad – the knave. Polley builds his ‘Jackself’ from a multiplicity of selves, exploiting the many different jacks in English culture. There are two epigraphs at the beginning of the collection and it is significant that one of them is literary, a quotation from Gerard Manley Hopkins which gives the title its provenance: ‘Soul, self; come, poor Jackself…’, whilst the second is anonymous and not only points to the mythic past of romance and the supernatural but also indicates the importance of popular or folk culture. Many have commented on the strong narrative of the collection but equally significant is its drive towards mythopoeia. Jackself must discover himself by elaborating a backstory rooted in place and language. It is as though he cannot be unless he is somehow indigenous, an interesting counteraction to multiculturalism and diversity which can also be identified in works such as Jez Butterworth’s play, Jerusalem, and, a century earlier in Rudyard Kipling’s, Puck of Pook’s Hill. While Butterworth and Kipling are overtly concerned with national identity and ‘Englishness’, whereas Polley is seemingly more caught up in the quest for personal selfhood, all three draw comfort and resonance from the language of literary and folk culture and all three are very firmly set in a specific location: Cumbria for Polley, Wiltshire for Butterworth and Sussex for Kipling. All three writers refer to the natural environment and topographical features as if to assert their own heritage.
Polley’s first poem creates a legend for the building of the farmhouse, Lamanby; ‘the lovely lofts of Lamanby’ are twice referred to in the collection, a phrase which gestures towards the heritage of Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry, something which he does again in the first line of ‘Jackself’s Boast’: “I am hero, a harrower of hellish meres.” Lamanby is Jackself’s home or omphalos and so it is given a pedigree reaching back into prehistory based on the cycles of felling, use and regeneration of the timbers which built it. In the final cycle the timber regenerates once more and it is made to seem that the living trees form the walls of Lamanby:
weren’t felled but walled in, roofed
over, giving span
to a farmhouse, hanging
a hall from their outstretch…
So Jackself is born into and part of a natural habitat, a first claim on belongingness. In ‘The Lofts’ he lays claim to past Selves, perhaps his historic and evolutionary antecedents whose skeletons are said to be found in the attics:
Aself, Oxself and coracle-ribbed, ape-armed Selfself
his ochred bones trophied in a flaky niche in the clay wall
The second poem may be his birth, but it is made up of a collection of echoes, literary and folk, all the way from Sylvia Plath ‘the green atchoo’ to proverb, ‘All the doors must have their way/and every break of day its day’ an aural allusion to ‘every dog must have its day’. Sound is more important than sense for the preliterate Jackself in a poem made up of disparate sense impressions presented in four strongly rhythmical and heavily rhymed stanzas.
As the poems continue, Jack comes to consciousness and “now he knows/ his own mind” (‘Applejack’) he also grows to fear what is not him, the dark and ‘Lucy Fur, who/ glints at night/where he trembles.’ About a third of the way through, he comes up more decisively against the other in the person of Jeremy Wren who, in terms of the narrative, is an older boy who is apparently tougher and less innocent than Jack. However, Jeremy appears to have his own problems with an abusive father who “welted [him]/buckle-first” and a deep unhappiness which is explored in ‘It’: “there’s hair in my bowel and doubt/in my groin and my head’s full of/animal glue’’. In ‘Jack Frost’ Jackself in the persona of Jack Frost is patterning windows and surfaces with frost. He meets Jeremy engaged in a similar task, but unusually, Jeremy is the one who is seeking solace:
Wren’s weeping the lucid mask that’s welding to his cheekbones
Help me, he says, keep everything just as it is.
Women feature very little in these poems, either as mothers or girlfriends, while fathers are cruel or insensitive: ‘Mugginshere’ seems to have little understanding of his son’s difficulties at school. Instead we are presented with a world which looks back to saga or Anglo-Saxon epic. Following the apparent suicide of Jeremy Wren, Jackself finds himself on a quest, like Beowulf, to slay a monster, the Misery, a monster whose “dead/ face he’s sure is Jeremy Wren’s”. However, there is something curiously reflexive about this quest. When Jackself slays the monster, he seems also to be confronting himself:
But skin me, Jackself says,
and you’d see I’m
and he rips out the Misery’s
throat with his teeth
Polley appropriates not only the imagery and machinery of folk tale and epic but also the traditional sounds and patterns of oral poetry, nursery rhyme and colloquial language. He makes raids on the subconscious through the kind of word play nonsense you might expect from very young children, beguiling his reader with magical sounds and echoes which have an appeal beyond rationality. However, although the playfulness with language releases both poet and reader it is tightly controlled within the overall psychodrama of the book. Jeremy Wren is something of a Peter Pan figure, representing escape, freedom, the power of the imagination, but at the same time, he is a lost boy, who is unable or does not want to grow up. Jackself has to vanquish or assimilate Jeremy Wren in order to move forward into consciousness and if not adulthood, at least boyhood.There are two school poems which reflect this passage from the unreflecting child to the social being. In the first, ‘Lessons’ Jackself is unsocialised, the class dunce, “pig-slow, a starey calf”, still completely a part of Nature:
his mind a corner
his fingers a box of matches
his nose the afternoon rain
his ears yesterday
his eyes green eyes
his tongue an earwig
before it hatches
In ‘The Desk’ which comes after Jeremy Wren has died, Jackself seems to have accommodated to the loss of his friend who nevertheless remains a presence. Jackself has acquired some of Jeremy Wren’s common sense and dry wit. When Jeremy protests that Jackself has taken his”rubber,[his]calculator, his shatterproof ruler and [his] spider/ in a matchbox” Jackself retorts “what were you going to do,/… spend your death/catching up on your maths homework”.
From this point till the end Jackself learns to accept the loss of Jeremy Wren, who increasingly seems to represent himself or an aspect of himself. In ‘Tithe’ the haunting seems to have stopped but is missed:
dead now his due
However, in the last poem, ‘Jack O’Bedlam’ it is unclear who is Jack and who is Jeremy:
Now I can make him do my naughty
his eyes will not betray me
they’re just like mine
but minus nine
times twelve to the power of maybe
Jackself becomes ‘Doublejack’ as he struggles between the world of reality and imagination. He decides to “stay inside/which is really no choice at all” but Wren appears “on the window ledge/come out/come out he cries/poor Jackself swears/there’s no one there/ and fills in both his eyes.” However, he succumbs to the temptation and the sequence ends with him
dancing down the lonning
at the bottom of the world
the only proviso being that he must “be back before he’s old”.
Jackself operates at many levels. It can be the story of a childhood friendship of two boys, one of whom commits suicide, leaving the other to deal with grief and growing up on his own. It could also be the story of a child growing into boyhood, moving away from his place of origin and his possibly imaginary friend into the wider social world. It is a drama of the passage from innocence into experience framed as a quest and set in the landscape of rural Cumbria. It is an assertion of identity or identities based on a long-shared language, history and natural environment. It is a story which seeks to mythologise itself and which draws its mythopoeic elements from very traditional literary and folk sources. It seems in some ways to be the very opposite of modernity and the world in which most of us find ourselves, yet its power comes from the counterweight of its intense and pristine localism.