Jane Routh reviews Material Properties by Jacob Polley (Picador, 2023)
Here’s my Book of the Year. OK I’m declaring early – but how often do you come across a book you read again and again and always with increasing pleasure? It’s the quality of the writing that draws me back, both rooted and adventuring, elegant yet at ease in different registers and vocabularies.
This is Jacob Polley’s fifth collection, one that will probably come to be known for what he calls “translations of or responses to Old English riddles”. While there are only ten such in the book, two long riddle poems bookend Material Properties, seeming to hold and frame it. The title poem starts the book – it is lengthy and opens up the process of understanding material and of translating a text. Jacob Polley thanks Professor Chris Jones in his notes “for many hours guiding me through the Old English” and this first piece builds on the excitement and discovery in the to-and-fro of those conversations:
What am I doing? A riddle
from a thousandmebbe years ago.
A sort of translation, yes.
Why this one? God. Good question. The answer? Oh,
to the riddle. Well, it
With direct address like this, the reader becomes involved in the process of translation. It feels as if it’s happening afresh on the page as a penny drops and a word falls into place:
[…] like a riddle
in the riddle, when the calfskin says something like:
‘and the bird’s joy / spread (or dripped) worthy’ —
isn’t worthy such a veneer
word in our English? — ‘and the bird’s joy / spread (or dripped) worthy
drops over me’, and ‘bird’s joy’ is
and these lines about fugles wyn spreading or dripping
worthy drops are followed by lines even more compressed
in which there’s a brown border
or rim […]
As you begin to get the hang of the process, the poem interrupts itself less often, then pulls back for a wider and longer view, to discuss attitudes to other creatures, attention and listening and “how […] this riddle // tilts any sense of where a voice is / really coming from”. It ends with an astonishing contemporary image that reaches straight back over a thousand years to the original text.
It’s the quality of the writing that draws me back, both rooted and adventuring, elegant yet at ease in different registers and vocabularies
Although taking great pleasure in such poems without knowing their source material, I thought I’d better find out more about the Exeter Book of Riddles before writing this, so I can tell you this riddle’s Old English text is 28 lines; Jacob Polley’s poem runs to six (Picador-sized) pages – being, of course, so much more than a translation. (Not all the poems expand their riddles like this: ‘Crier by Royal Appointment to Britain’s Municipal Parks and Waterways’ is a neat eight-liner.)
While the title poem opens up the approach to riddle and translation, it also frames your reading of other poems. ‘I Try to Explain a Flower’ – which immediately follows – is more personal, a tender father / son poem: the whole world must seem like a riddle to young children like the son to whom the poem is spoken in one of those intricate, impossible conversations that ends:
[…] Someone knows
why, but not Daddy. Don’t
touch. You can feel by looking.
Then we’ll do something.
Father-son relations surfaced in Jacob Polley’s earlier books too. Here, ‘The Influence’ opens like an early morning poem, boiling the kettle, then feeling annoyed at a scratch on the glass door that, wilfully, hadn’t been protected from workmen, because:
[…] I would have been fussing
like I hated my father fussing
and delaying while he made sure
to try to ward off dinks or spills.
(And when did you last see ‘dinks’ written down?) But in the early morning darkness, there’s a moon – and with it comes the realisation that in spite of trying to act differently from his father, he
[…] was all day
heightened and filled, as my father, too,
spoke of feeling at times like this –
high and full and distant, too.
And that moon also puts me in mind of earlier books, as it’s another of the constants in Jacob Polley’s poems. Blackbirds are too. And there was a version of the Anglo-Saxon ‘The Ruin’ in The Havocs. Dark forces. Maybe foxes are joining these: Material Properties has three, no, four foxy poems – which can serve to illustrate something of his range of writing here.
‘Pelt’ is a fast moving poem which “translates” a riddle in the voice of a vixen having to take her cubs out of their den to run from dogs, turning to bite at the dogs so the cubs can run free:
My sons were small.
They whimpered for home.
If you won’t fly from harm,
I hissed, then fly from me
‘She-fox’ is a poem which “responds to” that same riddle in what may on a quick read sound like a list poem of vernacular names for fox. But here are coinages and appropriations doing that work through sheer aptness:
Shriek-in-Love, Sly Mum
Alley Sally, Flash Face
At this point the poem moves into the same scenario as ‘Pelt’ with the phrase “Fly-from Home”. By contrast, the fox in the sonnet ‘Skulk’ is an urban one, a “Red skinny raider loping in streetlight”:
Sing meaty meaty. Sing yellow fat set
in snaffled polystyrene — O squeaky love-bite!
A fox also sneaks into the remarkable ‘Dumbshow’, a poem written entirely as stage directions. After WIND, CHILD and FATHER have been onstage, we see “Night. Exterior. Enter a STREETLIGHT. Enter a FOX, sniffing.”
I find it surprisingly difficult to write about a book as rich and alive as this because I want to say so much about each poem and its language
There’s a tremendous range to the book’s poems, from the hustle and pace of nightlife in Elizabethan London in ‘Dream of a Blackboard Left a Lifetime with Mrs Harvey’s Writing On’, to the delicate detail in ‘Hedgerow’, with its “Flappy petals / like used plasters”. You can almost feel the wind in ‘The Whoosh’, “Two floors above, / pouring through the sticks its rooms / of loose and yellow, flake and seethe”.
Jacob Polley’s language reaches to the heart of his subjects – I find this so exciting. It’s not what he writes about so much as how he finds ways to write about it. He can even nail meaningless language in ‘Presidential’, which opens:
Listen. I know when something’s not
and this isn’t and I believe it. Though
who can say? I wasn’t there. The truth is,
a lot of the event didn’t even happen yet
His sonnet ‘Transcript’ quietly suggests a lifelong attempt at how language might convey (here, for example) birdsong : “and this is the best that I can get it down / in bare black marks a long way from the sound” – though of course Jacob Polley’s “bare black marks” with their sounds and patterns and repeats and rhymes and surprises make a wonderful music of their own. And I’ve not even mentioned one of my favourite poems, ‘Little Somethings’. Nor the most terrifying shipwreck in ‘Emergency’. I find it surprisingly difficult to write about a book as rich and alive as this because I want to say so much about each poem and its language – and I’m at my word limit. I also keep catching myself reading yet again just for my own pleasure.
Jane Routh has published four poetry collections and a prose book, Falling into Place (about rural north Lancashire) with Smith|Doorstop. Circumnavigation (2002) was shortlisted for the Forward prize for Best First Collection, Teach Yourself Mapmaking (2006) was a Poetry Book Society recommendation and she has won the Cardiff International and the Strokestown International Poetry Competitions. Jane Routh’s latest book is Listening to the Night (2018) and a new pamphlet, After, is available from Wayleave Press (2021).