Every month, we shine the light on a book from our collection – one which is new to the library, which has been particularly enjoyed by a borrower, recommended by a volunteer, or which seems salient to the month’s events or happenings. This is the archive of past books of the month from 2022 for your perusal, allowing you to explore books in our collection we’ve highlighted in the past.
November: Jackself by Jack Polley
The month of November is host to International Nursery Rhyme week, which calls to mind the mercurial and lilting Jackself (2016) by Jacob Polley. With its strong rhythmic plexus of symbolism and folklore, this, Polley’s fourth collection, feels very much like nursery rhyme; playful, humorous, and sinister in turn, with its own unique sense of mythopoeia. In 2016, it won the T.S. Eliot Prize and it is as rewarding a book as it is tricky. Simply described, the collection comprises a sequence of narrative poems charting the antics of Jackself and his friend Jeremy Wren. But it comprises so much more and benefits greatly from being read aloud, all in one sitting, and revisiting multiple times.
The text begins with two epigraphs: a quotation from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘My own heart let me more have pity on’ (c 1880), and a second from the anonymously-written ‘Tom O’Bedlam’ (c 1620). Polley has said that the Manley Hopkins poem, wherein the poet urges his own ‘poor Jackself’ to ‘let be; call off thoughts awhile’ and ‘not live this tormented mind’, gave this collection its core. And its call away from the mind’s torment is echoed in the impetus of ‘Tom O’Bedlam’ – a form of ‘mad song’ or lyric of a ‘bedlamite’ summoned ‘to tourney’ with ‘ghosts and shadows’. The critic, Harold Bloom, describes it as a form of incantation for the reader or auditor, calling on the ‘Book of Moons’ and its accompanying ‘Hermetic naked man’ to ward off madness. Both of these initial epigraphic strands run through and coalesce in the rest of the collection.
As an opening poem, ‘The House that Jack Built’, provides formidable scene-setting; an almost dizzying latticework evoking the history of the forests of Lamanby, the homestead where Jackself resides. We shift swiftly from days when ‘the first trees were felled’, through ages when they ‘lay half-buried, grown over’, to the moment they gave ‘span / to a farmhouse, hanging / a hall from their outstretch’.
Then, born out of ‘Every Creeping Thing’, comes Jackself – a curious holograph drawn from folklore, idiom, riddle, ballad, and nursery rhyme. He appears to represent at once a fictitious yet, potentially, autobiographical persona, an everyman, shamanic invocation of the natural world, and an amalgam of historical lineage, both of Cumbrian culture and of familial heritage. We find incarnations as Jack Frost, Skipjack, Applejack, as pig, peewit, rook, with a lion’s mane hood, as a grain of the wind, the wilderness, and the remains of past ‘Selves’.
It is an extraordinary persona and, at times, a dark one, with a soul of ‘coal’ and a ‘shadow-self / monstered against the dim back wall’. He might represent one’s own ‘tourney’ with perceived ‘trespasses’, those one attempts to hide from oneself and others, an apprehension we find explicitly in ‘The Goodies’ where even with ‘one grey face your baddy pokes right through’. But, as with all in this protean collection, he doesn’t hold fast, appearing as vulnerable, humorous, astute, unsound, or menacing at different times: ‘just a choice of face on waking from a dozen goody heads’.
His first incarnation is as infant Jack Sprat, ‘whose small memory is a gift’, one that allows forgetful and innocent sleep. We then witness him mature and move through some life challenges: school disenchantment, seizures, parental distance, and, most significantly, the suicide of his friend Jeremy Wren, an event which looms over and then haunts the collection. To escape these ghosts and shadows, he sinks into myth, the natural world, and, at times, spirituality moving into religion.
Conceived as it is from the influence of a Manley Hopkins work, a religious strand makes sense, and Polley himself also apparently speaks to a kind of faith: ‘gesturing toward something that cannot be reached by language’. Religious reference does run throughout: trespasses and no daily bread, a belt of Eden’s serpent, the resurrection, or not, of Jeremy Wren as Jesus Aballava, and Bedlam or Bethlehem and the manger in which we find Jackself lying towards the end of the book. This seems apt for a collection preoccupied with the goodness and darkness of the soul.
And this preoccupation is also found in the dominant elements and motifs drawn and derived from both epigraphic works – references to the lofts, moon, bacon-bone, seizure, wilderness wandering, need for rest, and ‘selves’ among them. The final poem, ‘Jack O’Bedlam’, calls on these initial strands most overtly, converging powerfully in the passage: ‘bind these days in the book of moons / poor Jackself needs to sleep’. The momentum of rhythm and rhyme in this poem feel, as much of this collection does, like a ‘mad song’ themselves, harking back to Bloom’s interpretation of ‘Tom O’Bedlam’ as an incantation. And the final poem offers release for both poet and reader; a shadow-self bound and the tourneying Jackself ‘dancing down the lonning / at the end of the world’, we are finally able to acquiesce to Hopkins’s advice and ‘let be’.
Jackself is a truly remarkable read; in turn playful, macabre, insightful, and enigmatic. There is a great deal more to discover and it is very well worth the time.
October: Unexhausted Time by Emily Berry
As the days draw in and coziness beckons, we might reflect on the end of summer. In some ways, it can feel like a season of release; from buildings and walls, thick clothing, and schedules in the form of work or school routines. Perhaps this year particularly so, with its second, more convincing ease of lockdown restrictions breaking our long hibernation. And into this time of opening up came Emily Berry’s third collection Unexhausted Time (2022) – recently added to the OPL’s shelves – a work which blurs boundaries, yet longs for them.
For those familiar with Berry’s previous work, this book offers both a progression and a departure. Where her second collection, Stranger, Baby(2017), with its oceanic emotion, might have felt like a flood, Unexhausted Time feels more like a fever, a ‘ceaseless’ summer heat which gets into one’s blood. Characteristic stylistic indicators resurface – collage technique, comedic moments, and fierce figurative clarity among them – but there’s a shift in focus from deep personal grief, centring around the loss of her mother, to a broader consideration of death and search for solace in the face of its ‘permanent kind of ceasing’. We’re presented with an unrelenting dilemma: ‘How can a person walk in a shroud / all the miles of their life. But how / can they shrug it off’.
In response we find prayers for ‘a kind of faith’, spiritual comfort, or some form of ‘God’. Here, though, ‘God doesn’t answer prayers, people do’, and so the collection turns its search towards communion with others and the distractions of embodied experience: the touch of air, the redness of a flower. The communion includes voices of Berry’s friends (who have let her ‘borrow from their lives and/or dreams’), filmmakers, singers, therapists, playwrights, and there is also space for a reader to connect with their own thoughts and memories.
But connection is complicated. Closeness is, at times, perceived as comfort, ‘Thank you for rescuing me with your words’, or as blissful distraction – another coming to us ‘wired and wild’. At other times ‘intimacy is too much or it’s not enough’ and ‘the soul … yawns open for lack of reply’. Berry has said that a description by psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott – ‘artists are driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide’ – resonates strongly for her and this tension is evident throughout the collection, both in oscillating clarity and opacity for the reader and in switches between intimate and distanced relationships within the text itself.
The effect is an uneasy porosity, through which one experiences frequent moments of sharp recognition and connection. Yet, while many of those moments occur from visceral imagery, even metaphors are characterised as spells ‘cast / to keep us away from the source’. And this juxtaposition between opacity and openness is reinforced still further by the text’s fluidity. Even the relatively accessible second section, with its more conventional narrative style and visually tangible structure (firm titles and justified blocks of text), shares surreal stories which jolt and float like dreams. But it is the flux of the first and third sections which perhaps provides the most ambivalent moments.
The collage form in these two sections is inherently slippery. It doesn’t obviously foreground particular elements; emphases are almost ‘imperceptible’, or may be chosen by the reader. Moreover, its prismatic structuring of thoughts, dreams, memories, and occurrences is bolstered by other fragmenting elements such as deixis which shift, allowing people, locations, and times to slide into each other. For instance, the ‘I’ pronoun is used to signify different people at different moments, implying multiple voices belong to the central persona: ‘they’re all me’.
Dreamlike uncertainty not only facilitates Berry’s uneasy communion, it serves another important purpose for the collection: creating ‘a fantasy world’ in which one can ‘travel freely’ through place and time. This blurring is a key approach in the text’s search for solace in that it encourages and reflects free association, a psychoanalytic pathway to understanding and healing, a space in which even ‘the future / can influence the past’.
For a book with so many voices, many of which refer to slipping time, it’s interesting that one of the most frequent comes from La Jetée, a film by Chris Marker featuring a time-travelling protagonist who is ‘marked by an image / from childhood’. The marking image is two-fold: as a child he witnesses his own death without realising it and, in the same moment, is distracted by and falls in love with a beautiful woman. He searches for, connects with, and then loses her – only to search again. There could be a sense of Unexhausted Time following a similar journey; the distractions here being moments of communion, intimacy, and embodied experience, ways to shrug off the ‘shroud’.
But this text is fluid enough for each reader to experience it very differently. Or even very differently at different times. Berry has expressed an intention to step away from understanding as objective in favour of sharing a more instinctive connection with the reader. She believes music ‘goes straight to the place where it’s already known’ (on the Faber website, she shares her own soundtrack for the collection) and explains that this is essentially ‘a book about feelings’, in which she is trying to ‘sing’. It’s an ambitious, experimental intention and one which is largely realised. So perhaps have a read to see where ‘it’s already known’ for you, or simply sink into the beauty of its song.
March: The Kids by Hannah Lowe
You’ll probably have heard of this collection by Hannah Lowe, ‘The Kids,’ which just won the Costa Book of the Year award: the acclaim is well-deserved. The concept is fairly straightforward: a former teacher writing poems which reflect on her decade teaching at a sixth form college, and it does that skilfully, but the collection is about so much more than memories of school days.
The portraits of the kids she taught are often witty, recognizable and pleasingly familiar: confiscating phones, theatre trips, the struggle for teachers to communicate and students to concentrate. There are poems which recount the weirdness of bumping into former students after they’ve grown up, and in ‘The Unretained’ she wonders, “What happened / to Eliot who went to Feltham? And Martha, / five-months-pregnant, quitting for her boyfriend / and a flat?”. What stands out, though, is her constant sense of her own humanity. She is never portrayed as a pedagogic master, but as someone who gets things wrong, mispronounces “Pepys”, escapes class to “check [her] texts / or sneak between the stockroom shelving units / to eat a Twix,” and often as someone painfully affected by the struggles and frustrations of the young people she works with.
This idea is deepened in the middle part of the book which explores Lowe’s own experience of being a young student. Her own teenage frustrations and fantasies are brought to life and paralleled with those of the kids she teaches as an adult. The third and final section of the book focuses on Lowe’s motherhood, the learning curve of becoming a parent, and her child as he figures out the world.
At the heart of the book is an exploration of teaching and learning, all the ways that comes to pass throughout one’s life. It shows how teachers can come in the form of children, your parents, a traumatic event or bereavement – and how learning can happen when you least expect it. It is a collection which captures the complexity of all the different versions of the self held at once: Lowe seen as a teacher and an authority but feeling vulnerable, being a mother but remembering being a child, being perceived as in control but feeling nothing of the sort.
The sonnet form, which almost all the poems in the collection are written in, often enacts this. The two stanzas create a sort of point and counterpoint, setting up one idea in the first half, then re-exploring it in the second half. The final poem starts “The body is something like a poem,” and the second stanza, “A poem is something like a body.” Lowe recounts seeing her yoga teacher participating in another yoga class. It captures the idea that underlies this whole collection, a study in humility and an admission that no matter how much we see ourselves (or are seen as) “masters,” we all still need “kind and guiding hands” to teach us.
February: Dog Songs by Mary Oliver
I think we could all use a little bit of unbridled joy – and unbridled love (it is the month of Valentine’s Day, after all). Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs has it in spades.
Famous for her poems which reflect on joy and wonder, which ask questions like “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”, it makes sense that Mary Oliver writes a lot about dogs. This is a compendium of those poems, featuring dogs which have come and gone throughout Oliver’s life: Bear, Luke, Percy, Benjamin the rescue dog, Ricky the hedonist… There are reflections on their inner monologues, stories of their adventures and origins, and imagined conversations.
In classic Oliver style, though, these poems resist the trite or twee. They are not just poems for dog-lovers, revelling in wet noses and waggy tails (though there is, naturally, plenty of that). We learn about being present and asking for what you need in Percy Wakes Me, about healing trauma and how “the old life haunts the new” from Benjamin, who came from who knows where. Luke teaches us how to love wildly through exploring the flowers, not choosing “this blossom or that blossom” but instead being “happy / in the heaven of earth.”
In many ways it is such a simple collection, but the simplicity is the point. Shedding the complexities of human life, these are poems which repeatedly invite you to lean in to the sweetness and immediacy of physical existence, to find wildness and freedom – to run like a dog off the leash.
January: Ten Poems for Winter
January again already, so here at OPL we prescribe curling up with lots of consoling and thoughtful poetry to get you through this bleakest of midwinters. This little collection, ‘Ten Poems for Winter’ is an excellent place to start.
At this time of year, we all brace ourselves to enter a new world of cold and snow and darkness. These ten poems offer snapshots of this world in all its beauty and difficulty.
The poems don’t shy away from the ragged, murky, cold greyness of winter – but there are also moments of whimsy or joy: Ruby Robinson keeping a turtle in the fridge to hibernate, making snow pudding, “small perfections” of nature to be found. There is a poignant Skype call between January and July, a poem which feels especially salient given current circumstances. There are moments of wintery wonder, but where the poems face the struggle of this time of year, there is also solace. There is still a kind of comfort, as found in Robert Hayden’s powerful reflection on “love’s austere and lonely offices” manifested through his father waking up in the freezing dawn to light the fires. Poems can be a powerful source of solidarity, and this small wintery collection offers just that.
Courage, dear OPL members. We’re all pushing through the cold months together – and thankfully, we’ve got enough poetry on our shelves to keep your winter warm.