At first glance, of the pair of poets reading their work at Southbank’s New Poetry evening, Chris McCabe seems to be the more radical, while Jacob Polley’s quiet, folkloric, riddling lines have a far more traditional flavour. McCabe’s latest collection, The Restructure, is a raw, semi-autobiographical journey, saturated in details of a hyper-modern everyday. Polley’s Havoc’ is slower, its imagery that of a far older England. Yet, in hindsight, it feels that in turning away from the fast-paced urban environment and removing all traces of himself as a character, it is perhaps he who is further from the mainstream.
The poems work differently off and on the page: slow, private reading allows Polley’s imagery to settle and expand, but when he reads aloud, the familiar inflections of Performance Poetry, with its prolonged pauses and strange syllabic emphasis are distracting. In contrast, McCabe’s poems seem to work better when delivered in person; his Liverpudlian accent adds important texture and his anecdotes offer valuable context, welcoming the listener into his strange world.
Using traditional forms, such as cautionary tales and ballads, Polley conjures up a world that moves with the turn of the seasons, recording the lie of the land. The result is such that when he does refer to quotidian things – such as in The News; “the bank still doesn’t give a toss…the heat won’t go out of the curry” – it creates an intriguing sense of dislocation. In finding a way to step back from the present, into a more timeless place, he offers a new perspective on our current woes: “Crops will fail and crude oil spill…the moons not sad; the sun won’t worry./ Despite your suffering, England’s still/ and only some of us are sorry.” Polley’s is the long view; where drama unfolds over centuries, not minutes – to the rocks, rivers and marshes, life is cyclical and our crises are no different to those that came before, nor those that will follow.
The underlying emotions in McCabe’s work also have a timeless essence: The protagonist/narrator/ poet is at once the archetype of the displaced man and a hands-on, modern Dad – “In the ward, the three of us- new maths.” He is reading, splashing in puddles and seeking out dock leaves with his son, yet there is also the brooding sense that this boy is his rival. The positions within the small family unit are always ambiguous; the father is protector but also victim, lover yet also child. This is Greek myth in the world of paternity leave and online banking, a fact obliquely referenced by a poster of The Greek Gods slowly peeling off the kitchen wall.
McCabe’s power lies in his ability to detail the aching gap between what could be and what is, creating a harsh romanticism that is often darkly funny. The poems are propelled by both a possessive sexual desire – “a vulva of red lipstick around the neck of the glass” – and a disarming childlikeness; as he experiences fatherhood, he develops an anthropomorphic view of the objects around him and the distinction between the-me and the-not-me blurs. When, towards the end, he includes a selection of poems containing comments from Pavel, his now five year-old son son, the strange logic evident in the child’s misunderstandings of time and space echoes these earlier poems.
McCabe’s landscape is the London underground and a succession of rented flats. Flossing and amphetamines are repeated motifs, reminding one of Silvia Plath’s comment: “I would say everything should be able to come into a poem, but I can’t put toothbrushes in…I really can’t.” The details of his life with his new wife and young son are raw yet delicate, his precise juxtapositions building the sublime into the ordinary, a fierce beauty mixing the grim with the sensual – “a spilt pool of baby milk,/rippled with plum Shiraz/she carefully fed the child/ a fine rich dessert for beginners.”
In The Restructure and Havocs both titles become characters: THE RESTRUCTURE is an abstract but personified voice with neither mercy nor emotion. It is as powerful and unstoppable as an ancient god, yet could also be a series of memos from the company managing the office merger, restructuring you into redundancy. In this disembodied voice McCabe combines the personal and the political, forcing us to feel the powerlessness and rage of the individual being ‘restructured’ to fit a world where priorities are economic. “THE RESTRUCTURE is coming… I saw your name in italic bold on the structure charts/ ring fence your thoughts before you speak.” Yet the voice is also that of a baby: autocratic, omnipotent and absolute; one with whom there can be no compromise.
Polley’s poem, The Havocs, similarly addresses bureaucracy: “Havoc pinned to the corkboard, made a note of it in the margin, filed under BUDGET, replied to, enquired about” and politics: “havoc is beating at the door to repossess me. Havoc is my bonus” but the old fashioned references – boiled sweets, libraries, pencil behind ear, post box – seems to hamper its effect. The final lines, however, act as a very English call to arms “We’re thinking of getting a havoc, but we know it’s a big responsibility…shhhhh – you’ll wake the change! There’ll be havoc to pay.”
In putting two such different styles of poetry together, questions about what poetry can do (as well as what ‘good’ poetry or ‘the kind of poetry I like’ could be) are inevitable – making it, in many ways, a perfect pairing.