There is a magic and darkly fairytale quality in Tess Jolly’s work which I greatly admire. The poetry is the product of a powerful imagination.
In several poems a brother is depicted as a magical other, and their sibling relationship seems closest when dressing up, or playing imaginative games.
my legs swinging, his anchored to the floor –
one of us would shriek the code name
and we’d both hunch knees to chests,
pretend to be scared as the ground gave way
to glittering blue and silver carapaces,
giant razor crabs screeching and rattling scales
in rock-pools of pavement or lino.
In The Gingerbread House, where ‘I follow crumbs through the wood to find him’ the recurring brother and sister theme becomes filtered through a nightmarish lens:
He wants to show me around. We feel our way
along the sticky walls like children learning the dark.
Licking sugar from his lips he tries to hoist me
onto his shoulders as if he hasn’t realised I’ve grown.
I admire the toffee paving-slabs, butter-cream roofs.
He opens wide. Mice are nibbling his tongue.
(The Gingerbread House)
Having establishing that their realest connection was through a kind of make-believe, Tess Jolly’s poems function as acts of magical reanimation. As long as the imagination is alive, the relationship still exists. This is something I personally find very moving.
The poem Prayer is starker and uncloaked. Rigorous critics tend to resist biographical interpretations, but I find it hard not to draw the conclusion that the brother figure is also the same person featured in the two extraordinarily powerful end-of-life poems, Prayer and We’ll talk about this when it’s over.
If I prayed at all it wasn’t when I thought you were dying,
when children and dogs oozed from pavements
to gawp at you: a falang with shrivelled limbs and jaw
hanging, eyes dragged deep in their sockets.
Touchpapers moves from such harrowing desperation to moments of beauty. At the end of Prayer the poem’s narrator is momentarily absorbed by looking out at the stars and moonlight on the sea. Tess Jolly’s imaginative leaps can make me laugh out loud too. Take the start of Frog:
Frog and I sit opposite each other comparing belches.
Obviously Frog’s are louder.
I’m not sure why this works so well. Maybe it’s the deadpan matter of factness. We are instantly there, with no necessity to suspend disbelief at this manifestation of the magical other.
… I have to be careful because Frog’s secretions
can be toxic, and there’s the danger his skin will dry
if we spend too long between worlds like this
mostly conversing but sometimes just squatting in silence.
Between worlds. That pinpoints it for me. Tess Jolly’s Touchpapers brings an otherworldly beauty, which stimulates the reader’s sense of wonder. Tess Jolly’s book is a tour de force of the imagination, and of course this quick look has only scratched its surface. But I highly recommend you read it for yourself.