Ben Wilkinson explores a poet committed to his nightmares
"Who says havoc is a vice of the young?" asks the speaker in the title poem of Jacob Polley's third collection, The Havocs, which has been shortlisted for this month's TS Eliot prize. You'd be hard pushed to level the accusation at Polley, whose commitment to the nightmarish, creepy and unstable has intensified with each of his books, and tends to feed his best poems.
Polley's first collection, The Brink (2003), published while he was still in his 20s, was notable for a pared-back diction and descriptive flair. Its colloquial patter in poems of postmodern pastoral, father figures and secular spiritualism saw Polley combine the influence of Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and Simon Armitage in approaching his own vision. But the book also zoned in on nature's chaos and human malevolence. Here was a crow conjured from the biblical tale of Cain's murder of Abel, or the "floating knuckle" of honeycomb in a jar, "attesting to the nature of the struggle". A second volume, Little Gods (2006), gave this supple lyricism a more formal grounding. Melding an intense music with the transformative power of metaphor, its incantatory poems delved deeper into death, despair, disappearance and dismal weather, with Baudelaire as their presiding spirit.
The Havocs presents itself as a rangier book than its predecessors. Tripping through assorted rhythms, sonnets, end-rhymed quatrains and the looping lines of its centrepiece, it is as formally vibrant as the luminous letters that adorn its cover. A few poems even find Polley cracking jokes: in an attempt to define "havoc" by taking cues from Les Murray's "The Quality of Sprawl", the title poem frames our societal anxieties with a warped sense of humour. "As if I was a pencil and havoc sharpened me," scoffs its speaker, "havoc is committed to care for the elderly, education for all, and narrowing the gap between rich and fabulously rich."
Yet the comedy is spiked with obvious venom, just as the book's colourful cover images rise from a jet-black backdrop. Likewise, the poems' formal breadth belies those thematic concerns – death, love, work; fear, wonder, nature – and the persistent aura of unease that have dominated Polley's work from the start. Despite its handful of cosmetic changes, The Havocs finds Polley exploring his favoured territory in familiar ways.
Fluid boundaries between the seen and the unseen, the known and the unknown, continue to flourish. "Hide and Seek" strings together earthy images in its definition of being by negation; in "Dark Moon", the Earth's rocky satellite is its "own VACANCY sign" when full, while in donning "the hood of night", it "can't be seen so can't be lost". The problem is not that the stock lyric symbolism of the moon and ominous darkness were dominant features of Little Gods; rather, it is that they reappear here to similar ends. The same must be said of water, or more specifically, torrential rain.
In Little Gods, rain was a biblical force, "the sound of the day undone"; in The Havocs, the poet buys "a book of water" whose "one page read disorder / in letters tall as rain". These poems may display an increased pithiness or impressively novel phrasing, but this offers little recompense to the reader already familiar with Polley's poetry. By the same token, several vignettes harbour a satisfying air of menace but, when not reading like fragments lifted from the work of Don Paterson, tend to suffer in comparison with the inventive brilliance of those from Polley's earlier books.
Yet, in spite of such repetitious moments, there is a good deal to admire in The Havocs. Its boldest poems reveal increased attempts to make sense of what matters to us most, even if they find the world frequently shifty and shifting, wriggling free from further understanding. Sometimes this is down to tired strategies, but it is also due to the poetry's serious ambition, committed to piercing through the deceptive realm of the habitual in pursuit of the near-ineffable and mysterious. The book's opening poem, "Doll's House", is an incisive exploration of the fragility of our familial lives, moving from the haunting description of "a table set with tiny plates" to gentle moral instruction: "Be brave. To live is not to fear / despite the scale of what's at stake." This desire for direction and purposefulness also surfaces in "Keepers", where the poet finds himself admiring beekeepers, envious of their cultivating "something / of substance, with a taste and use, obvious to anyone."
In this way, an Audenesque sense of poetry's social capacity, already traceable in Polley's earlier work, suffuses the more ambitious poems. "The News" adopts a punchy tetrameter in its jolting account of endemic indifference, while "The Ruin" modified an Anglo-Saxon lament for a collapsed stronghold, imbuing the derelict remains with human presence and feeling. "It Will Snow Before Long", a beautiful meditation on childhood and memory, also deserves praise. But it is "The Weasel", a sinister ballad adapted from the well-known nursery rhyme, that is surely the most remarkable poem in the book. Devastatingly simple, its tale of lives and loves gone awry showcases the standout qualities of Polley's verse: deft concision, musical prowess, syntactic verve, and a voice that rings painfully true.
The Havocs may be an uneven collection that sometimes finds Polley treading water, but a handful of its poems are so moving and memorable you might just forgive him.
• Ben Wilkinson's The Sparks is published by Tall Lighthouse. To order The Havocs for £7.49 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop