Brendan Connell's The Life of Polycrates & Other Stories for Antiquated Children: A Review by JL Williams

I’m loath to summarise each story in this fascinating and sensual collection as at least one other has already done it very well, and because they’re just so good you ought to read them yourself. If you do, prepare to indulge, to savour, and to reread as necessary in order to enjoy every last dripping morsel of word.
I do want to quote some bits from the book that I found to be most delicious, such as “greenish-albumen-tinted flowers” and the lush gorgeousness of
He grew cadmium-yellow lemons which smelled of cinnamon, melons odiferous as peach blossoms, and artichokes which breathed the aroma of hyacinth, were without sharp prickles and tasted not unlike sweet plums. There were peach and cherry trees that produced fruit without pit and almond trees whose nuts had shells so tender and thin that a mere touch would leave the flesh naked. And then, planted in an enormous clay pot, grew his fructiferous tree of delicacies, the trunk of which split off into three boughs, one engrafted with pomegranates, one with golden pears, and the third with tinzenite-red oranges.
Often Connell’s writing is reminiscent of Jorges Luis Borges, with its heady lists not unlike the description of the entire universe past and present in Borges’ The Aleph. One of Connell’s versions is a breath-taking, language-loving catalogue of Polycrates’ library:
He had the complete works of Agias, Arctinus and Creophylus; he had books on harmony, warfare, rain water, indivisible lines, appellative nouns, lawgivers, definitions of neutral things, Zacynthian suppers, economics, asymmetric numbers, erotics, etymologies, mechanical problems, dialectic terms, votive offerings, hunting, and a great variety of other instructive subjects.
Connell’s language often borders on or is poetry in its own right:
Dreamed: a metal cylinder, pollution, blue lakes raped by clouds of smut, dead fish flopping listlessly on the shore.
A Murderer (as his skull is cracked like a nut).
A Pair of Devils (dancing off to one side). Pè pèèèèèèè
. . . Words, phonological shapes, changed to rough and injurious physical force . . . . .
. . . . . . Telecles . . . struck by Geneleos with a hammer . . .
this fragmenting adding a sense not only of a hand controlling the rhythm of the language but also a whiff of the ancient, appropriate, in this instance, to The Life of Polycrates, in which the use of language in a particular way again and again enforces the classical ambiance of the narrative.
The text itself in some stories such as ‘Brother of the Holy Ghost’ becomes a form of concrete poetry with a great power to reflect the inner life of the main character – distressed text that represents a disturbed mind:
let the children be buried in the garden: let the children
be buried in the garden
taste the white f.t
the white f.t
the wh.t. .f n.ns
mad and glorious without end be done the rutting done.
as long as could rut. as long as could rut.
as the ascetic priest cum pope descends into the fraught life of his dreams.
Connell’s exploration of violence, unsettling sexuality, descents into hell and madness, greed and – perhaps most frightening of all – complete and utter banality are brave and moving. In another extraordinary list he sums up humanity:
…some off to waitress in diners to the smell of burnt suet – delivery boys eking out a pittance hauling ill burgers and sandwiches up through high rises, skyscrapers – scroungers, cripples, begging for quarters . . . men who pick up trash for a living . . . butchers whacking at thick red meat. . . . There are those who lay bricks, paint houses, mix cement, clothes worn and splattered, arms thick with plebeian strength. Others, women, selling wares behind counters, answering telephones, putting on bright, silly smiles, for what they call a wage, for a few worthless rectangles of paper. . . . Yes, people sew and set bones, try cases in miserable court, douse out fires, cuff criminals, tinker on ridiculous machinery, scrambling like insects, poisoned like roaches…
He says “Everyone is vulgar” and there is a startling ring of truth to this, a modern democracy of shit in which all men are created equal in their grossness, as are, in a stunningly wretched passage, flowers:
Then there are the monotonous white lilies or those agitated little cowards called anemones; and buzzing gentian and snot-like primrose; so many petals waiting to be covered in slime, as it is that certain minds are repulsed by blue skies and would much rather grovel than stand upright; tongue languishing, spilled out onto the ground, for a centipede to crawl over, for some snail to pass along.
The statement “The fact is that nothing is more valued in this world than banality” in the devastating story, ‘The Slug’, feels like the battle cry of this book; a fetid rejoicing, a pulsating, glistening celebration of the fertile underside of the tombstone of life and literature. Connell fights against banality and modern man’s attraction to it by nursing gleaming maggots from each wound of story, making the beautiful ugly and the ugly beautiful and thus giving a real insight into compassion, into what it is to be a human being who is able to adore the dark and the light equally.
Some carnivorous fish; a city on fire.

The Life of Polycrates & Other Stories for Antiquated Children is published by Chomu Press.

JL Williams is a poet whose first collection, Condition of Fire, is published by Shearsman Books.

  • I thought this quote was really fitting “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.” – Thomas Jefferson