Questioning the nature of authority


Deceiving Wild Creatures
, Jeremy Over (76pp, 9.95, Carcanet)


Many of Jeremy Over's poems reflect an interest in natural history but his material has also been influenced by classic surrealism and he enjoys reworking earlier poems by famous writers. Some of his work seems to employ material montaged from other sources and he has a keen eye for intriguing juxtapositions which cause you to re-read the text just to check that you've 'got it', or not, as the case might be. He's clearly also been influenced by Edward Lear although this connection is sparing and often thoughtful. There're a wide variety of forms and explorations in his work, from minimalist lyrics to prose poetry and given the quality of his writing I'm slightly surprised I've not heard much about him before. The textures of his poetry are taut and devoid of waste yet you often get a feeling of 'stretching out', of a dreamlike quality reminiscent of Reverdy, perhaps, even where you can trace the thought processes in a 'logical', linear fashion and where you are often brought up sharply by the strangeness of the connecting ideas.

'Cursu undoso' appears to have its origin in cut-ups from natural history texts and mixes a pastoral reverie with snippets of a narrative which shifts from the innocuous to the spooky and where H.P Lovecraft seems to co-exist with apple pie. The opening sentence of this piece is typical in its puzzling philosophical probing yet also revels in the slippery nature of language and the delight that is to be found when engaging in such exploration:

     Gentlemen who have outlets might contrive to make ornament
     subservient to utility and become so merry and loud as to be irksome
     in a room where little is said but much is meant and understood.

There's a lot of humour in this writing but it's often a humour built on estranging tactics which force the reader(s) to reconsider what they thought they understood. If your head starts to spin then the end result is often laughter, sometimes uneasy, sometimes out-loud and unrestrained!

Over's engagement with the English pastoral tradition has an element of homage but it's also filled with a satirical teasing as evidenced particularly by two poems in this collection. In 'The Waterfall Illusion', for example, we get:

     There was something (a smell?) in the hedgerow.
     I don't know what it was but it was alive
     and giving itself in the dark.
          
     This is all going on in my trousers remember
     while St Jerome eats cheese and continues to read assiduously
     in his study on the house on the lake,  .

This reminds me of Martin Hibbert, another intriguing off-the-wall 'pastoral' poet I've not heard anything about for some time. Over continues in this fashion, working with different registers and vocabularies, keeping you aware
that he's playing a game and intrigued as to where it will end up. Then we get what I take to be a send-up of that passage in The Prelude
where the protagonist is rowing the boat and the mountain is perceived as a menacing (and moving) presence due to the child's misunderstanding and the skill of the narrative description:

                                                         Dr Adams discovered that if
     he stared for twenty seconds at a fixed point in the torrent, then
     transferred his gaze leftwards to the adjacent rocky gully, the gully
     appeared to shoot skywards.

The context for this passage seems to me to leave little alternative but to respond with laughter but for all I know there are a dozen different ways of reacting depending upon your point of view. In a sense it's a strength of these poems that the reader is forced to explore his/her psyche in order to interpret
or follow the stream of sense or logic yet sometimes all you can do is 'go with the flow' and perhaps think about it later.

Over exhibits an interest in painting and painting techniques in several of these poems and 'Pastoral' is the most direct of these where the subject is clearly the style of the mystic landscape artist Samuel Palmer. Most of the poem involves a straightforward description of the elements of individual pictures, a pared-down commentary pretty much devoid of judgement or analysis. Then we get:

     And he largely experimented in egg vehicles & renders the whole
                                                                   system an alembic
     of excrement and withal they can only pass slimy motions which
                                                                      do them no good
        
     while the hardened and still increasing faeces, which ought to be
     got rid of, are as tense as a bronze cast in the mould of their peri
     staltics.

Whether this is a Swiftian satire, a critique on the nature of Palmer's dark impasto style of painting or a curious kind of homage I'm not sure but it aids the overall strangeness of Over's work and adds to its diversity and breadth.
Given the strong influence of surrealism on his writing and Over's subjective satirical impulse I can't avoid seeing a critical tendency at work here.

'The Lambent Itch of Innuendo' is a treatment of Yeats' 'The Lake Isle Of Innisfree'
as envisaged by Edward Lear and has its quota of hilarious alliterative nonsense 'I heave lambent wax larrikins with lubricants by the shovelful'. I have a serious liking for this kind of stuff and my only criticism is that there isn't enough of it here and that Over doesn't seem to push it as far as he might. This could in fact be an overall criticism of his work. There are people working outside of the mainstream traditions in British poetry who have pushed the boat out a lot further than this and while in some cases they appear to have 'got lost at sea' such wild experimenters have often enabled others to profit from their fruitful explorations.

'Delight in     order  (Erased Herrick)'
is a reworking of Herrick's poem 'Delight in Disorder', where the simple expediency of cutting creates a work quite unlike the original, more minimal and typographically spaced-out yet full of wit and absurd jesting. Thus we get:

              crimson
         neglect
          do     confuse

      the
          
             shoes

The final piece in this collection is entitled 'Pendolino' and is more prose than prose-poem I think. The protagonist is sitting on a train, allowing his mind to drift and creating a dreamy narrative which starts with the minutia of his immediate surroundings and shifts perspective due to the vagaries of changing thoughts and outside influences. It's a superbly constructed example of stream-of-consciousness writing where the 'natural flow' is interrupted or commented upon by intrusive thoughts and questions. It's the sort of writing that suggests that we all have our story to tell and that working from what is 'real and immediate' is as valid as any of the 'grander narratives' we are still encouraged to think of as being more real. Over questions the nature of authority and of experts in a very playful fashion as the concluding passage of this piece suggests:

                                                   I ask you? I ask you in particular,
     R.H. Stacey, associate Professor of Russian Literature at Syracuse
     University, poised there on the back flap, perusing your own half-
     read book and thoughtfully smoking an unlit pipe. You look like
     you might know a thing or two about this.

Highly recommended.


          Steve Spence 2009