A Big Bit of Bread and Plenty of Cheese
Deceiving Wild Creatures, Jeremy Over (74pp, £9.95, Carcanet)
The puzzling photograph on the cover of Jeremy Over's latest poetry collection, taken from Richard Kearton's Wild Nature's Ways, first published in 1909, shows a slight farmer effortlessly balancing on his shoulder a fully-grown, upside-down, bull. How is this possible? Is the farmer stronger than he looks? Is the bull not as heavy as it appears? Is it really a bull? Perhaps it is a cardboard cut-out? Or is it all a question of discovering the perfect balancing point, that point of equilibrium where the largest of creatures assumes a paradoxical weightlessness? The collection's title, Deceiving Wild Creatures, also taken from Kearton, echoes these questions, for it can be read in several ways: are the wild creatures being deceived, or, as in the picture, are we perhaps being deceived by them, or are we simply deluding ourselves when, like the farmer, we try to take the wildness, the otherness, out of nature?
Like the naturalist Gilbert White, a figure at the heart of this collection, Over seems centrally to be concerned with restoring the otherness and wonder to the natural world, and his observations in the field have at times a startling precision and unexpectedness reminiscent of John Clare, as in 'Birthday Haibun': 'On the far bank there's a yellow wagtail fidgeting. I wonder why they wag their tails then notice that it isn't. It's tapping it up and down. I've known smokers tap their cigarettes like that....' The central sequence of poems, taking its starting point from White's Natural History of Selbourne, seeks, in White's words, to lend 'an helping hand towards the enlargement of the boundaries' of natural history. Reframing and destabilising White's text, Over constantly surprises us with new figurations, reminding us how the worlds of animals, of fruit and vegetables, and of humans subtly interact:
Hedgehogs abound in my gardens and field
and hurry our apples, pears, onions, potatoes etc.
into the cellar and warm closets,
and the reason is plain, and perhaps
the later the hour the more so
with a bullet in a turnip field by moonshine.
[from 'My female moose corresponds']
Elsewhere, as in the prose poem 'I only know that' -- a poem, I take it, about bats -- Over adds a strangeness to his source text by carefully removing the referent of the discourse:
Their nostrils are bilobated, their shoulders broad and
muscular, and their whole bodies fleshy and plump.
Like Virgil's bees they drink flying. They also pick
holes in apples left on the ground, and are much
entertained with the seeds on the head of a sunflower.
What they might do in the night I cannot say.
The technique of defamiliarisation, which Over inherits from the lake poets and surrealism, underpins poems elsewhere in the collection, such as 'Tree/Bush', which experiments with text from Hans Asperger's paper on autism in childhood. Asked to describe the difference between stairs and ladder, the child responds: 'It is much more comfortable on the stairs than on the ladder'. Throughout, Over treats us to a dizzying array of poetic styles, from haibun and senryu (a form related to the haiku, but shot through with an earthy realism which here tilts towards surrealism) to pantoums, lists, aphorisms, epithalamia and prose texts. Over is interested not only in restoring the otherness of the natural world, but, like many procedural writers, in restoring the otherness of language, and this is nowhere more evident than in the poems indebted to the Oulipo, such as 'Delight in order', exercises in erased Herrick, 'Killer in the Rain', a Chandler cento in the form of a pantoum, 'The Negatives', an antonymic translation of Georg Trakl as witty as it is lucid, and the experiments in homophonic translation represented here by the cryptic 'And some' and by the stunning 'The Lambent Itch of Innuendo', the strangest homage to W.B.Yeats you are ever likely to read:
I will arouse angora nutmeg, and goitrous innuendo,
And a smirk cadenza bulwark, of cleak and weasel-coot ma'am;
Nitty bedposts will I hawfinch, ahoy for the homeopath,
And lob aloof in the beef-lucent glebe.
In the final piece in the collection, the prose poem 'Pendolino', Over turns his illuminating lens on the most banal situation of all, a man, Jeremy Over, returning home by train. Yet even here, nothing is as it seems. In a clump of oak trees that welcomes him home whenever he travels this way, he sees a rough triangle and thinks of pudenda, 'the hidden parts', 'that of which one ought to be ashamed':
And the truth is I do feel a little ashamed. But of what? Of
imagining a woman's genitals in a landscape owned by the
National Trust? Of imagining the wrong woman's genitals
perhaps? Of not being sure when it is correct to refer to
pudenda and when to pudendum no matter how many times
I look it up in the dictionary? Of not being on a train at all
now but here at my desk, repeatedly looking up pudenda
and pudendum in the dictionary while pretending to be
sitting on a train and seeing things? ...
Not really. What is there to be ashamed of, after all, in
trying to follow Reverdy's directions by learning 'to love
reality better after a long detour by way of dreams'? I ask
you? I ask you in particular, R.H. Stacy, 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.
© Philip Terry 2010