Fur Coats in Tahiti, Jeremy Over, Carcanet, 2019, 126 pp, £9.99 (paperback)
‘The best way to live in the present is less carefully’: for better or worse, Jeremy Over’s winningly preposterous fourth collection, Fur Coats in Tahiti, follows its own advice to the letter. On the whole, I think, the better wins out, but let’s start by getting some of the worse out the way.
How about my nascent piles?
the very act of opening the wings
to reveal the interior
the duck-like belly is burst open
Which is to say that despite the playful title and accurate blurb (promising ‘childlike, and plain childish, oral and aural pleasures’), there is nothing remotely child-friendly about the level of interest Over takes in his own arse:
Look, that hole in the carpet is also a hole in my arse.
Otherwise, there’s fun for all the family from the author of A Little Bit of Bread and No Cheese (2001) and Deceiving Wild Creatures (2009). Funnelling the Victorian nonsense tradition into the arbitrary orderings of the 20th century avant-garde, Fur Coats celebrates all the less respectable ways that poets have found for getting from one word to the next in the past two hundred years.
Here is what remains of William Carlos Williams’s classic ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ after Over has got at it with a trick developed by French experimentalists of the OuLiPo collective in the 1960s: the n+7 technique. This entails replacing every noun in a text with the seventh entry down from it in a dictionary:
So much depends upon
a Regency Whiplash Curve
glazed with Raphaelesque
beside the William and Mary style
Yet even this comes nowhere near to being the most suspicious offering on the methodological smorgasbord. That accolade has to go to an ‘erasure’ of the first ten pages of New York School poet Kenneth Koch’s When the Sun Tries to Go On. Hardly compromising to begin with (‘Like the mid-afternoon quietude of the elephant / who wishes to be indentured’), in Over’s interpretation, all that remains of Koch’s piece is an average of four apostrophic ‘O’s per page.
While it’s tempting at first to be rude about this for being facile (and presumedly Arts Council funded), the shifting constellations of bubbles tell a story if you’ll let them. I read it first in a level-headed mood and saw a series of unanswered calls for attention, and then again in a morbidly facetious mood, when I saw the preventable drowning of a small family. (It’s also possible that this poem spells out the secret key to the whole collection, and that I have missed this and therefore not understood it properly. Reviewers of mischievous literature live in fear of repeating the legendary mistake of one of the first critics of Georges Perec’s A Void: failing to notice that the entire novel doesn’t contain a single letter ‘e’).
While there’s plenty more gimmickry like this in store – the assertion that one poem ends with an actual trumpet solo is another highlight – it’s by no means a cover for a deficit of imagination. Over has a knack for originality and for giving madcap imagery a logical-seeming twist:
We wade out into our icy seas to launch a loaf of bread to celebrate the birth of a baby
Or vice versa
And the fallback strategy for making headway – concatenating winkingly egregious puns and self-mishearings – is a riot if you have the stomach for it. (This isn’t a given: ‘We have a large dog to look after now. A great Dane. / Yes, you have a great day’).
The finale, an A to Z of ‘near adjacent’ definitions lifted from an Edwardian illustrated dictionary, even develops the principle of slippage visually, pairing ‘heroship’ with a picture of a heron and ‘reinforce’ with one of a reindeer. Each word is then explored obliquely, or simply ignored, by a short poem. This section introduced me to ‘frutescent’, a real adjective to my surprise. It means ‘imperfectly resembling a shrub’ and is represented here by a cone and a six-sided pyramid.
So is this poetry? It certainly skewers plenty of writing that claims the label. The weird thing about Over’s synesthetic priapism, his compulsive approach to gaming language, is just how similarly the pages it produces read to serious modern verse in all its obfuscating piety – until, at least, the next scatological whoopie-cushion.
But in the end, the jokes come at a price, because as clever as they are, they’re not a substitute for the sense of genuine communication they make impossible. It’s a shame, because I think this is a fool whose wisdom deserves more frequent outings. When Over puts in the pencil time to properly marshal the seismic shifts of tone, his antics generate something closer to conventional poetry – and what he gets is conventional poetic success. Here, for instance, the tweeness of ‘cricket’ and ‘peaches’ usefully counters a threat of cliched mopiness:
We’re all undone
in the long run
we all have to play cricket
and eat peaches
about the door
handles and windows
whatever kind of guarantee
we might ever have had
The image these lines build to – a promised future that’s never fulfilled is like a home you can’t get inside, or even see into – is powerful, universal, and essentially well-thought-out-seeming. But by giving it an origin in random felicity, the “door / handles” slip suggests that it could only have occurred to one particular mind at one particular instant in time.
This hints at the truth behind all really good ideas in poetry: inevitable and necessary as they might seem after you’ve read them, they only make it onto the page against staggeringly unfavourable odds.
Words by Joshua Young.
To buy Fur Coats in Tahiti by Jeremy Over, visit Carcanet’s website.
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