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Review - "Fur Coats in Tahiti" by Jeremy Over

Steve Spence

“Fur Coats in Tahiti” by Jeremy Over, pub. Carcanet Press. 118pp. £9.99

Jeremy Over’s poetry is a rich mix of near-classic Surrealism with references to Dada and methods taken from the Oulipo group and from the New York School.  In contemporary terms if you enjoy the work of Giles Goodland, David Greenslade, Tom Jenks, Phil Terry and the late (lamented) Bob Cobbing you should get a kick from Over’s poetry, which combines a play on received literary models/individual artists with a restless experimental thrust. What is astonishing about his poetry is the way it so often manages to be both extremely strange and hilariously funny as the two things don’t always mix well.

It’s been oft-noted that Carcanet’s publishing output includes a liking for the middle-of-the-road ‘mainstream’ with a less-prolific but clearly present innovative streak. Over clearly fits into the latter category and his use of ‘found materials’ in this respect is exemplary, by which I mean he’s bloody good at it!

Take this final paragraph from ‘The Maid of Buttermere’  (originally the title of a Melvyn Bragg novel, I believe) as an example of the above:


          the maid of Buttermere smeared mere words, mere words, mere crumbs

          utter words, mere crumbs, but smears utter words, words utter crumbs,

          crumbswords, words crumbs, crumbs underCrummock of the mere

          word water. CrummockWater ought to utter, ought to utter buttocks,

          but  water butts  ought  to  utter  otters,  buttock otters,  buttock  otters,

          otter buttocks, utter bollocks uttered backwards, butter no parsnips.

Try saying that out loud without getting entangled within the sounds and the ‘meanings’ and for that matter the humour engendered from both. Stanley Unwin, eat your heart out!

In ‘Choose any Animal in the Park’ we have this: ‘the baboon’s ischial callosities are / highly developed, bright vermillion and….’ , which, just as you’re about to reach for the dictionary is followed by… ‘nice try but you really / need to work on your short words.’ This is further followed by a series of strange non-sequiturs, including a final stanza which does amazingly include some more animals and a last line’ – ‘Why aren’t you writing anything down?’, which, given what has preceded it, conjures up an environment of confused and creative chaos. I’m reminded here of Spike Milligan and Tommy Cooper (the latter is referred to in another poem in the collection) which suggests once again the links between the avant-garde and popular culture. Was Edward Lear a true anticipator of the surreal?Over’s reworking of William Carlos Williams’ ‘So Much Depends’ has aesthetic charm and minimalist technique while ‘Au Secours’ includes the wonderfully strange lines:

          Let me explain;

          ‘C’estmonstrueux’, says Eugene Ionescu,

          using a rather nice walking stick to denounce

          the whole of the London scene before him.

          And not just London – he means everything.

I love the way that his adoption/adaptation/assimilation of existing texts can veer from the formally tentative –  ‘I am edging closer to the explicit use of euphemism’ – to the puzzlingly absurd yet charming – ‘My son / is spreading, whistles a blend of honeys from around the world.’ (both from ‘Sweet, Fruity, Floral and Grassy’).  It’s actually quite difficult to give a real sense of these poems when quoting short passages as you ideally need a complete immersion to experience ‘the full monty’ and relish all the’ pleasures of the text’. They are playful and full of the ambiguities of language, an aspect which Over often makes great use of in his various explorations. I suspect there is also a ‘submerged scatology’ at work in this collection as I frequently found myself re-reading a passage or sentence in the hope (!) of picking up more clearly a double-entendre or apparently ‘innocent’ phrase which seemed to resonate more spicily. Very Freudian!

‘Limited Headroom’, a mix of prose and poetry, references, among others, Edwin Morgan and John Cage and makes great play of veering between apparent semantic continuity after line-breaks and arresting non-sequiturs. He does this, I think, more in the mode of ‘classic surrealism’ than in, say, the worked-out methodology of the late Tom Raworth, where a political approach was the aim, but Over’s work has its charm and works upon you to great comic effect as well as having an estranging aspect.

          Anywhere we want we will hear the music played.

          Every horse is capable of swimming.

          Look at a dewdrop. You’ll see everything in it. Go on. Give it a try. 
          Give it a try.

I soak my socks in the green splotch

To balance the red splotch that vanilla can give.

          On a mat appears


          a sloth with a swelling

          in the pit of his stomach

The ‘dewdrop’ reference here reminds me of Blake (‘a grain of sand’) and the mixing of the domestic with the weirdly obsessive in ‘the socks’ couplet is quite unexpected while the’ onomatopoeia’ segment is both witty and simply confounding.

‘The Pencil Method’ includes texts from an essay by G.K. Chesterton and the film 'Mr Deeds Goes to Town’, among other assimilations, and combines absurdly logical progressions which morph via wordplay and association from the original starting points, with repeated phrases which mutate and break down into what could well be ‘sound poetry’ if taken into performance mode – ‘gawp in at      gawp at / gawp in at      gawp at in / gawp in at      gawp at in’. As I’ve indicated above, it’s difficult to give the full flavour of Over’s meanderings without quoting huge chunks of these variegated texts but this is a collection which it’s easy to become addicted to primarily perhaps because you’re never sure where the ‘narrative’ is going to go next.

The final section, ‘The Orderly World’ is by way of an a-z dictionary definition which starts off with some semblance of witty relationship between title/image and text and then veers off into the realms of semantic nonsense, sound poetry and charming diversion. I particularly enjoyed the final couplet from the definition ‘& (ampersand)’ a late addition, making an alphabet of 27 letters: ‘I am just a small, bald figure sitting in an empty land / offering you nothing from my upturned hand’.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading and re-reading these poems, mystifying as they often are, because Over’s work is rarely less than engaging and so rich in reference and potential detours that you’ll never be bored.

copyright © Steve Spence 2019

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