Jeremy Over – Fur Coats in Tahiti (Carcanet, 2019).
What is the function of poetry? Well, its uncertain. Like fine art, it’s partly defined by its lack of function. Yet, like song, its core functionlessness lends it a wide variety of partial functions.
Poetry is always serving a purpose, but it never serves only that purpose.
When it comes to the writing of Jeremy Over, fathoming the core purpose is a difficult, perhaps even impossible task. His latest collection, Fur Coats in Tahiti, could, if encountered in the wild, unprompted and without prior forewarning, present the reader with a poetry of total meaninglessness.
Over is a borrower of techniques and tricks from across a wide variety of opaque movements: Dada, Ou Li Po, Japanese conceptual art, Victorian nonsense. One is tempted to describe his work as the next step down this crooked literary path.
But to do so would be to miss out on some of the less immediate functions of Over’s poetry. I had the pleasure of seeing Over read during a triple book launch this month. Hearing Over’s poems read through Over’s own delivery, punctuated by his stories and explanations, reveal in the works a world of semi-magic, semi-humour, semi-musicality, and semi-tragedy, that all overlaps while never quite explaining away his enigmas.
“Kenneth Kock Uncorked”, for example, is the strangest poem in the collection: appearing as a series of “O”s strung out over pages. An in-person reading reveals these to be holes in a punchcard. Koch, a poet fond of exclaiming “O!”, has had his work processed by Over, each O punched through, and the resulting pattern is fed through a music box, creating an uncanny, yet magical soundscape.
The same semi-humour and semi-magic is found in “Eat Your Cherries Mary”. A Steve Reichian celebration of repetition, it makes reference to Dan Maskell, the BBC’s “voice of tennis”, whose inability to pronounce Eastern European surnames introduces humour into the poems repetitions.
You’d never know this by reading the page, although you may intuit it. Over’s poems are all funny, especially if read aloud, although you don’t quite know what you’re laughing at.
They also seem magical. Like magic words, or Latin mass: more powerful for all its uncertainty.
It is for this reason that I’d recommend reading Over’s poetry aloud. Perhaps even share the duties with a friend, so that at least one of you might be able to experience the purely aural poem, while the other reads the page. I feel as if Over works on both levels – read and heard – but that one can never fully substitute for the other.
There was indeed something in Over’s reading that suggested to me the hidden power of language that each poet, intentionally or not, is seeking to uncover and harness. It is the power of making something of the silence come through. Using words to dig up raw meaning, instead of merely covering it over with language.
How else do you explain a room being moved by pure syllables, or finding laughter in a music box?
On a few rare occasions, the full power of Over’s funny little mysteries communicates itself purely upon the page. The final section of “Red Sock in Yellow Box” is just such a moment:
One cannot put one’s foot into the same river twice.
One cannot even put the same foot in the same river twice.
It’s hard to explain why but one cannot. One has tried.
One can however fall in the same canal repeatedly
One can easily
Just when you think that the function is cerebral, it is comic. But just as you’re certain it’s comic, it is linguistic. It is sound.
This is my first encounter with Jeremy Over’s work and I suspect that it won’t be the last. His poems are compulsively re-readable, and never fully explicable. They are always up for reconsideration. If you can hear him read, cancel everything else and go do so. But if not, I’d still recommend his new collection.
Perhaps new powers linger in there that are yet to be uncovered. They will be well worth discovering.
– Joe Darlington