Those who considered Simon Jenner’s first collection, About Bloody Time, difficult, might equally have been anticipating this, his second book of poetry. It contains nothing glib or easily accessible, and nothing which will have the reader close the volume after one reading. It is none the worse for that.
Jenner’s intellect scintillates in the diversity of his subject matter, in the richness of his language, in the way he wields a phrase. He is unafraid to explore themes from the classics (“O Julia, Assiduae multis odium pepere querelae”), or to trawl through the Europe of the Black Death, but finds himself just as comfortable in the silent cinema (“Buster Gut Keaton”)or considering contemporary environmental concerns (“No Bees, No Planet”).During his odyssey he meets everyone from Pinter to Edward the Confessor, from Milton to Faure. Similarly, he is unflinching with his family’s own history: “I’ve shuffled them … like my ancestral deck of cards” (“Saving my Skin”). Moreover, he does not spare himself.
Heavy stuff indeed, and not for the faint-heated. This is poetry to be read aloud, and heard – a rewarding and beautiful collection. Rhythmic, musical, and precisely crafted; the first-heard sounds are seduction enough. Listen to “Decline and Fall”, or the titular “Wrong Evenings”, savour the sounds, and then relax into the sharply drawn visual. The intellectual demands can wait. Soon enough, you will want to find the dictionary, read the references, and draw out more, because you will want to return to these poems, repeatedly. These are poems which open on the senses but will continue to play with the mind.
Accordingly, I read each poem raw and turned to the notes later – then re-read. The notes were illuminating, witty and frequently self-deprecating. I would have appreciated more! Almost every poem would have benefited from such treatment; not to let the reader off lightly, but just to open another door or two. Every reading will reveal a little more, yet I doubt that however often the pages are traced that these lines will offer up all of their bones – and in that lies great joy.
There is death, suicide even, and yet, essentially, this is a joyous collection, in love with language, and very funny in parts. Daringly, provocatively and damningly funny. Not many would be prepared to write an additional Satyre in the imagined guise of John Donne (“Satyre VI: Suffer the Street Children”):
Those swart burghers…
Southwark begotten and dropped by the river.
Such mordant wit. I read, re-read and will read again, and it leads me back again to re-find Donne. Look out for that killer last line.
Like all good historians, Jenner’s look at the past sharpens our perceptions of now (“Asymmetry”,and many more); he asks us to see patterns, to question our acceptance of cultural norms, see our own nation’s complicity, past and current. (“Satyre VI”, again and “Smell the Coffee”).
There is always a catch. In every reading aloud, one line would throw me, make me read again. No-one ever suggested this was easy! So many nearly words and phrases, so cleverly close, and suddenly changed – consider his use of “hommage” for “homage”(“Saving my Skin”), “founts of unlearning” or “stabs pester “ (both from “Prometheus Day”). Even the title, “Soixant Huit”, points that misleading way.
So here is a poet, unashamedly intellectual, difficult, modern, with all that baggage, unafraid of fun, who is witty, structured, and does not run from pun or rhyme should the occasion demand it. A virtuoso. He has courage. Be brave. Read him. You will not regret it.