Are you bored of conversational poetry where the poet tries to act like the best friend you never had? Are you sick and tired of confessional poetry where the poet drones on about their personal life? If you are, good news, surrealism is back. Jeramy Dodds' "Crabwise to the Hounds", his first book-length publication, spurns both of these trends in contemporary poetry with exciting, but mixed, results.
As the title suggests, the overall tone of these poems is grim. Dodds paints scenes of dying deer, horses eaten by wolves, riders attacked by werewolves, and people chased by hounds. But I always get the sense that it is the language not the subject matter that is in the foreground, so no matter how odd or obscure the subject gets – such as Carl Linnaeus or Ho Chi Minh or the discoverer of Machu Picchu – Dodds' revelry in word play links the poems together.
It's when the grim mood is dropped and this love of word play comes to fore that Dodds is at his best. "The Epileptic Acupuncturist" (seen in the YouTube video below) where he twists together common sayings and "The Easiest Way to Empty a Seashell is to Place it on an Anthill" where he rhapsodizes about Glenn Gould's piano work are two shining moments in the book.
Dodds has been highly praised for his technical prowess with image, rhythm and metaphor. I'd agree with two out of three. Through the association of seemingly disjointed images, Dodds crafts a relentless series of mind-tingling metaphors, but the rhythm is often clunky and abrupt. His penchant for compound adjectives puts too many speed bumps in the cadence.
Dodds' work with language garnered him a nomination to the short list for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize this year. That's high praise for a poet's first book. But is Dodds' technical handiwork enough to justify all the acclaim? I'm not sure. His poems are emotionally opaque, which can make for a rather dry and intellectual reading experience, and there are times when Dodds' metaphorical density makes it feel as through he is a miniaturist more interested in the intricacy of his own handiwork than with communicating anything to the reader.
That said, this book rewards those who stick with it and navigate through Dodds' erudite diction and intellectual word games. It will be interesting to see where Dodds goes in his next book. Will it be more accessible, more playful, or will the language become even more baroque and the meaning more cryptic? I, for one, am excited to find out.