[19 December 2003]
There are tears shed for things even here, and mortality touches the heart.
Seven years after the first two volumes of Peter Reading’s Collected Poems comes the third, presenting all five books published in the interim as well as a new long poem, Civil, and a new collection, titled with the printer’s marginal mark for ‘delete.’ Reading’s titles are getting increasingly minimal (Ob. and [untitled] exemplify this), in contrast with the poetry itself, which proliferates. Such titular self-deprecation seems to come easy to Reading, now on the verge of becoming a grand old man of English letters and never a poet to take himself over-seriously when there’s a world out there to focus his seriousness on.
Self-deprecation and over-seriousness aside, Reading’s work continues to offer a sustained, excoriating, vicious, bewildering attack, on, it seems, all things modern. He invites the reader into a poetic world where the contemplation of natural beauty is an imperative in the face of its imminent destruction at the hand of man; where language and literature must be cherished as repositories of a fast-disappearing cultural heritage, helpless in the hands of contemporary education ‘management’; where the self-consciousness of the poet reveals itself as culpability, responsibility and protest all at once; and where other people are viewed with a mixture of distaste and sympathy, as both victims and perpetrators of the carnage Reading observes.
Reading has always been a complex poet whose overwhelmingly evident trait is his mordant honesty. For all the formal dexterity, the repeated need to demonstrate (in poems like ‘Horatian’, ‘Ovidian’, ‘Callimachan’, ‘Theognian’, and ‘Catullan,’ all in the first collection included here, 1997’s Work in Regress) his own fluency in the styles and forms of a Classical and post-Classical verse heritage, Reading is really a thoroughly English poet of near-Romantic emotional force (a contemporary “Child of Albion,” in Michael Horowitz’s sixties definition). He’s horrified, curious and despairing at what we’re doing here, producing what Iain Sinclair’s has called “remote, alienated, fractured” poetry, “metric, the final foot broken, / fitting, for history fractured,” as Reading puts it in ‘[untitled].’
In poems like the opening ‘Three,’ the relentless portrayal of historical progression as the accumulation of the products of violent destruction evolves into an incantatory list of events, actions, names and deaths, a chronicle of time past which inevitably points to an inevitable future: “and thinks how the carnage continues / and how he will soon be part of it / Sunt aliquid manes—or “So it goes,” as Kurt Vonnegut would say. Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
The carnage is one of Reading’s recurrent themes, as is recurrence itself—repeated titles like ‘Repetitious’ signal the poet’s urge to retread familiar territory, to make repetition insistence, and to ridicule those (politicians, pseudo-artists, the self- righteous of the world) who use repetition and insistence as clumsy weapons to hammer home offensive opinions as if they were truths. Few, and especially few of those at the top, are exempt from his attacks. ‘Clear Beggars from Streets, says Blair,’ a newspaper headline, provides a title for one poem (“So what I want is Zero Tolerance,” it concludes, noting the slavish repetition of one ideology by another); the same phrase recurs as an epigraph to a later poem, ‘Shropshire Lads,’ itself a po-mo condensation of Housman’s poems, laments rewritten as poetic sputum for New Labour England:
When supermarkets open at 8a.m.
the lads nick double litres of Scrumpy Jack,
the lads who, hourly, try the Returned Coins slots
of phone boxes which stink of piss and fags.
Oh yes, even in Salop, they are there,
Anathemas of Tony fucking Blair.
Reading’s three consolations of “verse; viticulture; love” are at best shadowy elements of his poetic universe, which seems increasingly to reside in memory and imagination as stimulated or evoked by experience. The poetic sections that make up Marfan (2000), based on Reading’s excursion to Texas, imitate voices and accents as well as the meandering travels of the poet in search of life. “Whan ya git old ya can’t remember shit,” we’re reminded, and the poem elaborates a vision of contemporary America stitched into its own historical contradictions (“The indigenous can fuck off outa here,” one character declares), where conspiracy and paranoia vie with knowledge and information to produce surreal versions of the world. The Texan landscape itself remains somehow aloof, beyond the confusion of human existence: “About this there is no more to be written,” Reading concludes.
The central poem of this collection, at least in terms of page numbers, is ‘Alert,’ a long, pseudo-narrative fantasy of revolt based on a free translation of a poem by Armenian poet Vahé Oshagan. In the context of Reading’s wider project, it offers a summary of his themes, and of the emotional scale his poetry attains, vitriol stained with pity, hope outweighed by pain:
Together we’ll round up:
all the shyster lawyers;
all the indulged phoney artists;
all the hypocrite sky-pilots;
all the academics who spout shite;
all the slipshod tabloid journalists;
all the eighth-rate assholes who’ve contributed
to this universal fucking con-trick
we’ll round them up and exile them to hell for keeps!
By doing this
we shall seize truth, after its long absence,
be able, at last, properly to see,
touch, smell, love.
Reading’s protest, in measured, careful lines (the delicacy of that “properly to see,” its jarring grammatical propriety after the escalating rant that precedes it), continually runs the risk of becoming simplistic splutter. Sheer volume of output resists this, as does the real intensity of political anger he achieves and, largely, sustains. His poetry is a monument to the difficulty of its production; it offers its own last, repeated, insistent words:
Well, mister, as I have elsewhere remarked,
it is a fucking good job
that it all doesn’t matter.
Dirges of viols:
Reading is dead,
Reading is dead;