Reviews

Faunal by Peter Reading

John Sears

His misanthropy is always legitimised by a political motivation (in the case of this book, a kind of anarchic eco-awareness), so it never quite veers into the ranting to which it nevertheless approximates.

Faunal

Publisher: Bloodaxe Books
Length: 80
Price: £7.95
Author: Paul Reading
UK publication date: 2002-05
Amazon

Peter Reading's new volume of poems opens with a quote from Charles Darwin: "We will now discuss in a little more detail the struggle for existence." Reading's readers over the past thirty years will be aware that his poetry has never done anything else, and that Darwin's 'struggle for existence' refers here not merely to the world of nature but also to society, Reading's perennial theme and target.

Faunal, as its title suggests, is in larger part a book of poems about animals, or more specifically about Reading's real or imagined experiences of the beasts of the earth, and of the most powerful beast of all, humanity. The poems are peppered with Latin names which function as tags marking the animal world as the property of the linguistic universe constructed by people, and Reading's main attention here is to the ways in which people interact with animals, usually to the detriment of the latter.

This gives these poems an edge which is both polemical (again a familiar Reading trait) and, at times, instructive. Reading is a poet who wears his emotions on his sleeve, investing a deal of righteous anger and outrage in conducting his verbal vendettas against the stupidity of humanity. His misanthropy is always legitimised by a political motivation (in the case of this book, a kind of anarchic eco-awareness), so it never quite veers into the ranting to which it nevertheless approximates. At another extreme, Reading is often capable of moments of intense power, aesthetically and ethically shocking and metrically stunning, as in the translated Old English of 'Reiterative':

"Marvels are many, mankind among them who navigates oceans,
driven by stormy south-westers, making way through the billows
and surges that threaten to drown and engulf his laborious progress."

Most of the poems here are short and controlled in rhythm and tone, Reading favouring brief stanzas like the Haiku (in 'They sprawl around the pool . . .') to present his observations and comments in concentrated forms. In the past, he has experimented with much longer and more ambitious structures (the 100 100-word sections of 1983's C, for example); here we are given enough material to see the point of the argument, and enough space to mull it over afterwards. For example: 'Those Alligator Mississippiensis', Reading tells us,

'delicately copulating in a lagoon
in Aransas, south-east Texas,
their fondling, fumbling under
the surface with sensual claws
and jaws, the joyous writhing
needs neither intellectual
nor moral smartarse envoi.'

The poem describes its object, and its experience, as briefly as possible before launching its attack which is couched in terms of Reading's own attitude to the redundancy of another possible response. This in turn is made ironic by the implicitly pretentious final word of the poem, as if Reading is fighting a further battle with his own desire to intellectualise his experiences.

Peter Reading is, nowadays, a poet slightly grudgingly accepted into the canon. Recent books by Neil Roberts, Sean O'Brien and Antony Thwaite have discussed his work; Isabel Martin's definitive Reading Peter Reading has marked out in detail the scholarly territory; and Bloodaxe have already (in 1995 and 1996) published his two-volume Collected Poems, bringing together 18 volumes of poetry published over the previous quarter of a century, with five further volumes published since. This is a remarkable rate of productivity, made partly possible by Reading's willingness to rework and retry his central themes, styles and experiments.

For he is above all an experimental poet, playing with the formal traditions and rhythms of English in liberating ways. Reading has almost single-handedly demonstrated the possibilities of different metrical forms in English, and of the production of works which are densely, complexly interrelated to each other. A little later in Faunal, having witnessed the amorous alligators, we come across 'That Nine-banded Armadillo',

"(Dasypus Novemcinctus)
scuttling into the brush
and Prickly Pear of a pathside
in Aransas, south-east Texas,
requires no fancy moral
or intellectual envoi."

We're on safari with the poet muttering in our ear about how disgusting our fellow safari-goers are, with occasional gasps of wonder at the beauty of the natural world. When a flock of parakeets appear on 'Beethovenstraat', Reading celebrates the "epiphanic event" with "Ein ander Amstel, alstublieft". The experience is sometimes a bit like being with a drunk – the same one-track, repetitive conversation, verging always on some kind of unpredictable violence.

Reading's world is a world in which repetitive, avoidable violence, suffering and pity predominate, like watching endless, specially selected newsreels demonstrating the hopelessness of modern human life. At the same time there's a redeeming cleverness here, making itself evident in moments of sharp humour, sarcastic asides, and in the ultimate salvation of formal dexterity, the lucid purity of rhythmic language and the poet's ability to make us think about ourselves, and specifically about our responsibilities to the world being described.

No one is innocent in Reading's eyes, least of all Reading himself. He shows us this in the tiny poem called '[Untitled]':

"In the library
all seem to have some purpose.
I, per contra, plot
a visit to the NatWest,
followed by intemperance."

Again, drunkenness seems to offer momentary relief, until we recognise the sly insinuation of our own moral pomposity (what's he doing in the library in the first place? Why is the visit to the bank plotted? Why 'intemperance', with all its self-accusing moralistic undertones?).

Reading is ultimately too clever to be pinned down to any particular set of values. The range and virtuosity of Faunal suggests a poet in full flow, sure of his themes and of the machinery he has to hand to address them. If he is at times heavy-handed (the long list of derogatory terms which opens 'Neighbourhood Watch', for example, and the same poem's failure to broaden its reference outside its specific political context), this is the poet's response to the heavy-handedness that really counts – humanity's willingness to brutally exploit and destroy the fauna of the planet, including members of its own species. Poetry, for Reading, is always an act of defiant creation in the face of this relentless truth.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


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