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November 18, 2011

'Now I Know What Love Is’ – In Memory of Peter Reading

Vendange Tardive grapes are left on the vine to dry and concentrate, creating exquisite dessert wines inHilbe Island the Alsace region. The term means ‘late harvest’. I do not imagine this is the last we shall be hearing from Peter Reading, not when there is no escaping what follows winter. For older poets, age might break or make you into seeing yourself and your work with more exactitude. I imagine age might feel like exile yet provide the solace of arrival. Edward Said believed the late style of creative artists ‘is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality’. Speaking of the final poems of Cavafy, Said commended ‘the artist’s mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age and exile’. Peter Reading has conducted most of his poetic career since Work in Regress (1997) in this late style. Vendange Tardive is a taut example of mature subjectivity, stripped, tellingly, of ego: ‘when there is nothing’ he writes in a Wittgenstein-like fragment, ‘eschew utterance’.

The volume opens with a modest plea: ‘For the attention of Penelope Reading (Nunc scio quid sit Amor)’, Reading acknowledging that we write – in fact, we behave - with more exactitude when, with Virgil, we know what love is and have set ourselves to serve its purpose, even when we also know love can neither save us or the world. Vendange Tardive offers the modest assurance that love and wine can console while the human world splatters about in an abyss of its own bloody making. The world is too much with us and is getting worse and worse and worse:

The rhetorical ‘How goes it, old boy?’;

the unnerving response:

‘Infinitely sad, old warrior,

infinitely sad – I’ve just heard…’.

[Untitled]

I cannot picture an oenologist becoming a nihilist unless he or she were producing plonk for some poisonous purpose. In an age of mass cultural plonk, Peter Reading’s poetry is vigilantly harvested and casked. David Wheatley has called Reading the world’s worst nihilist and he is correct. Peter Reading is too fine-tuned a technician; he is too funny a comic even at his blackest and gloomiest (he is poetry’s Eeyore of the eyesore); and he is still writing without tedium, derangement or barrel-scraping. I admire him for not stopping writing - despite or because of publishing Last Poems in 1994. There is no abdication of art’s rights in the late work of Peter Reading. His eye for the natural world, his sense for artistic detail, for order and for the beguilement of verbal pattern, vies with defeatism:

 Hilbre, winter, high tide.

Over the West Hoyle, hurl and white swash, and above,

the sky the colour of Blaenau Ffestiniog slate.

And the long-ruined sandstone lifeboat station brine-lashed,

the slipway thrashing the saline assault into spume.

from ‘Maritime’

Vendange Tardive, Peter Reading, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 56 pp., £7.95, ISBN 978-1085224-884-0

Thanks are due to the editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson, where this piece first appeared.


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