No 17 - Winter 2000/1
Loves to fight a battle
Peter Reading: Marfan. Newcastle: Bloodaxe, £6.95.
Isabel Martin: Reading Peter Reading. Newcastle: Bloodaxe, £10.95.
Asked in a recent interview whether he had ever felt part of a community, Peter Reading replied:
It is no virtue to be a part of a community, but it’s inevitable
that one is… I feel part of the community wherever I am – you can’t avoid it unfortunately, as Robert Frost remarks: ‘He fought a loving battle with the world’.
Frost’s line could stand, albeit precariously, as an epigraph to Reading’s new volume, Marfan. It is an inscription which the poet’s publishers would be quick to bolster; their blurb describes the book-length poem as an “unflattering but grimly affectionate portrait” of Marfa, the small Texan town on the American-Mexican border where from 1998 to 1999 Reading held the first Lannan Foundation Literary Residency.
Marfan is primarily concerned with community and communities, and with conflicting feelings of inclusion and alienation. This tension is crudely realised in the narrator’s insatiable desire to castigate the “Big-Time Art and small-town politics” of the community to which he belongs. In the opening pages the poet affords himself the epithet “Lannan’s Secret Weapon”, and later devotes much time and energy to making scurrilous attacks upon Marfa’s cultural figures and political practices:
It’s Xenophobia, but pretends to be
outraged concern that hundreds of tons of drugs
are flooding across the Mexico/US line
each year – the hatred’s in the stupid faces,
the stupid quasi-military duds,
the stupid guns of off-duty Patrolmen
in Carmen’s stuffing their porcine guts with shite.
Reading’s work has long been characterised by socio-political awareness. (See, for example, Perduta Gente, or the formerly notorious dramatic monologue ‘Cub’ in Ukulele Music.) However, the drawback here is that the narrator’s prejudice and vituperation leave no room for genuine political analysis or attention to language. To dismiss Texan fears of an influx of drugs as a mere cover for xenophobic sentiments is to falsify the perpetual and complex relation between fear and racism. Reading rejects the invitation to explore this issue or to bring any real pressure to bear on words such as “flooding”– a difficult and ubiquitous term in xenophobic discourse. (Witness the British Conservative Party’s recent talk of “bogus” asylum seekers “flooding” the country.) Instead, the poet is content to ridicule the Southern accent (“bah God, sah!, Congress better/ start a-securin-of our border, pronto!”) and descend to puerile name-calling (the American patrolmen are “fat, trigger-happy, complacent twats”). The use of a capital letter for “Xenophobia” and the later branding of the Border Patrol as the “Gestapo” reveal the poet to be as fond of easy, alarmist rhetoric, and indeed as xenophobic, as the American citizens he attacks.
Elsewhere the poem’s anti-American prejudice discards the cloak of socio-political injustice and exposes itself at the drop of a hat. This poet does not fight a loving battle, but simply loves to fight a battle. An advertisement for the forthcoming Marfa Lights Festival leads him to conjecture that the entertainment will consist of “some banjo-pluckin’ strumpet from Big Bend –/ all in all, a load of fucking chancers”. One of the many collages interspersed throughout the text includes a letter to the editor of the Big Bend Sentinel in which Reading upbraids Jeff Hubbard, the local candidate for County Judge, for the solecisms in the latter’s election poster. The poet’s sensitivity increases as the piece progresses, and this results in trivial incidents provoking passionate outbursts. Lannan’s Secret Weapon clearly has as delicate a trigger as any border patrolman’s gun.
Marfan is more successful when it turns its attention away from public life. The opening pages in particular constitute a quieter and more complex exploration of a visitor’s place in this Texan community. The poet is shown as a “solitary, voluntary exile” reading Dante in the “southwestern public library”. Passages from the Commedia describing the “maledicts” whose “desperate shrieks/ and supplicant imprecations are ignored”, contrast with the poet’s own despair and his preoccupation with “a labial lump;/ pain in the kidneys and the abdomen”. Reading’s sense of alienation is further questioned and transformed by references to a mysterious “malfortunate” who is woken by the “raucous howl” of a freight train in the “arid scrubland basin” beyond the library walls. The poet is continually drawn to characters who exist on the margins of a community, such as the “Burro Lady” who travels everywhere on her mule, and a pickup truck driver who has spent time in a rehabilitation centre and now believes the CIA is beaming signals to him. The intermittent reappearance of these characters brings not only a necessary unity to this fragmented poem, but also moments of comedy. The locals constantly assail Reading with bizarre and often pointless tales; one Lone Star drinker tells of how he “holed up with a bunch of Peccaries” in a barn:
Wall, ah wus thar for bout two hours, an than
thay high-tailed, doin Peccary stuff, ah guess.
However, once Reading ceases to rage against the world, the over-riding mood of this poem is one of grief and resignation, partly created by the poet’s frequent use of verbless sentences: “The last ebb, the dead shingle – Marfa Basin”. The most successfully sustained passages in Marfan are those in which Reading describes his visit to a Mexican cemetery. A sign at the entrance to the burial ground warns against loitering or littering, and leads the poet to observe that:
In this place idlers throng;
discarded stones, wood crosses, painted plaster,
and plastic roses faded to pinkish grey
garbage the quiet, death-sustaining slope.
Morales, Marquez, Garcia, Martinez,
Flores, Rivera, Hinojos-Hernandez…
Spiked on a Yucca sprouting from the dirt
of Maria Bartolo Villanueva,
a straw-stuffed rag doll, smiling, rosy cheeked.
The attention to detail and language, and the gentle irony which is brought to bear on the subject, make for a welcome antidote to Reading’s venomous abuse. It is regrettable that Marfan does not contain more poetry of this quality.
Isabel Martin’s Reading Peter Reading is a comprehensive survey of the poet’s work over the last quarter of a century. All twenty-one volumes of Reading’s poetry are considered chronologically, from the 1974 debut For the Municipality’s Elderly up to, and including, Marfan. Martin’s book is based on her doctoral dissertation written in German for the University of Kiel. The dissertation has been “shortened… by 100 pages” for the English version, and this has resulted in a study which operates quickly by means of suggestion rather than argument. Martin works through each volume of Reading’s verse at great speed; an idea or observation is picked up and rapidly put down again, often leaving the reader uncertain as to where it came from or to where it was leading. To take one example from Martin’s discussion of The Prison Cell & Barrel Mystery:
The words… are placed more economically than before, the
syntax is completely different for all its linear straightness, and
the stylistic level is lowered, using demotic speech and pastiche. Reading starts consciously planning the structure of poems and co-ordinates them in a new metrical arrangement: one will look in vain for dactyls in this volume; instead one encounters metres not commonly used in English. In ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Trio’ Reading realises his first original formal ideas.
Where she allows herself sufficient space and time for a sustained consideration of individual poems Martin proves a lively reader, and does much to illuminate Reading’s use of form and meter. Martin draws on a wide range of unpublished material including interviews and conversations with the poet. Her extensive knowledge of Reading’s work allows for an interesting analysis of the “fastidious intratextuality” of the more recent volumes, and a strong case is made for reading Reading in chronological instalments rather than “single doses”.
Although Martin rightly observes that the poet’s readers “either fall for or recoil from his work”, she is reluctant to engage with the criticisms of commentators or reviewers. This is all the more surprising given Reading’s fondness for using his verse for just such a purpose. Martin prefers to dismiss negative reviews as “misinformed” and impatiently sweeps aside any objections to Reading’s work:
One reviewer implied that Reading’s dramatic talent had chosen the wrong medium, as if poetry could not contain dramatic elements [...] O’Brien and Kerrigan assume that the poem exhibits ‘xenophobia’ – as if Reading had never parodied British accents, or never written his harsh anti-xenophobic poems.
Martin makes large claims for her subject’s verse, rating it among “the most important and moving poetry of the late 20th century”. If Reading is to prove worthy of such praise then the charges levelled against his poetry need to be fully acknowledged and answered.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The