These poems by Peter Levi are his first general collection since Shadow and Bone ten years ago. He calls them after the short poem `Reed Music' and they have an elegiac resonance which belongs to that title. Some of the poems are indeed elegies, affectionate and sensible rememberings of friends. Other poems are leave-taking from loved places and times and earth itself, beautiful, still changing and departing. Others, usually shorter poems, are sharp with childhood recollection, now perhaps understood as not before.
For all these penalties, what was the crime?
Innocent, individual happiness
raining down gently on the naked skin,
and long maturing, gummy essences
rinded in fruit distilled by afternoons,
the apple, crisp and cold and slow as dawn,
the sun drowned upwards into golden light
then the green alterations of all things,
the tree of life withering to knowledge
Or the half mocking bravado in 'Retirement'
Jeer at the world spinning so fast away
with all its dizzy rhetoric of delight,
just the flare of a spent match at midnight
when the bored shadows hang and hardly play.
The spirit of Paul Valery is perceptible, not only in the fine translation of 'Le Cimetiere Marin' but it is best of all to hear again a voice that has sounded over many years in poems of great range. We become aware of depths and, unexpected truths, and at the same time the quick accurate notice of the idiosyncrasies of people and of things; what makes them most themselves and no other, what it is to be tree, hedge, heron, creekwater. There is here an intensification of the visual, transfixing its truth and reality
of all the year's grass this is the greenest
caught by one finger of the falling sun,
There is instant recognition though the means may be unexpected.
I am ashes, content
to watch the motions of the glittering tide
like silver paper crinkling into light
of half lines: of swans, 'the buzz and whirr of them'
a kind of life
untrammelled and untaught
just medicined with grief.
In an earlier collection Rags of Time, Peter Levi put together a number of elegies of great beauty, especially perhaps that for Denis Bethell which recalls a magical night-long walk from Oxford to London, which he describes in prose in Flutes of Autumn written when Denis Bethell was still alive. So there are conversations with old friends, recently lost, like the lines For Alan Hancox in which he lives again warmed by memory
Brave, ashen-faced old bookseller and friend,
whose shop was dark and like a mind at peace,
lived in, full of surprises, unfinished;
down there we talked the afternoons away,
death was our subject, and we welcomed it,
but looking back I see nothing but life.
These surely keep company with those other old friends 'who tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky', and here are equally moving elegies, especially the lines 'For Angus Maclntyre', who is affectionately and painfully recalled (with hat and line) moving from a personal to general truth.
There is a wildness in the eyes of youth
that terrifies me now though I nourished it,
there is a wildness in the eyes of age
savage as eagle's eyes, prophetic, mad
and full of rage to bring down fire from heaven
and leave this island cinders in the fog
that now is green and the grey seal visits
and the big sea-otters swim in the loch.
There is a wildness hidden like humour
fed from a salty spring, strong on the tongue,
which is the highest attribute of man:
by that wild spirit he endures his fate,
subversive, consequential, unheroic
as common as thistles in a cowfield.
These are poems that one needs to dwell on, that give their fuller meaning to a meditative silence; one especailly, 'For Easter' (1995) is a nearly perfect poem which cannot be quoted because it needs to be read whole, to be accepted in its quiet sobriety. 'Indian Summer' is a longer poem of greeting and leave-taking in which the poet, not himself by any means an old man enter the lives and perfections of old men. Nowhere I think, outside the Chinese poets, is this so feelingly and memorably done.
One bird whistles and the field-fruit is ripe,
memory is confused into a heap
and everything in nature seeks for rest:
birds in the hedges, berries in the bush,
the vixen howling in the nightfall hush:
I had not thought life's ending was this feast.
Old men wander through the grey afternoon
over rough grass as the dewfall comes on
at one with birdflight threading through midair
and fugues of jackdaws in the ragged trees:
old men take time to notice things like these
and minutes to get up out of a chair.
From a poem for the 'Time of Day' (Gillan Creek) comes the line 'the self-delighting descant of the sea'few poets today would be brave enough to let words sing like this.
The last poem in Reed Music is a translation from Paul Valery, 'The Graveyard by the Sea', a great poem which had engaged Peter Levi already in the eighties. He tells us that he is dissatisfied with this translation, but it is a remarkable act of sympathy in sound as in sense
Maigre immortalité noire et dorée
Consolatrice affreusement laurée
Qui de la mort fais un sein maternel,
Le beau mensonge et la pieuse ruse!
Qui ne connaît, et qui ne les refuse,
Ce crane vide et ce rire éternel!
Thin immortality black and gilded,
Consoler with the terrible laurelled head,
And death a mother's breast for which we feel,
The noble die, and the religious ruse,
Who does not know them, who would not refuse
That empty skull and that eternal smile?
The translation contains the original poem in all its odd beauty.
Mere Reed Music may not make itself heard in the rush of the Underground or on some vast stage, but where there is opportunity and the will to listen there are marvellous rewards. The colour of the leaf changes when autumn comes and we see it in slow motion happening before the inner eye, the eye that possesses it for ever.