Books: A green and putrid land

WORK IN REGRESS by Peter Reading, Bloodaxe pounds 6.95
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The Independent Culture
Like Apemantus in Timon of Athens, Peter Reading has made it his mission in life to tell us the bad news. You could fill every newspaper every day with all the horrible things that are going on in our midst and still not come close to an appreciation of the facts - cancer and constipation, racism, greed, "rain forests voguishly razed", more yobs beating up their wives and girlfriends, "killing religions", men oafish and bestial.

"I don't make it up, you know," he once confided. "This isn't Socrates, Einstein or Bach but just the same species bloodily on the front page kicking itself into mulch."

The further bad news is that poetry is hopelessly unequipped to deal with this state of affairs. Instead of holding up the mirror to the underpass, where teenage thugs push broken bottles into a baby's face to extort pounds 3 and a wedding ring from its mother, the average poet averts his eyes and burbles about England's green and pleasant land. Reading can't quite decide which is the more putrid, the muck we call human nature or the moral and aesthetic bankruptcy of those who carry on sonneteering as though we were standing knee-deep in rose petals.

There's a kind of mad brio in Reading's maledictions which some find both salutary and exhilarating. Others detect a flailing of arms which never manage to close round one specific human event or emotion. Like the spaces between stars, disaster on this scale is too abstract and enormous to comprehend.

He has been threatening to close down the bile- factory for some time now, as his last two titles, Last Poems and Eschatological, made clear. Like Beckett's, however, the Reading voice won't shut up, even when or especially when it tells itself to. Work in Regress opens with a long list of deaths (and a salute to the poet George MacBeth) between 1946, Reading's birth date, and 1996. Why it's called "Three", and why these particular events rather than others, is hard to say. All we have to go on is a Latin tag repeated like a mantra: Sunt aliquid manes, letum non omnia finit, which translates roughly as "Ghosts and shades, don't think death will be the end of your problems".

"The Farewell" ends "the solo stroll to the end / of the platform wherefrom the sleepers / recede and recede and recede". This is stoic Roman elegiacs, with a whiff of Hardy in that clumsy but accurate "wherefrom", which jolts the mind away from the subject (death) and back to the poet's diction. "Infinite is the ill-luck / on the Olympian list" says another poem archly. Horace, Ovid, Propertius, Lucretius, Catullus are called in to add ballast to Reading's miserere.

His "Shropshire Lads" don't play up and play the game, or take in the cherry blossom, or even damn whatever brute and blackguard made the world, they just "thump each other shitless" outside the pub on a Friday night. "Say bollocks to it" is the prevailing mood. A punk Housman, then, but a scholarly one. The options seem to be either to drink wine and weep, like the soldier in "From the Chinese", or to borrow swear-words and tropes from the illustrious dead and practise cursing.

There's a confessionalist threat at the end, in "Distich", that he'll finally "do it", though whether "it" means "stop writing" or "stop living" is left unclear. No doubt the next instalment of maledictions, if there is one, will find yet more ways of repairing his despair.