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Poetry Review: Latin tags, Levi threads

Peter Reading

Voice Box, South Bank, London

, Shrewsbury's laureate of the miseries of life without a telephone, stands in front of the Voice Box's sturdy metal lectern with the collar of his well-lived-in denim jacket turned up against the ill winds of fortunes that have dragged him down to the Smoke to read from a collection of poetry that he thought he'd never write.

Why? Because he's given up poetry at least twice in the recent past. But - alas! alack! - poetry wouldn't let him go, which explains this autumn's appearance of a slim book called Work in Regress, from which he is reading tonight.

The look on his face - a kind of gloom-freighted blankness that's likely to modulate into a scowl any second now - suggests a kind of fierce determination to get through it at all costs. He is dressed in designer proletarian - all duffed-up denim apart from that pair of well-scuffed navvy's boots, which are gently patinated with dust from some local lime pit. His hair is a bit raggle-taggle too, but the designer stubble is just so. The only thing that lets the image down is his hands, which, when he makes an expansive gesture - just once in the entire evening - shows them to be small, thin and delicate, with clean and well-kept nails. Where's the dirt, matey?

He kicks off with a snatch of Propertius in translation which begins: "ghosts do live/death doesn't finish all ...", which seems about right for a scene-setter. As he reads, the violin section in the Festival Hall adjacent rises to a particularly tortured crescendo of caterwauling. Inexplicably, one of the Voice Box's attendants pushes open the door to enable us to hear it a little better. Mr Nobody makes a swift departure. The door closes with a heartfelt sigh. Reading doesn't even glance up, being well-accustomed to life's many random miseries. When he gets to the point in the poem where Synthia, Propertius's dead mistress, accuses the poet of treacherous neglect, he suddenly starts shouting, if not shrieking, the words. He gives the poem a brief populist gloss after he has calmed down a bit: "Synthia - it wasn't her real name, of course - gave the old lad a bad time ...". He hits the metal lectern with his book as he picks it up. It tolls like a tiny passing bell.

The next gobbet of Propertius - from Bk 3, Section 8, he usefully reminds all Latin scholars twitching at the back - is about a row between a pair of lovers, and Reading reads it in his most effectively nasty pub-brawl manner, snarling, hissing through his teeth, chewing at his own words before spitting them out directly into our faces. Two men on the front row are on the edges of their seats, beaming up at him as if they're on a day out in the sun.

At the end, he gives himself a well-earned rest by slumping down in front of a black ghetto-blaster and listening to a recording of himself reading a poem written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Radio Three. The last words are in Latin, sunt aliquid manes - ghosts do live - the very words with which he began the evening. When the tape ends, Reading whispers them over again, half to himself, half to his audience. Sunt aliquid manes, sunt aliquid manes ... He is one of them, of course, a poet risen from the dead yet again, an anatomist of life's miseries, large, medium, small.