by Peter Reading
Paperback; 56 pages;
ISBN: 978 1 85224 884 0
Vendange Tardive grapes are left on the vine to dehydrate and to concentrate their sugars, creating dessert wines in the Alsace region. The term translates as “late harvest”; in it, Peter Reading seems to have found a master metaphor for his recent work.
In many ways, if you’ve read any of the fruits of Reading’s late harvest, you’ve read Vendange Tardive. Reading is now truly a poet of the Late Style, the same themes smacked up against again and again, with ecocide, poetry, “tabloid shite”, friendship, and death returned to incessantly in search of a new insight, a way out never found.
The collection’s longest poem brings this into stark relief. ‘Maritime’ is a variation on the theme set by the longer ‘Laertidean’ from 2002’s Faunal. Both circle round Homer, though ‘Maritime’ is braver, containing two playful, revelatory free-translations from the Odyssey:
… there were flesh shreds
flanched on the raw rock.
Thus does impartial Poseidon apportion us
infinite big shit.
More importantly, both also contain the same birdwatching trip to Hilbre island, where Reading’s companion, “Donahue (thirty years dead) ? observed that he wouldn’t forget this day till he died”. Vendage Tardive shifts this scene from a prose poem to two tight quintains, but little else is changed.
However, while ‘Laertidean’ ends with its speaker regaining “mine own Penelope”, ‘Maritime’ ends with Poseidon’s infinite big shit. Vendange Tardive’s sweetness is in evidence elsewhere, so Reading can afford a few dark notes. If collections previous to this – especially the mercilessly bleak -273.15 (2005) – showed Reading as full-on prophet of the end-times, now we see the Armageddon in full flow, with no option for its observer but to sit back and enjoy a cold white. And so he does: the title poem, for example, sees Reading drinking a Burgundy with a “greenish gold meniscus, ? faint smoke/melon palate” on the morning of his 62nd birthday. Reading is no piss-artist though, and drink for him is, above anything, the oil of friendship: the burgundy comes from one Dr.Greppin, and he also enjoys a Clicquot from the poet Alan Jenkins, given as a gift for Reading’s “bacchanalian nuptial day”. And in the latest in a now fifteen-year long series of warm, witty elegies to another poet, Gavin Ewart, there is great comfort in seeing “a lone craft […] launched ? into the sable current” of death leaving from the Duke’s Head pub in Putney.
There is a sense too of these poems having been left to dry a little on the vine. One of the most striking aspects of the volume is the virtual disappearance of Reading’s own unique voice: pare away the allusions and quotations, the names (of people, places, wines), the fragments of found texts hacked into verse, and there’s not much left. Reading’s art is very much now one of Beckettian spareness hidden beneath Joycean abundance. This is used to an advantage, though: in his new capacity for reduction and omission, Reading sees the opportunity to revise and correct where before he , and others, were wrong; Reading has, indeed, always been an ethical poet at heart.
This is particularly evident in Vendange Tardive’s steadfast refusal to swallow Classical literature whole. In one short vignette witheringly named ‘Fabulous’, Triptolemus, taught agriculture by Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, is recast as a kind of ancient-world Bob Geldof:
he traversed the globe, regaled
the Third World with grain…
What would his carbon footprint be? Similarly, in one of his Odyssey translations in ‘Maritime’, Reading tellingly balks at one particular episode. In the section from Book V that he translates, Odysseus is caught in a storm, losing the raft that Calypso gave him. In Homer, he is saved by Leucothea, who tells him to cast away his clothes and the remainder of his raft (in Ezra Pound’s translation in the Cantos, “get rid of paraphernalia”) and trust her magic shawl to bring him to safety, which it does. This section is completely passed over by Reading. In an age of environmental collapse, it seems a little irresponsible to encourage your hero to dump things in the sea.
Vendange Tardive concludes by considering Deepwater Horizon. In a collection so full of frightening statistics (“4 degrees Celsius up, ? 40 years on”), Reading can still be most effective when he tackles the kind of numbers he is most famous for – metre:
“Poor flackering, oilèd seafowl – who can know
what suff’ring you may have to undergo?
[BP, BP, BP, BP, BP…]
Reading’s grimly ironic iambs speak best of his project. Poetry is useless to a world gone to pot, but it can alert us to and distract us from the encroaching darkness in equal measure.