Thursday, July 17, 2008

Peter Reading's mean streets

Perduta Gente means Final Demands and is Peter Reading’s fourteenth book of poems since 1970. So it is positioned about halfway through Reading’s oeuvre. This story of England’s dispossessed is woven into a sort of apocalyptic narrative that feels like middle class voyeurism when read from the comparative security of one’s own home. A perusal of the accompanying notes next to the poems would seem to indicate that Reading spent some time observing or listening to the yarns of some of the “old hands” living on the street. According to Isabel Martin in the introduction to Peter Reading: Collected Poems 1970-1984, Reading has a talent for eavesdropping and can mimic a wide variety of spoken registers. So conceivably he could observe or mingle without actually having to doss down with his subjects, who he terms as a legion of the “bankrupted, batty [and] bereft” whose beds he symbolises as a “huddle of papers and rags in a cardboard spin-drier carton”. Meanwhile, we carry on by as though nothing is wrong is because “that is what we [British] are good at”, Reading writes.

Perduta Gente has no page numbers, which implies that it is meant to be absorbed in its entirety, not to be dipped into. It can be read in less than a couple of hours. Isabel Martin writes that Reading’s favourite literature is eighteenth and nineteenth century novels, which would help explain Reading’s comparison with Dickens. Reading apparently got up close enough to his sleeping subjects to read what was written in the newspapers they were wrapped in to stay warm. Or perhaps that was simply an artist’s imaginative focus at work. Whatever it was, it worked well:

Newspaper, wrapped around the torso between the
Fourth and fifth jerseys
(night attire for doing a skipper in icy December
under the Festival Hall),
carries a note to the Editor, from ‘Ex-Soldier of Telford’ ...

Towards the end of the book, Reading turns his gaze directly to the reader, warning us of our potential vulnerability:

And don’t think it couldn’t be you:
grievously wounded veteran of the Battle of Bottle,
jobless, bereft of home, skint,
down in the cold uriniferous subway ...

There’s no getting away from the misery, but by offering these poems to us, Reading is doing a public service, firstly by keeping a huge social problem to the fore, and secondly, by warning others not to fall victim to it. For some respite I flick over to the online edition of the New Zealand Herald and read of the lonely death of Brent Andrew Beattie. ‘The 38-year-old father of two died while living alone under a footbridge on the edge of Hagley Park in central Christchurch,’ the Herald reported. Beattie had lived under the bridge for at least six months and it was almost a month before anyone even noticed that he had died. A fireman had found Beattie’s decomposing body in a crouching position with his knees drawn up to his abdomen surrounded by glue and methylated spirits containers. His mother had indicated she might attend the coroner’s hearing but did not show up. The only people who were there was the coroner, a court registrar, two policemen and a reporter (NZ Herald, 17/07/08).

There is something unnerving about the crouching position the fireman found Brent in. It is as if he simply gave up on life one Christchurch night, and, resting his head on his knees, froze into a macabre statue. For days on end he stayed like that, unnoticed.


Kathmeista said...

Brent Beattie's death certainly serves as a local exemplification of Reading's poetry. How easy it would be for us to say "Oh but he's talking about England, that stuff doesn't happen here." Unfortunately it does, not to the same extent perhaps but that's not a good reason to turn a blind eye.

I have to admit that I really don't enjoy reading these kinds of poems, but I do appreciate them. Being forced to face the underbelly of our society is a prompt into some kind of action, even if it is only making the 0900 phone line donation to the Auckland City Mission. There can be the danger when you're involved in the high culture of literature and the arts in general to get your head stuck in the 'beauty cloud', blissed out in an artistic head space. It's not a bad thing, of course, but writing like Peter Reading's reminds us that, oi, there are some other things that need looking at and commenting on and they're down here in the gutter.

Jack Ross said...

"Per me si va tra la perduta gente / Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate."

This is the famous inscription above the gates of the city of Dis in Dante's Inferno:

"By me go in amongst the lost people / Lay down all hope, you that enter here"

I like your analogy with the death by fire, Gregory -- very appropriate. I still think there's a lot more to be said about the form of Reading's poetry, though. What precisely is the narrative of the poem, and how does one deduce it from so many mosaic fragments?