Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper – Peter Reading

3rd December 2011

by Tim Dee.

The poet Peter Reading died on 17th November. I knew him for nearly twenty years and I loved him. He was a great poet and a great birdman, and consequently among the greatest bird poets though he was better known for other things. I wrote about him in The Guardian, here.

My first proper job at the BBC was as a producer on the Radio 4 arts programme Kaleidoscope (the forerunner of Front Row). In our office in Broadcasting House we kept a card index of contributors. It filled four drawers, I think. The cards were red and about 6” x 4”. This was before computers and before the Data Protection Act. As well as the address and phone number of each contributor the dates were noted of his or her appearance to discuss a book or review a film or read a poem. After each show one of the producer’s jobs was to write a few words next to the date assessing the quality of the performance the contributor had given. Kaleidoscope was mostly live in those days and it was good to know how someone who sounded fluent (in a book or when recorded and de-ummed by a studio manager) might manage when the green light went on and Paul Vaughan dangled a question with only thirty seconds to go before crashing the pips became a real possibility.

I looked up Peter Reading in the index early on in my stay. His poems had been enjoyed though they were gloomy, what he’d said hadn’t added much to his reading apparently, and he was marked as definitely BBL. Best Before Lunch. Quite a few poets were. A BBL didn’t get you banned from the programme but producers would be careful about making the call to book the boozer and if the next appearance went wrong some sterner words would mark the card and no one was likely to call again.

Peter wasn’t a reviewer; he wasn’t the reviewing type. He wouldn’t have missed the call. When I first knew him he’d not long stopped his day job as a weighbridge operator. He appeared on the radio only when he had a new book out and usually just read a poem or two with short and pointed introductions. In the BBC archive now there are plenty of his poems but very little of the writing life chitchat.

I didn’t book him for Kaleidoscope but thought his poems were more than good: he’d written about the mess of life caustically and comically but also about the difference in the hand between a greenish and an arctic warbler. No one had done this and it was wonderful to find a poet so thoroughly alive to both the pleasures and horrors that I knew.

Later, working for Radio 3, I was able to commission a few long poems and sequences from him. I had lunch with him a number of times. It always worked out that we’d finish our recordings in the morning. He’d take an early train from Craven Arms or Shrewsbury to Bristol. Every lunch he taught me a new wine: the whites offered him ‘plasma’ he wrote, and I remember and still always look out for the ferrous and earthy Mas de Gorgonnier from Provence.

One of the Radio 3 commissions marked a shared birthday, the network and the poet both turned fifty in the same year fifteen years ago. The poem, called Three, and in the bag by half past midday, was basically a list of various people who had died since Radio 3 had come on air. Basically a list, but not only that: he used a three-stressed line that gave the poem the rat-a-tat-tat of a snare drum, he sampled and dubbed old radio appearances of his own, he remembered dead poets he’d known, and he quoted Propertius: Sunt aliquid Manes: letum non omnia finit – ghosts do exist, death does not undo all things.

The phrase recurs in others of his poems. I don’t think he believed it but I think he liked getting close to it. Reading through his books since he died another touchstone came brightly from the pages. In Book V of The Odyssey Odysseus (also called Laertides) on his long journey home is shipwrecked and on an unknown island crawls beneath the knotted tangle of a wild and cultivated olive that have grown together (the botanical term is inosculated). Their fallen mixed leaves make a bed and pillow and Odysseus sleeps. In C (1984) – Reading’s masterwork, I think – the story is retold: ‘When I was a boy and read that section…I was deeply and permanently influenced. Since then the idea of such a comfortable and comforting solitary and impregnable bower has been inseparable for me from the concept of profound sweet sleep – and more…Almost every night since that time, except when drunken or erotic diversion has rendered such conceit impracticable I have snuggled into the warm bedlinen metamorphosing it to dry Sabaean insulating leaves, blanding approaching oblivion.’

In Final Demands (1988 – every title of Reading’s seems terminal) the second page of the long poem returns to the incident:

Crapulous death-fright at 3 in the morning, grim fantasizing…
Morphean, painless, idyllic expiry, easeful, Sabaean…
duvet and pillow-case metamorphose to sweet-smelling sered leaves,
thick-fallen under two olive boles grafted, canopied tightly,
such as the storm-wrecked Laertides, life-wracked, sunk in exhausted
snug at the end of Book V…and a phial of bland analgesics
(comforting rattle) and, fumous, a single-vintage Madeira,
buttery caramel fatty, the cobwebbed bottle of Bual
stencilled COLHEITA 1915 in white relief paint runes…

dreamingly crawls and his hands have now raked a litter together,
spacious and deep, for the leafage is lying in plentiful downfall,
lays him to rest in the midst of the leaves and piles them around him,
just as a man might cover a brand with char-blacked ashes,
guarding the seed of the fire for his tribe to use in the future,
so does he deeply immerse in the fall of past generations…

Finally – though there may be other references that my sad re-reading of Reading didn’t find – in Faunal (2002) we find this:
Again the Homeric dream,
Olive and Oleaster,
under which the fallen leaves are scraped
and demise commences.

Peter Reading, born July 27th 1946; died 17th November 2011