‘Don’t think it couldn’t be you’: Peter Reading, Homelessness and Affect | Matthew CleggPosted: February 23, 2017
Early on a bitterly cold, January morning, I walked through Derby city centre, on my way to work. On St Peter’s Street, in the recessed doorway of Lloyds Bank, a homeless couple were bedded down together in a nest made out of dirty blankets and two zipped together sleeping bags. They were obviously huddling for warmth. A few days later, making that same journey, the scene had changed. The recessed doorway had been hosed and soaped down. You could still see the suds, draining into the gutter. On lampposts opposite were two offerings of flowers, in cellophane. I don’t know if these details were in any way connected, but it’s hard not to think so. It reminded me of a spate of articles I’d read over Christmas: articles presenting data gleaned from interviews with homeless people. This data revealed alarming figures about the number who had been attacked or verbally abused by individuals from the general populace. Many homeless people felt like they needed to stick together – not just for warmth, but for safety. It also made me think of the anti-homeless benches and anti-homeless spikes installed in cities now.
A few years ago, I read Paul Farley’s poem ‘Tramp in Flames’, the title piece of his third collection. On one level it appears to be an elegy for a dead or dying ‘tramp’ – a man cruelly doused in petrol and ignited. On another level it’s a clever series of tropes, each one mediating reality differently. The poem bears witness to a tramp in flames through various lenses. You can imagine the incident first being mediated through CCTV footage, and then through simile, metaphor, surrealism, and memory association – the slightly distancing devices of the poet. Is the poem adequate to the awful event it describes? Does it succeed in redeeming the ‘personhood’ of the dying tramp from the series of tropes? Is this one of the moral obligations of poetry? Farley’s poem offers no comfortable answer, and it isn’t affecting in the classic sense, but it does make me question the freedoms and responsibilities of art.
Peter Reading’s 1989 volume Perduta Gente also focuses on the plight of the homeless. Like Farley, Reading had a background in Fine Art. Perduta Gente employs various presentation techniques, including cut-up, montage, found material, classical lyric, and diary extracts. The book offers a continuous thread of alternating modes and perspectives. Reading’s ‘One day a lone hag gippo arrived…’ begins in the first person plural. Where Farley’s lyric ‘we’ attempts to create accord with the hypothetical reader, Reading references a real community: a group of childhood school friends. The poem dramatizes their callousness towards this woman. The first level of this is revealed by the names they use to describe her: ‘hag’ and ‘gippo’. Throughout Perduta Gente Reading deliberately employs dismissive nouns commonly applied to vagrants: ‘winos’, ‘losers’, ‘alcos’, ‘dossers’. These names keep their subject’s humanity at bay and imply all blame for their predicament rests with them.
Is Reading implicating his childhood self in this process, or is the episode dramatic monologue? The unease is deepened as the poem narrates their remorseless campaign of cruelty. When the first person singular is used in stanza two, it is only to reveal that the speaker is ‘horribly startled’ by what he sees when he pries into the gypsy’s caravan. She provokes his disgust, not his compassion. His account reduces her to a glaring eye, ‘matted hair’, a ‘withered leg’ and a stink of ‘excreta’. There is an ambiguity about the last stanza that I find poignant. Although the poem seems to be relating how a vagrant has been chased off once again, a stain is left behind marking the spot where she has been, ‘etiolated and crushed’. The adjective ‘etiolated’ is curious. What is the ‘light’ this woman lacked, or was deprived of? Does Reading mean the light of humane society? There is a degree of poetic justice that her stain ‘blighted that place, and remained.’ The speaker is not moral, but the poem implicitly holds him to account. In order not to feel complicit with the lack of humanity on the surface level of this poem, the reader’s compassion is drawn upon to fill the vacuum.
In ‘Tramp in Flames’ Farley’s subject doesn’t speak, whereas Perduta Gente is peppered with instances where the lost people articulate. ‘missiz an me inda warm inda Euston…’ is a fine example of Reading’s ‘dosser-speak’. Here we encounter a lingo that fuses drunken slur and London vernacular. These bursts from the ‘dossers’ fuse elements of both the Devils and the lost souls in Dante’s Inferno. In ‘Outside Victoria station…’ the ‘dosser’ kicking his wife and bellowing ‘fugg-bag, / fuggbagging fugg-bag’ could be one of Dante’s tormenting demons. In ‘missiz and me…’ the effect is more imploring: ‘savvy dis noosepaper see? / sonly bed we gotter nigh…’ The pun on ‘noosepaper’ is acute. It is the London property pages that this homeless couple will be wrapped in when night falls.
The vernacular passages take us deeper into homelessness: here even language is brutal and brutalised. Yet this idiom is perhaps the only one adequate to that predicament. Reading it we are sucked deeper into that world and reminded just how cruelly different it is. The painstaking lengths to which Reading goes to render this vernacular implies respect for his subjects. It also deepens the reader’s sense of encounter with another stratum. Reading’s approach is immediate and sociological. These people are in our midst, imploring us to listen. They are also on the other side of a social gulf the minute they open their mouths.
‘Tramp in Flames’ references popular culture, surrealism, history and personal memory association. The poem’s opening declares that the tropes employed are ‘heat shields for re-entry / to reality’, which invites us to believe the poem will bring us there eventually – once the heat cools. Reading also leans heavily on reference and allusion. Like ‘Tramp in Flames’, ‘Now we arrive at the front of the ruin…’ employs shifting lenses. Dante-like images invite comparison between Mucky Preece’s ‘derelict L Barn’ and a structure from the Inferno. This sense is deepened when the poem shifts its reference again, quoting directly from newspaper property pages:
Money no object to buyer of L-shaped
picturesque old barn
seeking the quiet country life
This is biting irony, offering scathing economic context. Juxtapositions of this kind are common in Reading’s work. They are a recurrent jolt to the reader’s expectations. Reading has seduced us through his command of classical reference only to offer rude awakening through found material. His command of classical metres is equally seductive. This is nowhere more apparent than in ‘Often at dusk in the birch woods beyond…’ By and large the metre is Reading’s adaptation of the Latin elegiac distich. It usually involves breaking the long line into combinations of longer and shorter lines. Enjambment often occurs on unstressed syllables, except when closing a motion of thought. In this poem stressed line endings include ‘gloom’, ‘loss’, ‘gone’ (twice) and ‘ash’ – affecting words. The metre is plangent, melancholy and mournful. It carries the burden of loss with something like dignity whilst still facing up to ugliness. I believe Blake Morrison is right to point out that ‘for all its mix of registers, [Reading’s] art aspires to the condition of music’. Whilst his use of found material and demotic language jolts and challenges the reader, his music has the affective power to open us up emotionally. When he fuses the two the effect is unforgettable.
Reading was often dismissed as somehow marginal in British poetry – a curmudgeonly maverick, beating the distich of doom. His work was even labelled as Thatcherite by some. I find this difficult to accept – as he is so often critical of heartlessness, and, certainly, I cannot find any poems that portray the invisible hand of the free market looking after society. His city isn’t an ideological separation of the worthy from the unworthy. One thread of Reading’s work was a sustained engagement with individual suffering within a sharply observed socio-economic reality. He doesn’t offer solutions, but he can witness and give voice. Most importantly, he can make us question our desire to insulate ourselves against affect. ‘Don’t think it couldn’t be you…’ is a refrain repeated throughout Perduta Gente. Reading’s work possesses urgency and a necessity that brings it close to what Joseph Conrad called ‘the destructive element’ – an element we would be foolish to think we can escape or distance ourselves from. How will contemporary poets respond to the current social and economic climate? In many ways, we live in strange and grotesque times. Five years after his death, Reading might deserve a re-appraisal. Perduta Gente will be with me as I walk through the streets between the private bubble of home, and the corporate bubble of work. Let the last words here be from Reading’s 1997 collection, Work in Regress:
From the Chinese
I donate money to a beggar;
it is not much, but he has half my wealth.
I am reminded of the sage’s words:
If the mendicant gets drunk tonight,
then I am happy also.
Perduta Gente appears in the second volume of Peter Reading’s Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 1996). An earlier blog post by Brian Lewis, ‘The Sandpit’, also reflects on Perduta Gente and themes of homelessness, precarity and shelter.
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