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This review is taken from PN Review 51, Volume 13 Number 1, September - October 1986.

VOICES OFF Peter Levi, Shakespeare's Birthday (Anvil) £2.95 pb.
Gavin Ewart, The Young Pobble's Guide to His Toes (Hutchinson) £5.95 pb.
Peter Reading, Ukulele Music (Secker & Warburg) £3.95 pb.
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Peter Levi's Shakespeare's Birthday forms a companion volume to a collection reviewed in these columns last year, The Echoing Green (PNR 40, pp. 63-4). Both works are composed of three six-part elegies - if we use the term 'elegy' loosely; perhaps, because of the length of these poems, and their sextuple structure ('Elegy' is classically defined as 'mournful, meditative, and short without being ejaculatory'), it might be more correct and helpful to say that the attitude of each poem is elegiac, lamenting a known death as well as that 'general sense of the pathos of mortality' (Encycl. Britt. 8, 14th edition). The work in Shakespeare's Birthday, like that in the former volume, centres on the deaths of three of Levi's close personal friends, and the overall structure of both works is almost identical: both have as centrepiece a poem that begins and ends in refracted religious experience, and both conclude by articulating the 'courage of the suicide' in unconsolation: 'The pale sky hangs in thin, exhausted trees:/no more scene-shifting, only a bare stage,/disease of mind, the last day of your life'.

What impresses me most about Peter Levi's work here is partly a matter of diction, partly a matter of controlling the tone he takes towards his subject-matter. It cannot be easy to sustain middle-length meditations like these while avoiding the soupy effect repetition of words such as 'sleep', 'sea', 'ash', 'poem' and 'soul' sometimes has. But Shakespeare's Birthday is neither a collection of tearful epitaphs nor ...


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