Peter Riley

(from Poems to Paintings by Jack B. Yeats)
Music in the Train

No escape from a small country. An old man 
Stands up in the train and plays his violin. 
Ghosts pour out of it. Everyone nods, this 
Is a music to die to, knowing what you are 
Bound to and the train rattles on. 
We pay a dream tithe to the ancestral hat 
And head into the city looking for work. 
I never asked to be out of this I was never in. 
I never longed for another. Green hills out 
Of the train window, touched by cloud, 
Draw the very breath from my throat until 
The only dying left is into this line. 
Which is I suppose too a way, a rather 
Circuitous way round the hill but a way 
For all that of supposing, and launching 
Your soul into the guess, that the work you do 
When you arrive is good work, and time once 
Properly located sets all things right.


Music Night at the Old Slip Inn

Nothing less than exactitude: exactly 
a 40 degree lowering of the eyelids 
in respect of a national hope and the degree 
of emancipation that might result, exactly 
a high B-flat at the keystone of The Last Rose
lingering into a curtailed glissando
so delicate as to be unannotatable.

Sings his song, as he often has, a worker in the day. 
They listen, and the moment stands still in its 
becoming, where national is never enough, and 
the spirit of the commune tunes the incus 
to a fairer reason. Becoming what? becoming history.

Yes, this also is history, this pub-singing, that constructs 
a momentary refuge from hope, as from despair, a fragile place 
(the exact sustaining of the final cadence) a place 
of now, the very banner of the struggle. For here time sets 
all things right. And the future, with luck, might set 
a few things at any rate a good bit better than they were before.


One Remains

I would like to die lying on a hillside
In the West of Ireland one summer evening 
Crossing my legs and resting my right cheek 
On my right palm with my latest companion 
Standing beside me already wondering 
How at that age to find a new friend. I 
Like to think there are people I don’t 
Yet know who’ll be willing to ease my way 
Through that day’s work. I shall gulp 
The sunset I shall turn the slope on edge 
And one stands there, he or she, asking me 
If time sets all things right.


On Through Silent Lands

To make of the heart a question mark 
and forward artifact, a woven thing 
held close and shedding purpose 
on the ranges, slowly articulating 
resistance beyond what a life 
can speak to, the swellings of 
oppression that crown human heads 
with fear and disappointment. So the 
isolated consonants, the shreds of colour 
fleshing through the dark land —
the heart    the wish   the demand 
the geranium, half its leaves dead 
strides into the future a regal 
flurry of red and green / a good 
life in an unjust society, a difficult thing. 
What sign does the heart make 
when the shadowed limbs falter? 
                                     On through 
silent lands, crossing creeks on 
wooden footbridges, long tracks 
winding over the mountains and 
down great wooded valleys. Mud 
on my coat, sky on my hands I go, 
announced by lark on high while 
hedgehog and hare observe from their 
grassy stations. So the world has a chance. 
                                    Through it 
a traveller passes, pressing a hat 
to his chest as if the heart 
needed protection from the rainy 
convexities of the universe, 
and from the wholeness that 
burns a mind to stone. And from 
the heart’s own exclusivity. 
And thus continues for weeks over 
silent lands to the goal of speech 
many troubles beyond, to the world’s 
rebirth in kindness, knowing 
also that time (a known thing at 
day’s decline) sets (easily as river 
to sea) all things (whatever’s 
wrong with them) right. 


This Grand Conversation Was Under the Rose

The person in his/her moment supreme. Of the 
Successions of which history is the sum.
So the grand conversation can start. Art 
And poetry and all their costly trappings 
Immediately vanish for ever — there’s plenty 
Of time, no one’s making a recording, sit down 
Here and be the failure your heart’s ease knows. 
Don’t be modern, don’t be threatened—
Be just, be welcome and be generous and the earth 
Is yours for the duration. The stage is set 
Because the heart is in need, adverbs and 
Prepositions everywhere begging to be used. 
Like the surface of the earth rolling into itself

We know and have always known what this 
Gift is for, placed on our lips. It is for 
Time’s reconciliation. It is for eloquent farewells 
And that grand conversation under the rose.



Peter Riley was born 1940 near Manchester and now lives in Cambridge where he sells books. As well as poetry he writes prose about music, travel in Eastern Europe, and things in general. His Passing Measures, a selection of poems 1966-1996, appeared from Carcanet in 2000. A long poem, Alstonefield, is due from the same publisher in 2003, as is a book of Transylvanian prose sketches from Shearsman. The Gig (Toronto) issue 4/5 1999-2000, was devoted to discussion of his poetry, with a detailed bibliography.