(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.
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?
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.
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.