Un mundo mejor es posible
Peter Riley, Collected Poems, Volume I and II (Shearsman Books, 2019)
One of the more notable, but less heralded, new poetry collections to be published this year, at least on this side of the Atlantic, is Peter Riley’s Collected Poems, which Shearsman Books released in two volumes. Each volume comes in at almost 600 pages. The publication includes poetry from 1962-2017.
It’s a major achievement. Not merely in length, of course, but in terms of the adventurousness of the work itself. Riley is on a number of literary maps—the British Poetry Revival, Cambridge School and so on—but none of these labels satisfactorily situates his achievement. Really this is a job for a full-length monograph, but what can be noted here is that his poetry challenges a great deal of conventional categories and conventional literary cartographies: he is a distinctly English poet but is at least as influenced by European and American poetry; he’s a poet who has assimilated modernist and postmodern poetics of improvisation, sampling and open-field composition, but who is equally at home deploying more traditional poetic technologies; a poet who makes it new while at the same time his poetry reaches back to and draws on the great breakthroughs in expression and form by the Romantics, particularly, I think, William Wordsworth, who in some of his incarnations he resembles.
Or to put the question in more formal terms: what are we to make of a poet whose poetry sits on the page in some books like Robert Duncan’s or Ezra Pound’s (Due North), in some Wordsworth’s (The Glacial Stairway) while in another, Excavations, one of Riley’s most brilliant and moving collections, combines sources and fragments in tight prose poem boxes that fuse together fragments in a new dramatic whole like The Waste Land, and like that poem, becomes an elegy to civilization itself? What to make of the challenge of a formally audacious poet who is also compelled to write about—how to put it?—the social contract of our times? One of the challenges of taking in Riley’s achievement is the challenge of doing justice to its formal range as much as his vision of modernity.
One of the through lines from the beginning of his career to the present moment—more than fifty years of writing poetry—is Riley’s fascination with place, with specific environments. Indeed, the collection is organized as much around place as it is time. From beginning to end, here is a list of places that have organized Riley’s poetry: London, Hastings, Hove, Peak District, Denmark, Llyn (Wales), Derbyshire, France, Cambridge, Yorkshire, Translyvania, Central Europe, the American West, Cuba, Greece, Hebden Bridge. These are only the major sign posts—there are other passages, crossings and returnings not represented here.
Riley’s poetry thinks broadly but when he writes about what he sees, he sees particulars. Like the Romantics, Riley brings to bear an intense awareness of place, very often nature by foregrounding the consciousness apprehending it. Riley makes the apprehension of place the drama of modernity. If the pivotal historical moment for the Romantics was the failure of the French Revolution, for Riley, it is the failure of the West in the post 1960s era to live up to the egalitarian energies and ideals of that era. Riley’s voice moves through a variety of registers, some of them not traditionally regarded as poetic, but what comes through most often is the emotional pressure of reckoning with the forces of modernity, particularly global capitalism, as it reshapes the land and constricts the lives lived on it. For example, the following passages from The Llyn Writings:
Shifting slow and vast extent viewed from the cliff
Top, so large as to raise questions talking
Of the whole of a life not just now, and never to stop
Forgetting the recent deceits of resentment.
So calm and clear a thing as not to be around when
The earth is lost to those of mere power.
This diachronic view (in verse) is joined with more contemporary ones (in prose passages):
1. Over two mountain passes to meet up with Barny at Blenau Ffestiniog
station. Already it’s raining. For Sale signs all over the town, indeed
Barny’s been round the town’s estate agents pretending to be interested in
properties and says they’re almost being given away. But who wants to
buy a corner shop for ten thousand, live here surrounded by dereliction
and go barking mad in a town with a miniature railway running through
its centre? Old slate quarries hovering over the houses, the books in the
bookshop all damp, the tired pastries in the baker’s windows. Later we
learn how these places return to their identity in bad weather, but as yet
it is dull and depressing.
Here is another prose piece, this one a meditation on St. Merlin’s Church at “7.30 p.m. 2nd October1977”:
A chrysalis clinging to a grass stalk. Foundations, lines of shaped stone,
green granite sunk into the turf. There never was any final sermon,
advice, lesson, instruction—the truth was on its way to the boundary
of the sphere and, as it were, intercepted here, and speech was made
possible. Marking the ground, leaving a grassy hump in a field with traces
of stone edging. The sun gets under the cloud on its way down the sky
and will soon settle into the sea, without the hiss heard in heroic times.
The peninsula funneled human souls to a final stadium, of which there
is nothing left.
The effort in all of these passages is to see history, whether in its more recent encroachments, or in its more distant energies, in the contemporary moment, or more accurately, in its literary rendering. The chrysalis clinging to a grass stalk becomes a metaphor for the fragility of present—the nonhuman world as well as the human—in the face of an annihilating past.
Excavations, Riley’s most “experimental” book, is made up of prose poems that collage together in high modernist fashion fragments from nineteen century archaeological reports on prehistoric burial mounds in northern England dating from the Neolithic period to early Bronze age with quotations (or what Riley calls “feigned quotations”) from old texts, most often 16th and 17th English lyrics. The result is a stunning book that with Beckettian exactitude and drama, reflects upon the existential verities of human loss and death:
folded in river clay; the boat on the hilltop /lying East-West facing
upwards the right hand on the right shoulder, the left arm across the body
gradients of sleep, to die, to dream, to mean—beyond his feet to the East
a row of three small circular pits or stake-holes dawn trap as the compass
arc closes southwards and the heart is secured by azimuth, all terrors past:
She only drave me to despair/dead child, cancelled future in a satellite
cloak hovering to SE. Yet the loss, folded into history, sails adroit in the
clay ship over commerce and habit, bound for (to) this frozen screen
where [cursive] we don’t live but do (love) say, and cannot fail.
As the book unfolds, these themes are extended to take into consideration others, especially connection, conquest and commerce; an earlier review of mine of the book treats these issues more fully: https://freeversethejournal.org/issue-7-winter-2004-jon-thompson-on-peter-riley/
If you are interested in Excavations, it should be read alongside Adam Piette’s brilliant review, which be found in Blackbox Manifold. Piette captures in the style of his review the threnody of the funeral mounds and the existential drama of Excavations itself: http://www.manifold.group.shef.ac.uk/issue21/AdamPietteBM21.html
In Riley’s poetry there is always this dialogue between the past and the present. In Volume II, in a collection originally published as A Map of Faring, Riley’s collection moves from Derbyshire to a Romania and central Europe and then Western Europe. The Romania the collection represents has been abandoned by the emptiness of both communist and capitalist promises. Here is “The Crowd Yelled Out for More,” which conjoins Romania’s history with the poet’s own:
Suddenly, in a cellar bar in Oradea badly heated in late October,
coats on waiting for dinner, a few young people drinking beer
and the Romanian edition of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire
on the screen behind us with nobody paying any attention.
They should know, the uselessness, of riches to poverty.
I realized what was coming out of the speakers was A Whiter
Shade of Pale, Procol Harum, 1968. I was alone again, Andrew
Crozier was leaning over the billard table in a pub in St.
Leonards. I was recently married, I was doing summer language
teaching. The future was something completely different from
what we now inhabit. It was all over, the death-dealing state,
blasting the necessary outsider, the furious rage that maintains
vast privilege, it was finished, we had hope we had normality
before us. I was back in my cell, quietly singing the nonsense.
As we’ve seen, the dialogue in Riley’s work between the present and the past goes all the way back to the Neolithic Era, but in A Map of Faring (renamed in the Collected as Two Setts and a Coda), Riley addresses himself to a more immediate past: the fall of Communism, and behind that, the the world Nazism made and the world it left behind in two particularly beautiful poems. First, “Terezín”:
The world stands. Visitor, reader,
be quiet, learn to die. Lover of sleep,
learn to fall into a small space
with a plaque on the wall saying: HERE…
This place, this grassy ground where it swells
here against the wall. Was brought here.
And forty thousand more, one by one.
Sang, danced, acted here. Worked,
as people must. Killing work. Nobody
is disqualified from the duties compassion
exacts, nobody is privileged by this suffering
and the vastness of resource it sets in motion.
Vast Europe, breaking circuit at a small
garrison town, the mountains in the distance.
The mountains in the distance, breaking Europe
across a small child’s arm. The small child left
a crayon drawing and what the drawing said was,
Agree to suffice, not to surpass, agree to be
the actual person, nothing else will break
the circuits of plunder. The drawing was of
two beds and a coat hanger.
The grace with which Riley addresses the catastrophe of the Holocaust is matched in the collection by the devastatingly understated poem “Room 40, Früstückspension Caroline, Gudrunstrasse 138, Wien 9” which examines the legacy of the war and the way its aftermath has been sanitized and allowed to slip into the present:
The courtyard tree swaying in the wind.
If the business is still going strong
how can you bear to die? If the space
owned is cleansed of failure, the walls
impeccably bare, the one tall tree reaching
beyond the courtyard roofs and so
catching the wind, how can anyone
bear to live? What is there to forget?
As if every block didn’t proclaim a history,
the pink arches, the eagles with straight wings,
the world’s savagery always ready.
You are rest and peace.
Riley isn’t a nihilist, but there is a sense that “the signs of hope,” as he calls it elsewhere, have to contend with a world which doesn’t permit justice to become universal. This struggle to hold out hope in a fallen world becomes part of the dramatic tension of Riley’s Wordsworthian poem, “The Glacial Stairway,” which reenacts a trek over a mountain pass in the Pyrenees that Riley took as a teenager with a group of boys led by a school teacher almost fifty years previous. Nature here is consoling and instructive, but it isn’t seen to possess the same degree of healing that Wordsworth confers upon it. Here is the opening to “Part One” of “The Glacial Stairway”:
This is me 48 years ago, this is 48 of my years, the same valley
the same sky’s water crashing down the gully the same
striving uphill, taking the strain, bearing the weight.
48 years something happened in the world, what was it?
Intentions conjoined and dispersed, soldiers died.
Then I was young and in company, now we tread the steep paths together,
two experiences conjoined. And we note as we did not then
the flowers all around and the valley full of the sound of falling water,
the fleeting hopes as the air opens before us. We form from this air
the names that stand behind us: birds, flowers, insects, villages,
everything we know, and the dead of seven wars.
To walk with thought in the very muscle, of answering, thought of
Un mundo mejor es posible, taking the strain of disappointment by the thrush’s
peal of pain in the dark wood. From which we emerge into the open valley
and thought of a possible speech, one that must be true, and open, and must
do good, where good can be done, and where’s that? So rarely here.
Clear river shooting over stones, where is our power zone?
All of the present and all of the past, good-bye. Ahead of us
our strength is trailing away. My eyes hurt, and legs and back,
and the news places a sciatica across my frontal dream, a burning thing,
a mask. We look up to the concealed seeds, the invisible day stars
as the ground plunders our energy and the path vanishes into a stream.
Vanish with it into 48 years, excavate the air for signs of hope.
There are such: the behaviour of a beetle, the communal will
when its free to breathe. Grass, stones, help me will you—think!
What’s the answer, what are we going to do with the world?
We’re going to forget it. And it us.
This is not classic blank verse, but the pulse of it can be felt as Riley summons a landscape
challenged to live up to the hopes of the past—Riley’s past, but also, the dreams of the
Enlightenment, indeed the dreams of Wordsworth and the Romantics. In “The Darkling Thrush,”
Hardy hears an aged thrush in desolate circumstances creating an “ecstatic sound” expressing
“Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew/And I was unaware” but here the thrush expresses only the
“peal of pain in a dark wood.”
Riley’s vision is ultimately tragic—we’re going to forget the world “And it us.” But against that trans historical bleakness, there are, as his poetry acknowledges, communities of support working to make a better world possible. It is true that nothing ultimately endures, but in the here-and-now,
there is also celebration. Light. Art. Music. Dancing. Song. Solidarity. In songs fashioned out of
passion and feeling that isn’t facile but feels hammered and torqued by experience, Riley’s poems
cross boundaries and borders of all kinds. They are poems that call for readers to move outside
their communities of interest into a wider space defined less by tradition than traditions—and the possibility of making new ones. It’s a space of possibility. Against the forces of darkness and
destruction, they invite us there. His poetry deserves the widest possible audience.
Jon Thompson is the editor of Free Verse: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry & Poetics and Free Verse Editions which in 2005 published Peter Riley’s A Map of Faring.