Issue 7 – Winter 2004 – Jon Thompson on Peter Riley

The Dream of the World


Peter Riley, Excavations
East Sussex: Reality Street Editions.
2004, 216 pp.

Reviewed by Jon Thompson



Excavations consists of a set of interrelated prose poem meditations on a group of pre-historical burial mounds in the north of England that date back to the early Bronze Age. The book weaves the precise—and unexpectedly poignant—language of nineteenth-century archaeological reports of the excavations of these mounds with fragments from mainly Elizabethan lyrics and Riley’s own wide-ranging reflections upon history, identity and mortality. The result is a complex, linguistically dense, richly-textured collection which has a kinship to high modernism—The CantosThe Waste LandBriggflats and Beckett’s late prose all stand as precursors—but in Excavations Peter Riley has created something different, new and important. He has found a way to reinvent the collage poem of the modernist period, to make it new for the twenty-first century, responsive to a new genealogy of history and a new locality.

About half way thorugh the book Riley offers a commentary upon his interpretation of these ancient funeral mounds:

I conceived the idea that in this art of funerary
ceremonial the opportunity of a death was taken
as the occasion of a total theatre, of which the
final disposition left in the earth was the
denoument, of which the excavator finds a
fragile and usually over-written map. So it was a
language peculiar to its occasion, grounded in 
finality but responding to a history. Looking in
that light at these two tumuli, neighbors to each
other on high ground near Sherburn, I saw them
as essays on war. In them the human image is
abstracted, fragmented, disordered and replaced,
domestic referents are intrusive and reverted, 
distance is disoriented and brought back to an 
enclosive limit. The person is separated, figured,
and amalgamated. And all these statements are
stressed in an echoic but varied duplication 
between the two mounds so that they cannot be

The “total theatre” of these mounds becomes a threnody to loss-to the lost age of the Bronze Age civilization that created them, but also to the other ages voiced in the poem—the Elizabethan era, the nineteenth-century, even the contemporary moment. Framed in the context of past epochs, the present moment is seen as essential fragile and ephemeral: the typical gesture of these poems is to contract the drama of life into the moment of death, or the performance of death in the disposition of the remains of the bodies and the fragments from the world that they lived in—as well as those appropriate to the world that they would be entering after life. As in Beowulf, everything in Excavations exists under the sign of doom, life ends in the diminishment of death, in decay and decomposition. Yet while these poems affirm the centrality of death in life that appears to be a fundamental part of this martial civilization, they are equally taken by the care with which the dead were prepared for the afterlife. Ultimately, this twinned interest in the dead leads to one of the chief preoccupations in the book: the ways in which the ravages of death are symbolically countered by art, whether the art of funeral interment or the art of singing about death itself in poetry.

The poems in the first half of the collection are single stanza prose poems, a dense mass of words hewn out of several civilizations, and sometimes several different languages. The massed quality of the poetry, with their abrupt juxtapositions, different registers and ambiguity of referents produces the effect of foreignness: that is, the reader is made to confront a foreign culture, or more accurately, a succession of by-gone cultures in a way that makes the poetry itself archaeological in character. In his notes, Riley explains that italics usually indicate language lifted from the nineteenth century archaeological records and bold face usually indicates quotation from sixteenth or seventeenth century English lyrics. The following is the first poem in the collection:

the body in its final commerce: love and despair for a 
completed memory or spoken heart / enclosed in a small
inner dome of grey/ drab-coloured [river-bed] clay,
brought from some distance and folded in, So my journey
ended moulded in the substance of arrival I depart and 
a fire over the dome and a final tumulus of local topsoil
benign memorial where the heart is brought to witness
the exchange: death for life, absence for pain, double-
sealed, signed and delivered—under all that press
released to articulate its long silence, long descended o
tensed wing / spread fan /drumming over the hill

However absent or fragmented the human image is, it remains the focus of the lyrical voices that make up the poems. In Riley’s imagination, the body is essentially funereal , a thing in itself—but one that at the same time betokens a lost culture. Despite the inescapable alienness, the alterity, of these dispersed bodies, what attracts sympathy is their recognizable humanity, the way the bodily remains of a mother oriented around that of her infant, or the placement of a couple in a single mound suggests an intimacy that endures now across millennia.

In Excavations, the preoccupation with the past is in part an exploration of the border between the unknowable and the known, and the poems conclude that what is unknowable is a much larger territory than that which is known. We possess relics of the past—shards, bodily remains, weaponry, plates, bits of cloth—but what they meant, how they contributed to the weave of that culture, that life, cannot be fully be known:

[…] the deposit of ashes, also aligned East-West, was
two and a half feet long, nearly the length of a tightly 
crouched inhumation 
/ unlimbed, unsexed, stuck in the
crack between days/ but something performed, or
learnt, leaves a sign,–of what, sign which way? I don’t
know, it led to a bone on the shore in a blazing noon.
And here, (you/she/it) who doesn’t exist at all, beside
me, beckoning or tilting to affirm, again and again, the
head bowed over me, the long hair falling to the sides of 
my face. (Poem 103)

In this way, Excavations is as much an elegy to the present, and its presumptions of knowledge, as it is of the past.

The “I” in the poem above is a fugitive presence, as it is in most of the poems. Sometimes it appears to be a contemporary speaker who views the records of the long dead with interest and sympathy; sometimes the “I” appears to be the imagined, recreated voice of the person who has long since perished, the individual uncovered by the nineteenth-century archaeologists J.R. Mortimer and William Greenwell in various tumuli. The effect of the poems, however, is to merge those two voices into one disembodied voice, Tiresias-like, who surveys past and present with the same (dis)passionate eye. Riley is well aware that what is seen is in part what is created: “A new created world springs up.” The seen world is the created world that any observer, any writer, makes. The acknowledgement does not diminish the existing world, for in its ephemerality and distance, it beckons in all of its beauty, pathos and bathos, beyond human grasp. What is finally celebrated, then, in Riley’s book is the human voice itself, and the human will to recreate the world in material terms, whether in bronze or language, in the face of certain death : “all that/heaped suffering unspeakable but not unsingable” (Poem 42).

One of the central problems Excavations confronts is the problem of representation itself. How is the elegist to elegize the individuals—selves—lost to time? How is the poet to elegize the unknowable? Riley resolves this problem by suggesting that although the mound people are not identical to us, we share the same human fate of disintegration and erasure:

To burn, or bury, or both, a life pursu’d with doubt, 
Enjoy’d with feare that <<died before its day>> | to cancel
all the detail, and the self becomes a thing, point or 
capsule small heap at centre head nowhere facing
nothing, speech fermenting in the chrysalid, where
(and) sorrow shall cease. (Poem 73)

Excavations is fascinated by death, but it is fascinated at least as much by the question of how death is seen, how the dead are seen, how they become alien objects in human consciousness. In this theater of death and witness, many poems anatomize the play between fear and love , revulsion and attachment, that this drama enacts in its audience. Yet the effect is not sensational, a “shock effect”; if anything, it is more akin to Brecht’s notion of theater as “alienation effect”: the border between “us” and “them” collapses. The ‘total theatre” of the tumuli , and the “total theatre” of the disheveled language of the poems, disorient our sense of what it means to be human in an object world. It is not just that the poems offer a witness to another epoch; rather, they push against that sense of the completeness and fullness of rationalistic identity. If “here” is linked grammatically to “(you/she/it) who doesn’t exist at all” (Poem 103), the reader’s assumptions of the order, stability and knowability of the world are thrown into question. The poems, like the tumuli, work to challenge our relationship to nature, (or more appropriately, it to us) and the role of death in human life. The language of these poems denaturalize our Enlightenment -derived assumptions about these matters and suggest a wilder, less knowable, less orderly, but also more mysterious and more beautiful universe.

Yet within this archaeology, threre is, arguably, one constant from the time of Saxons to the present moment: war itself. The martial culture of these ancient peoples is read by Riley as the ancestor of our latter-day atomic culture. In the following passage, flints are linked to atom bombs:

                                                          /two large flint
stones in the middle of the grave, to NE and SW, a foot
apart, cremation of an adult between them.
 A wing-reach,
a purchase in the wilderness, a formal courtesy in the
desert | fireweed, spreading over bomb sites.

In Excavations, it is possible to see a line of filiation between the martial culture of England’s ancestors up through the centuries to World War I, the terrible devastations of WW II, the Falkland War and the events in recent history in Croatia and Palestine. In this sense, the tumuli symbolize the ascendancy of Thanatos over Eros, and they stand as contemporary monuments to the death drive of Western civilization. Excavations offers a fundamentally tragic view of civilization, but one that paradoxically enables art: ironically, just as the “total theatre” of these “pre-historical” people is dependent on death for its productions, so too does art depend upon death to give it meaning and purpose.

Like Beckett, Riley’s vision and voice works to isolate the human figure within a confined space and then explores, in seemingly endless set of permutations, the meaning of that confinement. When not relieved by mordant humor, the typical Beckettian tone is bleak, but the exuberance and richness of the language plays against that bleakness, effectively unsettling it. While I find a comic voice only at the margins of these poems, Riley’s work exploits the same friction between tone and language that one finds in Beckett’s work. And like Beckett, Riley’s poetry evinces a radical skepticism toward the sufficiency of certainty, particularly the certainties born out of rationalism. In Riley’s poetry, however, the “dream of certainty” (Poem 41) cherished by the ancient peoples is invested with a mythological richness whereas the rationalistic form of certainty emerges as a form of hubris and self-delusion, if not cultural death.

In the theater of death that is civilization, what is the poet to do? His role is as ineluctable as the warrior’s—to sing, to create a “theatre of memory” through the singing. One theater playing against another. In the face of inevitable death and loss, memory must be performed–however imperfect and however effective. In this performance, the past is recreated: “The past speaks me in bitter fragments towards the impossible” (Poem 18). The task is as necessary as it is impossible. Excavations reminds us of the most ancient role of the poet. It is through the performance of poetry, the most ancient of arts, that the past is brought alive, identity is conferred, and Thanatos, in all its ambiguous power, is named a kingdom of the dead.



Jon Thompson edits Free Verse: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry & Poetics.