Tuesday, September 30, 2008
'Am I rambling? I hope so': Reading Peter Riley
‘What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling Questions are not beyond all conjecture’ begins Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydrotaphia, Urn Burial: ‘But who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above Antiquarism.’ Future antiquarians of British poetry, take note. Why Daisy Goodwin wanted to save our lives with a slew of self-help anthologies; why Don Paterson introduced American readers to British Poetry (in his co-edited New Gen redux anthology, New British Poetry) with a furious diatribe against unnamed ‘postmodernist’ poets; or why (to take a counter example) Andrew Duncan published a poster map of post-war British poetry in the Chicago Review that did not so much as mention Thom Gunn or Geoffrey Hill, though also puzzling questions, need not be beyond conjecture. Brendan Behan had Irish politics in mind when he said the first item on the agenda was always the split, but for those resolved to part company with the poetry of Peter Riley before reading it, reasons will not be found wanting. Editorship of The English Intelligencer with Andrew Crozier; early publications with Grossteste Press; a Cambridge address from which he has laboured long in the stony acres of the British small press scene; the anthology company he keeps; all this will add up for many readers to one almighty fennish whiff. Even the man’s surname, shared with the no less astringent Denise and John, would appear to give the game away: Peter Riley, Cambridge poet, guilty as charged. But not the least refreshing thing about Riley is his failure to conform to the fanciful mods v. rockers, experimentalists v. mainstream divide in contemporary British verse that Paterson’s introduction so wilfully embodies. ‘I’m opposed to a universities poetry’, Riley writes in Alstonefield, in answer to those who would see alternative poetries as permanently alibied by the dullards of the academy. For all his appearances in Iain Sinclair’s Conductors of Chaos and Ric Caddel and Peter Quartermain’s Other, he is no more a postmodernist than Paterson himself. ‘As far as I’m concerned’, he has told Keith Tuma, ‘where I am is a normal and proper place to be, is where people like me always have been, and mainstream and avant-garde are way out on a limb, really nowhere.’
Exactly where that normal and proper place is varies from book to book, from North Africa and the south of France to Manchester and the Staffordshire Peak District. No place can be remote in itself and not in relation to somewhere else, and in his prose travelogue The Dance at Mociu Riley ponders the shifting nature of centre and periphery in ‘an almost forgotten part of Old Europe’, Transylvania. In his essay ‘A Little Theory of Destiny’, Emil Cioran pondered his Romanian beginnings with ebullient rage: ‘Hating my people, my country, its timeless peasants enamoured of their own torpor and almost bursting with hebetude, I blushed to be descended from them, repudiated them, rejected their sub-eternity, their larval certainties, their geologic reverie.’ He hasn’t been the only one keen to get out: during one of Riley’s visits, television cameras put in an appearance to record Angus MacQueen’s documentary The Last Peasants, broadcast on Channel 4 in 2003, which followed local menfolk prepared to spend five hours clinging to the underside of a Vienna-bound train (put it down to native Mociusmo). To the author of a Browneian volume of Excavations, however, a phrase like ‘geologic reverie’ must sound like an open invitation to come and explore, and as of the very first sentence of The Dance of Mociu we find Riley pushing to ‘the end of the road’. Points of entry into local culture and the attendant protocol are the subject of much polite anxiety, with music taking a leading role. In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes writes affectionately of André Kertész’s photograph of a blind Hungarian fiddler being led by a boy. The music in The Dance at Mociu comes courtesy of village fiddlers and zongora players, the hissing cassettes Riley buys at car boot sales and, most memorably, the funeral of a teenage boy where wedding music is played; all that is missing is the late György Ligeti’s piano etude in honour of the Brancusi column (the Coloana infinită) that Riley visits in Tîrgu-Jiu.
As in the Kertész photograph, kindly guides feature prominently: Riley and wife are forever being taken in hand by winning young girls with the key to the local pub or church in their pockets, and who reel them into the circle of village life. The etiquette of begging is much remarked on: the absence of solicitude or resentment, the ritualized physical interactions that mark all social occasions, as in the episode of a deafblind woman introduced to the English couple who sits holding Beryl Riley’s handbag. In The Aran Islands, a text with its own share of music, funerals and blindness, Synge dreams of being possessed by a music that fills him first with ecstasy, then agony and rage, and from which he struggles to tear himself away before waking up to ‘no sound anywhere on the island’. The Dance at Mociu ends with news of one of the local wedding bands travelling to a festival in the United States and staying on as illegal immigrants: ‘A silence grows in the green stony lanes of Soporul de Câmpie, in which no one tunes a violin any more.’ With or without an otherworldly struggle, the music falls silent: the one thing certain about the organic community, as Raymond Williams used to say, is that it has gone. England loses out in the mantic stakes to Transylvania, a country where Riley is cash-rich but has nothing to spend his money on, though as comparisons go this one could do with more input from the train-hugging economic migrants of The Last Peasants. And if Riley occasionally feels awkward or abashed among his generous hosts, as Synge did on Inismaan, perhaps he senses that in his wake will come the viewers of another Channel 4 show, Place in the Sun, which has been instructing viewers of late to snap up property in Romania.
A poem, for Riley, is ‘an object between poet and reader which is both a means of communication and a barrier to communication’, ‘neither opaque nor transparent’, a ‘body of light’ reflecting ‘the need to say and be revealed crossed with the need to remain silent and secret’. It’s all about paying attention: the best way to read poetry is ‘with very bad eyesight (… ) so that you would only go to this trouble /with a telegram of some concern.’ Glenn Gould suggested that the audience is to the artist as one is to zero, and in an appreciation of Nicholas Moore Riley goes further: ‘If poetry in this place is to have any half-decent future, it will have to be withdrawn completely from public view.’ Is Riley the Glenn Gould of British poetry, shunning live performance for the mixing desk or Cagean anechoic chamber? In Excavations he investigates another form of chamber, the Saxon burial mounds of East Yorkshire, but opens his texts up to all manner of echoes. The book’s 175 fragments mix Riley’s own words with italicized and bold-face quotations from the Edwardian archaeologist J.R. Mortimer, Elizabethan lyrics, and a ‘10% anarchic principle’ of mock quotation, spotting which becomes one of the book’s incidental pleasures. ‘What matter who’s speaking, someone said what matter who’s speaking’, Beckett said, and whatever it matters who’s speaking here, Mortimer or anarcho-Riley, Excavations hymns that most archaeological of styles, palimpsest: ‘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 dénouement, of which the excavator finds a fragile and usually over-written map.’ As Jon Thompson has argued, the book is really an elegy for the present, just as its form elegizes a collage-based modernist style that texts as diverse as David Jones’s The Anathemata, Hugh MacDiarmid’s In Memory of James Joyce and Lynette Roberts’ Gods with Stainless Ears should have, but have not, naturalized for readers of contemporary poetry. Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns would seem an obvious intertext too, though a Riley narrator (the most democratic of creatures) straying into that volume might agree with Offa’s pronouncement that ‘the strange church smelled a bit “high”’.
The book’s own archaeology is not irrelevant here, part one appearing as Distant Points in 1995, before being reinterred in expanded form a decade later. The long poem Alstonefield too has had a peregrine existence from original (‘unfinished’) version to a later recension to the further layer of topsoil we find in The Day’s Final Balance: Uncollected Writings 1965-2006. His other most recent ‘new’ book, The Llŷn Writings, comes with its own geologic layerings, some of the poems dating back to the 1970s. Riley himself has flitted from publisher to publisher as hectically as any Transylvanian migrant, from British small press stalwarts Reality Street, Shearsman and West House Books, to Carcanet, and beyond to the US, with nary a Cambridge fen in sight in the batch under consideration here. ‘Making a work is not thinking thoughts but accomplishing an actual journey’, David Jones wrote in The Anathémata, and much of Alstonefield is peripatetic poetry, veering from a Harvey-esque encounter with a giant rabbit to Irish sean-nós singing and the possibility, even in the Peak District, of ever escaping the sound of an automobile (it can’t be done, apparently). A telling difference between Wordsworth and Coleridge, those archpoets of the Romantic Holzwege, was Wordsworth’s keeping to the straight and narrow, while Coleridge habitually veered at an unpredictable zig-zag across the path, much to the inconvenience of his walking companions. With Riley, there is often no discernible path or destination, and Alstonefield may be one of the most ambitious journey poems of our time, or a hopelessly errant cross-hatching of an Ordnance Survey map with what Riley calls ‘17th century karaoke’, or possibly both at once. ‘Am I rambling?’ he asks Tony Frazer in a prefatory letter: ‘I hope so.’ Expecting him to do otherwise would be like, in his own words, ‘shouting GO HOME to the homeless’.
In its Mary Celeste-like farings forever short of a harbour, Alstonefield closely resembles the loose baggy monsters of a decade that means a lot to Riley: the 40s, that heyday of Nicholas Moore and a perennial revisionist alternative to the Movement putsch that followed. The one Larkin poem for which Andrew Duncan professes any fondness in his eccentric study The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry is the long, abandoned poem ‘The Dance’, its length and incompleteness both at odds with the ethos of lyric repletion from which Duncan recoils. Even at a hundred pages, there is no reason why Alstonefield might not be twice as long again, and still unfinished: as with Excavations, Riley conceives of the space of the long poem as an arena, a theatre for the self, anti-self and other ‘pluralities that devised this spectacle’. Referring the reader to a passage thirty-one stanzas before, Riley signposts it as the spot where ‘Self Two took off to the left’. Riley has little time for the ‘metaphor-laden forms of rhetoric’ and ‘self-regarding figurative ingenuity’ he associates with the Movement and its Martian inheritors, and if the self-multiplication just described sounds like po-mo tricksiness, it is more constructively viewed as an effort to maximise the points of ‘entrance’ into the chthonic stuff of his poetry. This can make his longer work difficult to excerpt, but two stanzas from ‘Seawatch’ (from The Llŷn Writings) give something of their flavour, as well as signalling from their Welsh peninsula in the general Cornish direction of later W.S. Graham:
Sunk in a grass hollow in the cliff, my station,
A grave green chair. The sea is blue green white,
The sea is grey and folds, the sun is splilt
And the clouds are a fire. Truth is never
Quite the same, its quantum cracks but
Like a three quarter moon hands down adoring stead.
Which is a pulsing certitude a gently
Wavering assurance. The sea throws
Silver coins at the rock. The whimbrel, that shuns
The sight of man, passes down the coast
And a heron follows, for if we are still
We are welcomed, if we are one we are met.
In our post-Romantic condition to write about nature is to write about the disappearance of nature or our alienation from it (Williams’ organic community again), which can leave those who wish to carry the pastoral mode on regardless looking either very foolhardy or very deluded (the intakes of breath in post-avant circles when Riley professes his admiration for Walter de la Mare can only be imagined). ‘I should be modern’, he writes in A Map of Faring; ‘I cannot be modern’. Yet another dimension to Riley’s resistance to classification is the intense chastity of his diction: he does not blanch at a ‘vocabulary which is generally considered /nonsense’, and is not above cooing ‘Poor little mite!’ at a ‘mother suckling her babe’ or choking on the wholesomeness of his own vision: ‘I must be blind, to see such brightness /in such delicate light, to see the world /in its hope as a leaf turns in the /movement of cool air…’ As in some passages of Prynne’s Word Order or Pearls That Were, part of the shock for the first-time reader is just how untutored the emotional tenor of this poetry is, how entirely free of the jaded inflections of our post-Movement condition.
A Map of Faring is divided into setts, conjuring an image of poet as badger, and once again descriptions of excavating and entering the earth abound. Images of cave walls suggest a latter-day Lascaux, while above ground the world is peopled by itinerant noble savages such as Donegal fiddler John Doherty ‘tuning the earth’. These vagrant musicians would blend right in in a Jack Yeats canvas, and poems on Yeats in Passing Measures and The Day’s Final Balance point to picaresque affinities, with the figure of Beckett a possible hinge between the two. ‘An imaginative adventure does not enjoy the same corsets as a reportage’, Beckett wrote of Yeats’s novel The Amaranthers in 1936, and Riley’s rejection of a ‘literature of notations’ is never less than principled. The reportorial leakage of current events into the knowingly ironised lyric is a register almost entirely absent from Riley’s work. Readers on the look-out for some encroachment of the contemporary world will turn excitedly to ‘Stuck in Vienna for Two Weeks Watching CNN Every Night’ only to find Riley telling them to ‘forget Vietnam’ and ‘walk the forests, learn to live’. Perhaps Daisy Goodwin and poetry’s life-saving properties aren’t so far away after all. Riley has written appreciatively of Douglas Oliver, but his version of A Salvo for Africa (or even Vietnam) will be a long time coming: this is a poetry hewn from the things most ‘most proportionate and conditioned’ to its author’s body, as Francis Ponge said of his favourite kind of art in Notes pour un coquillage. Not that the present-and-correct author makes himself the measure of all things: as he wrote in ‘S. Pietro in Montorio’, ‘I stand in my absence in front of a thing /That stands in its presence and fits it /To perfection.’ Present or absent, Riley dreams of human adequacy unto ourselves. Looking at a child’s drawing in Terezín concentration camp, he urges us to ‘Agree to suffice, not to surpass, agree to be /the actual person.’ If taking a walk in the countryside means not writing a poem about Iraq then Iraq can wait (‘Is nothing safe from our guilt?’ he asks in ‘The new war poetry’); and the assertion of this freedom need not be an anti- or apolitical act. Here we touch on the profoundly humanist core of Riley’s work, and its refusal to surrender the ‘authentic realisation of individual experience’ to any passing distractions, no matter how noisy. ‘It is the human that is the alien’, Wallace Stevens claimed, and for Riley too the closer one approaches ‘authentic’ experience the more its primal simplicity eludes expression, as suggested by ‘The Walk to Roussillon’, a Beckettian poem in both location and style: ‘The red cliff in the dark green woods, /walk towards it. As you get /closer it is difficult to see.’ The honouring of this diffficulty and honest exploration of it are what keep Riley’s work on edge and save it from the leafy ditches of the contemporary heritage trail.
Faced with the unerasable but embarrassing survival of alternative poetries long after their supposed extinction, contemporary anthologizing will often reach for synecdochic stand-ins for a not-to-be-countenanced whole (a dash of Roy Fisher here, a sprinkling of Denise Riley there). Nothing could be cosier in the climate of British poetry today than a timidly entered plea for increased love and understanding all round, with the promise of a periodic walk on the wild side for the general reader in return for an admission from Andrew Duncan that Philip Larkin may not have been quite the embodiment of evil after all (though to judge from his own comments, this may not be all that removed from Riley’s view of him too). A braver endorsement might be to suggest that Riley’s body of work speaks for itself, beyond all arguments about the mainstream and its bloodied fringe, and if he doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, he himself won’t object. ‘“Many customers” is an ailment I have sought assiduously /to avoid’ a (possibly imaginary) Peak District barman tells him in Alstonefield. To return, finally, to Transylvania, Cioran once observed that Palestrina’s music was written for God whereas Beethoven’s was written for humanity, a declension he by no means appeared to approve. Peter Riley isn’t in it to be liked, and if his musically elegant poems seem to give up on a contemporary audience, and Palestrina’s God is no longer on call, their witnessing and example is no less impressive, moving or urgent for all that: ‘I believe /passionately that steady work /to a cleared purpose is true love.’
Peter Riley, Passing Measures: A Collection of Poems. Carcanet, £9.95.
The Dance at Mociu. Shearsman Books, £8.95.
Aria with Small Lights. West House Books.
Alstonefield: a poem. Carcanet, £9.95.
Excavations. Reality Street, £9.
A Map of Faring, Parlor Press, npg.
The Llŷn Writings, Shearsman, £8.95. 15 January 2007.
The Day’s Final Balance: Uncollected Writings 1965-2006. Shearsman, £11.95. 15
As originally published in P.N. Review.