Peter Riley’s 1992 chapbook Reader opens with a quotation from J.H. Prynne dated from 15th September 1985:
‘It has mostly been my own aspiration, for example, to establish relations not personally with the reader, but with the world and its layers of shifted but recognisable usage; and thereby with the reader’s own position within this world’.
I was alerted to this when I looked this morning at Tony Baker’s fine little contribution to the compilation of essays on Riley’s work published as The Gig 4/5 in which he suggests that the ‘meaning of landscape as I read Alstonefield has surely something to do with my own relation to the place, recognized afresh in the light of the poem’. A finely-tuned awareness of the relation of people to their landscape threads its path through the twenty-four poems in Pennine Tales and it comes as no surprise to meet not only Prynne along the way but also Wordsworth, ‘poor Clare’, Michael Haslam and Thomas Hardy, ‘guide and spokesman’. As Peter Riley puts it
hundreds of us walk the tired dark page, water
with stars in it leaking into our boots, eradicating belief.
But a crowd worth joining.’
In a fine book about Hardy, written by Douglas Brown in the mid 1950s, we were pointed towards the ‘hard centre of controlled nostalgia, the profound awareness of lost stabilities and certainties, and the mordant humour insinuating actuality into time and place and person’. Brown was referring particularly to ‘The Dead Quire’ from Time’s Laughingstocks and other verses (1909) in which the ‘Quick pursue the Dead / By crystal Froom that crinkles there’ and the voices of time past drew toward the churchyard the music of that choir of singers ‘smalled, and died away’. The first of Riley’s lyric hauntings opens with the ‘last minibus’ leaving from the station
‘heading for the tops
full of ghosts, ghosts with notebooks, ancestors
from Halifax: farmers, publicans, clerks, looking
for me, wanting me back in the peace and jubilee
of diurnal normality. But they have caught
the wrong bus and will be delivered into nothing,
the nothing of death they came from, and came here
to welcome me to. Passing the abandoned chapel
they start singing hymns, and will soon begin to fade.’
That use of the word ‘fade’ echoes a later Hardy poem, ‘Exeunt Omnes’, which concludes
‘Folk all fade. And wither,
As I wait alone where the fair was?
Into the clammy and numbing night-fog
Whence they entered hither.
Soon do I follow thither!’
Hardy’s air of ‘blankness’ and recall of ‘littered spaces’ where the fair once stood finds its echo now outside the Hare & Hounds at 11.20 pm as the poet waits with Mike Haslam and stands ‘on the edge of the moors’:
‘There is nothing here but stone
walls and distance. We are alone. We are nowhere.
We are the length and breadth of a dark nowhere
which encompasses the world.’
But the mournful wisps of sound in Riley’s poems are heard against a larger background:
‘Come all you little vermin that dwell under stones
crushed underfoot of the earth and make together
a faint hissing and rustling in the night which
grows greater towards the central principle
and the separate sounds build to a chorus
saying that 500 years of degradation and humiliation
is as nothing to us, we can persist ten times as long
working towards a modern condition which
recognises at long last the day of the many’.
These Pennine Tales, ‘night music’, offer ‘some tremble between beliefs’ and as the music ‘draws / our thoughts into the distance’ Peter Riley, poet of people and landscape, registers a reaffirmed presence ‘at home, site of mind / heart decisions’. This is elegiac poetry at its very best.
Ian Brinton 29th July 2016.