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Collected Poems by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books) Part II

Collected Poems by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books) Part II

About three-quarters of the way through the first volume of Peter Riley’s Collected Poems we will find the long piece of poetry and prose Lines on the Liver which had originally been published by Andrew Crozier’s Ferry Press in 1981. Re-reading this piece I am struck by echoes of Charles Olson:

“To the west, beyond Stoke, are Welsh hills and the sea, and eastward behind me stretches a simple and wide monotony to the coast, perhaps the most blessed condition of all land: unexciting and open. But the past I dwell in is not so distant, and the distance that worries me is not so extensive. West and East stay with me as I move around like a left and a right, while also beyond me and fixed. It is not a problem of extent but of accuracy, and the only true spatial index to that is the night sky.”

There are one or two little changes here from the first edition which offered us “Smoke” and “Celtic hills” and these little shifts are symptomatic of a concern for the type of accuracy referred to later in the passage. Similarly the “past I dwell in” was originally given as “the past I mean” and the shift brings us closer to the Olsonian sense of our being inescapably incorporated in history. Referring to different identities in the work, an ‘I’ and a ‘We’, John Hall had focused upon something central to Riley’s work: the urgently serious movement towards our understanding of ourselves by recognising who we are in relation to the world around us. In The Many Review No. 2 (Spring 1984) he had described it as “the plural form of the person assiduously involved in the rhetorical transactions of metaphor”. Hall also referred to a collective sense

“coinciding with the idea of ‘the town’ as a specific social and emotional force-field within the land-form, as extended home, a specific community lived from within rather than sociologically describable; or it might be the human figure implied by an archaic term like ‘the plain’ or an understanding of humans in which geology is socially incarnate.”

I am reminded here of lines from Riley’s earlier collection which Crozier’s Ferry Press had published in 1969, Love-Strife Machine:

“work: to make it at least feasible
that the lines should intersect the way they do
on the map of it all.”

Or, again, “knowing this stone / also as a city / I underwrite”. As if emphasising again the importance of that Hastings poem of the mid-sixties which I referred to last week, in this 1969 volume we read

“learning to (speak, listen, dance, be, etc.)
there comes a point when you have to act simply by
throwing out blindly onto whatever surface
seems likely to bear the weight, throw
the whole body forwards onto
the bright substance and hope it floats…”

Towards the end of the first volume of Riley’s Collected we arrive at the remarkable series of ten sonnets, ‘Ospita’, which had originally appeared as No. 4 in his beautifully produced Poetical Histories series that had started in 1985 as a result of his obtaining a hoard of mould-made paper from what had been the print shop of The Brooks Press, Wirksworth, Derbyshire. When James Keery wrote a fine exegesis of this sequence for The Gig he brought our attention to the “intensity of the speaking voice” being “palpable” and illustrated this in his reference to the poem’s “compelling” opening sonnet:

“Seeking a bearing point on hurt I find
Hollows and rooms in the thick of the night,
A building hard at work flashing its bright
Offers into the star dome.”

As Keery puts it the speaking voice undertakes an enquiry into the problem of pain with “a discursive cogency that the Age of Reason might have approved”. This ‘Ospita’, this house or shelter for a guest, is in Nigel Wheale’s account for Chicago Review, “some kind of visionary hospice, a post-war Britannia hospital where fundamental categories such as harm and care…roughly trade their terms.” For myself I am drawn forward to J.H. Prynne’s 2008 essay on ‘Huts’.

In an early piece from Love-Strife Machine the poet had wondered how the knowledge of knowing “how to sustain the music” could be kept alive “beyond the first bright hope”. Reading the opening lines of the tenth ‘Ospita’ sonnet we have that question answered:

“I walked out on the morning of May 12th
The blades were bright and coy and loud,
Thick with languages I walked without stealth
The fields of angry farmers, proud
To be harmless and legal, half and half,
No one could fathom my strong shoes,
There is no paradise but tongue of love.”

In an unpublished letter to Michael Haslam from September 1980, and now resting in the Cambridge Modern Poetry Archive, Peter Riley had raised a question about the world of Charles Olson and it has an interesting bearing upon his own forward movement:

“…the things (readings, informations, modes) he used for his poetry became items of a proscription, and that academic inflation slowly took him over. He began to think he was delivering important messages to the world at large, which is where you stop speaking to any particular member of that world and they become a ‘public’.”

Peter Riley’s poetry is firmly particular and his self-portraits are of ourselves.

Ian Brinton, 23rd December 2018.

2 responses »

  1. Reblogged this on The Wombwell Rainbow and commented:
    I am hoping to buy this as a present to myself.

    Reply
  2. Linder and Mike Dunleavy

    Reblogged this on lindermike and commented:
    A remarkable poet we both have huge respect for as a poet and critic

    Reply

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