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Truth, Justice and the Companionship of Owls by Peter Riley (Longbarrow Press)

Truth, Justice and the Companionship of Owls by Peter Riley (Longbarrow Press)

‘Hushings’ is the second group of poems published here and yet again one is struck by the immaculate presentation achieved by Brian Lewis’s Longbarrow Press. It is precisely this care and attention to detail that justifies this Northern Press’s reputation as one of the finest and most professional of the Independent Poetry Presses active at the moment.

There is a quiet and witty intelligence which threads its way through these eighteen poems: the most serious themes of truth and justice are meditated upon within a world of approaching darkness. Writing about humour in Janus: a summing up (1978) Arthur Koestler had suggested that ‘Comedy and tragedy, laughter and weeping, mark the extremes of a continuous spectrum’ and here
just below the surface of Peter Riley’s quiet reflections upon movement and change there lurks the wry smile that can open a poem with an echo of a joke:

‘Two buzzards wheeling over the top of the woods
and one of them says to the other, What
do you see down there, brother,
with your little eye?’

The opening of that second line creates the picture of the joke as it might be shared perhaps in the Hare & Hounds, a pub near Hebden Bridge which appears a few times throughout this collection. However, the reference to a game of ‘I spy’ echoes also the world of childhood which also glimmers just below the surface of these lyrical and elegiac responses to landscape. I am reminded here of Basil Bunting’s comments about music made in an interview with Hugh Kenner for National Public Radio in early 1980 when he suggested that music ‘is organized in various ways, and one of the inventions…was the notion of a sonata, where two themes which at first appear quite separate, and all the better if they’re strongly contrasted…gradually alter and weave together until at the end of your movement you’ve forgotten they are two themes, it’s all one.’ When writing Briggflatts Bunting had perhaps Scarlatti’s B minor fugato sonata (L. 33) in his mind from the outset and the eighteenth century composer’s readiness to modulate between the light and shade of major and minor informs the shift from the spirit of spring which opens the first section and the more sombre note of death and betrayal which soon follows.

In his notes at the end of this new collection of poems Riley tells us that ‘hushings are places where limestone has been exposed and broken for extraction of ore, or for burning into lime, by unleashing a rush of water down a hillside from a reservoir on higher ground’. The eighteen twelve-line poems in the group offer the reader that sense of movement, the rippling effect which Bunting echoed from his knowledge of the Scarlatti sonata, and their sound is ‘always water running over stone’. Movement brings different perspectives and the first of these hushings places the poet’s childhood on the steps of Banks Lane Council School in 1945:

‘a first step into the nation, to be followed
by 68 years starred and scarred with gains and losses
and gates opening upward and pits closing down.’

The landscape here is one of ‘widening regard’ and a realisation that in

‘all this land, this nothing-much, there are
hidden values, seeds waiting to announce themselves
as cotton grass and bugle.’

The wit I was referring to earlier lies bleakly in a comment which appears only two lines above this faith in ‘hidden values’:

‘…Here we wait, as if waiting
for the return of truthful politics.’

And in poem xvi the modulation of the music gives us the ‘end of the chorus’ which is also the ‘end of public truth’.

These poems are in no way infected with rural sentimentality and they are closer to the photographs of Don McCullin in which the images provide their own commentary: they are archways through which the poet can contemplate an intelligent awareness of who he is in relation to the geographical world around him and in relation to a past which disappears down the stone steps:

‘down the stone, down the air, down the darkness
singing Dove sei, amato bene? viewing bright below
everything we have.’

Ian Brinton, 11th June 2019

http//:www.longbarrowpress.com

Collected Poems by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books) Part 111

Collected Poems by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books) Part 111

The second volume of Peter Riley’s monumental edition of Collected Poems opens with Cambridge poems from 1985-2000 before proceeding to Excavations and the substantial sequence Alstonefield, originally published by Oasis/Shearsman in 1995 before being revised and extended for publication by Carcanet in 2003. In addition we have a revised version of the Oystercatcher Press volume Best at Night Alone, Greek Passages 2006 and Due North 2015. Re-reading these many reconstructions of self and place I am drawn back to a few lines written at the opening of William Bronk’s ‘The Occupation of Space – Palenque’, 1974:

“It is not certain that space is empty and shapeless though it must seem so, just as it must seem that we are nowhere except as we occupy space and shape it. Whether we look at the surface of the earth which is endless though not infinite, or at the spaces beyond, whose limits we cannot see or perhaps think of, the need for a sense of place is so strong that we try to limit the vastness, however arbitrarily, and fill the emptiness if only by naming places such as a mountain, a water, or certain stars.

Alstonefield
opens with excerpts from two letters written to Tony Baker and the first, dated 6th August 1991, sets the imperative scene by saying that as Riley was strolling among the fields south of the village in the evening he “suddenly had the distinct sensation that it mattered, this place, that its very existence mattered”. When Tony Baker wrote about Alstonefield as his contribution to Nate Dorward’s end of century issue of The Gig, an issue devoted to the work of Peter Riley, he opened his piece with a sense of landscape:

“Draw a line on the map of Britain roughly along the route of Hadrian’s Wall, and the landmass prescribed to the south—including Wales with its own language, a portion of the Borders with its Lallans, Cornwall whose language is lost, and a host of other regions with distinctive local speeches—would have, as the convocal point of all its linguism, an approximate geographical centre among the Derbyshire moors and limestones. In this talk-defined heartland, north south east and west seem like equal extensions: starting from everything we could possibly be doing a line tends out and no one direction lays a greater claim to it than any other.”

This for me encapsulates one of the most important criticisms of Riley’s poetry: he starts from a heartland and “tends out”. As if heeding the advice offered by Charles Olson to Edward Dorn to follow the model of history set down by Herodotus Riley brings his focus to bear upon finding out for himself, absorbing himself intensely and entirely in his subject. The individual stanzas of Alstonefield, each ten lines long, are meditations, contemplations and they open in a style which has echoes of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard’:

“Again the figured curtain draws across the sky.
Daylight shrinks, clinging to the stone walls
and rows of graveyard tablets, the moon rising
over the tumbling peneplain donates some equity
to the charter and the day’s accountant
stands among tombs, where curtesy dwells.”

It is in the civilized eloquence of “donates” and “curtesy” that we can recognise the quality Riley inherited from the seventeenth and eighteenth century that was also recognised by Charles Tomlinson when he referred to “building” being “a biding also” in his 1960 poem ‘The Farmer’s Wife: at Fostons Ash’. And it is also echoed in Riley’s 2015 sequence Due North which became a finalist for that year’s Forward Prize where “Moving and staying” bear the location with us and “advance built into the structure of settlement”. When that book was reviewed for The Guardian in October 2015 Evan Jones concluded with a sentence that could well offer some definition for Peter Riley’s work as a whole:

Due North excavates the local past, and makes the demolished current”.

The two volumes of these Collected Poems represent a dedication to poetry and to life: they reveal the portrait of a man whose commitment to Culture has spanned some sixty years and whose voice, quiet, careful and unreserved in its integrity, will always be worth heeding. It is no mere chance that takes me back to look at those lines from Ben Jonson’s Discoveries:

“Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee. It springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the Image of the Parent of it, the mind.”

Ian Brinton 2nd January 2019

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.

Collected Poems Volume 1 by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books)

Collected Poems Volume 1 by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books)

Peter Riley’s two volumes of Collected Poems weighs in at about 1200 pages and they need to be reviewed. There is no way that a short piece here can do justice to the wealth of this work and so I shall write three or four reviews covering the chronological development of a poet whose voice is a labour of “calm close attention” (‘All Saints’, a short prose piece from the opening section of Volume 1, pieces written in London between 1962 and 1965). When I gave a Paper at a Conference in Birkbeck devoted to Riley’s work I focused on his editing of the magazine Collection. The Paper was written up for PN Review 207, some six years ago and it began rather mischievously. Now that we can see more fully the quality of Riley’s early work from the Sixties I wish to repeat that mischief by beginning with a quotation which will set the scene and trust that this will prove to be in no way contentious:

“For a time young poets of very different backgrounds and temperament may feel themselves, or be felt by critics, to be working along similar lines. Though its long-term consequence necessarily remains unclear, such a shift of sensibility has taken place very recently in British poetry. It follows a stretch, occupying much of the 1960s and 70s, when very little—in England at any rate—seemed to be happening…”

The quotation comes of course from a very reliable source: a Poet Laureate, a highly successful journalist and a highly competitive and long-standing publishing firm: The Penguin Book of Contemporary Poetry edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion. And so it’s official: “very little seemed to be happening” in the 60s and 70s and this reminds me of the mischievous title of a splendid little journal founded by Anthony Barnett in 1966, Nothing Doing in London. There were only two issues of that beautifully produced item but they contained work by Andrew Crozier, Edmond Jabès, George Oppen, Tom Pickard, Samuel Beckett and Nick Totton: nothing indeed happening very much at all!
The calm close attention which Riley has given to his wealth of life’s experiences is there from the very start as is evident with the poem ‘Introitus’ written in his Hastings years during the mid-to late 60s. The poem opens with the short phrase “How it begins” before proceeding to examine the difficulty of walking on shingle on Hastings beach. The quiet and purposeful movement recalls the ‘Riprap’ progress of Gary Snyder in a very different landscape:

“To walk effectively on shingle you have to
lean forwards so you’d fall if you didn’t push
your feet back from a firm step down and
back sharp forcing the separate ground
to consolidate underneath you, with a marked
flip as you lift each foot, scattering
stones behind, gaining momentum.”

The year is 1967 and Peter Riley was about to take over the editing of The English Intelligencer from Andrew Crozier. Writing to Crozier on January 12th, having arrived back in Hastings after the two had met up, he told of finding Jeremy Prynne on the doorstep and how they had spent that evening discussing the future progress of the magazine. In a letter from a few months later Riley referred to the need for energetic engagement with the poetry scene, “something not so much finished as in mid-stream, alive and still developing” and this energy pulses through these early poems.
When Barry MacSweeney organised the poetry gathering at Sparty Lea Peter Riley was there of course and the letter he wrote to a newspaper a few years ago emphasised the event’s importance:

“Sparty Lea was a serious event that involved listening to each other carefully and weighing up the possibility of common purposes.”

The publication of ‘Sparty Lea Epilogue’ in the first volume of these collected poems is testament indeed to its importance as a meeting-place for new poets who were concerned about what was happening in the world of British poetry:

“It must be the whole continuance,
of our lives bound through the occasion
it must be this other place given
in return, the small room at night.

The meeting was a specific node
of exchange like a thank-you in a long
conversation, fastening the discourse that
sustains us to a future weather.”

The “long conversation” has continued down the years and when Roy Fisher referred to Riley’s deepening sense of how poetry “can be capable of mediating between inner and outer experience” it was adopted as the blurb on the back cover of Pennine Tales issued by Calder Valley Poetry two years ago. It is within the lyric grace of those late pages, written and published too late to be included in the Collected Poems that one can pick up the mournful wisps of sound from an energetic poetic engagement that is by no means over:

“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.”

I am tempted to say that Peter Riley is a towering presence in the world of modern poetry and yet even that image of stasis is immediately rendered inappropriate when we can read now the early lines he dedicated to Andrew Crozier in the late 60s when he felt that they were “wanderers not in exile / but at permanent home / in movement.”

Ian Brinton 9th December 2018

Rough Breathing by Harry Gilonis (Carcanet)

Rough Breathing by Harry Gilonis (Carcanet)

I first came across the work of Harry Gilonis in a 1991 issue of EONTA, an Arts Quarterly of which he was Associate Editor. This particular issue was subtitled ‘Dante issue’ and was dedicated in memoriam Frank Samperi who had died in Tucson, Arizona, in June that year. The contribution Gilonis wrote for that issue was titled ‘Rocked on a Lake’ in which he concluded that Dante was bewitched by detail, the matter of memory:

“Purgatorio XXVI has him, following Vergil, seeing ants talking to one another. How long did we wait for someone else to notice? There are moments out of time, when infected perception of a sudden clears. Proust trips on an uneven cobble in the Guermantes courtyard, is instantly in the baptistery of St. Mark’s.”

That clarity of perception noted above is one of the central features of this remarkable selection of poems by Harry Gilonis, the poet whose interest in poetry began as a reader when, according to Philip Terry’s introduction, “he went to school (like others before him including Basil Bunting) with Ezra Pound”. Terry goes on to point out that Gilonis “spent a year reading the Cantos on the dole – an apprenticeship no longer available – using a university library ticket to access source books, from Provençal and Chinese dictionaries to books on art and architecture”. Given this careful engagement with reading it can come as no surprise that I was both honoured and delighted by Gilonis’s contribution to the festschrift for J.H. Prynne, For the Future, which Shearsman published in 2016. The focus of his contribution was on Prynne’s ‘Stone Lake’ poem, the poem written in Chinese as No. 22 of Peter Riley’s Poetical Histories, and in an email to me early in 2015 Harry Gilonis had outlined the sort of scrutiny he wished to bring to bear upon that poem:

“I propose a character-by-character gloss of the poem and its title; notes on some character-combinations which act to ‘steer’ a reader towards certain reading-conclusions; some glosses on the poem’s geographical setting (a lake in Suzhou); some remarks on the poem’s style, in traditional Chinese terms”.

Rough Breathing contains about two-hundred pages of closely-wrought poems and amongst the rich variety offered to us there is a selection of 30 short poems from a much larger group of “faithless translations from old Chinese originals” titled ‘North Hills’. One can see how much care has been put into understanding the original texts so that approximations can be presented which themselves possess the vitality of refracted light. Each of the fifteen poems chosen for this selection presents the reader with two versions and I refer below to just one of the pair titled ‘old friend’:

autumn pours us full
night levels towns cities
chanced meeting beyond geography
flitting about time time
wind moves magpie / words
Spider-web flutters clear night
travellers with wine constant
kept mutual in looped days

One of the compellingly attractive aspects of this poem for me is the juxtaposition of qualities of movement in lines 5 and 6. Words appear on a page and when they do they possess a sense of the static, being placed there either by brush or print; the movement of that magpie thief and hoarder can shift a word from one context to another like an object. The delicacy of the fluttering of a spider’s web is, however, different in that the softness of movement does not remove the web from one place to another: it returns to its original position. These two different qualities of movement are given further definition in their accidental record of “chanced meeting” and the very noun used there is opened up to offer suggestiveness concerning its meaning. A meeting which is “beyond geography” may lack a physical presence but can be a meeting none the less. This is poetry of a very high quality and I am inevitably reminded of the world of Pound’s World War I poetry publication, Cathay.
In contrast to this reflective lyric grace we can turn to the bitterly assured tone of the political poems which present us with a language that might well be used by the self-promoting innocence of the world’s arms-dealers:

“fully field programmable
with in-flight re-targeting
to cover the whole kill chain

with sensor-to-shooter capability
for effects-based engagement
and an integral good-faith report

and a situational awareness
of integrity and trust
to achieve the desired lethal effects”

It was appropriate that the Dante issue of EONTA from 1991had contained an obituary of Frank Samperi (written by David Miller) and when John Martone edited Spiritual Necessity (Barrytown/Station Hill), a useful selection of the Brooklyn poet, he pointed out that Samperi had discovered Dante in a Brooklyn institution and had taught himself Aquinas in Latin as well as studying the Indian philosopher Sankara, non-Euclidean geometry, and astrology. Samperi’s attention to moments reflected an active engagement which echoed perhaps the world referred to in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Notebook entry for March 1871:

“What you look hard at seems to look hard at you, hence the true and false instress of nature. One day early in March when long streamers were rising from over Kemble End one large flake loop-shaped, not a streamer but belonging to the string, moving too slowly to be seen, seemed to cap and fill the zenith with a white shire of cloud. I looked long up at it till the tall height and the beauty of the scaping—regularly curled knots springing if I remember from fine stems, like foliation in wood or stone—had strongly grown on me. It changed beautiful changes, growing more into ribs and one stretch of running into branching like coral. Unless you refresh the mind from time to time you cannot always remember or believe how deep the inscape in things is.”

In the introduction to this new Carcanet publication Philip Terry places Gilonis “at the head of a long line of innovative contemporary poets, from Tim Atkins to Peter Hughes and Caroline Bergvall, who have been engaged in renewing poetry with experimental, prismatic, forms of translation”. I think I would add to that list as I recognise that there is indeed a sense of the renewal of language throughout Rough Breathing as I turn from page to page, or maybe it might be more appropriate to say from leaf to leaf: Harry Gilonis’s poetry consists of words made new.

Ian Brinton, 24th April 2018

The Intaglio Poems by Iain Britton (Hesterglock Press)

The Intaglio Poems by Iain Britton (Hesterglock Press)

None of us can see into another person’s mind and we have to reconcile ourselves to ending at our skin, that elasticated sack within which we live. In Andrew Marvell’s ‘A Dialogue between the Soul and Body’ the cry of anguish which opens the poem yearns for rescue from enslavement and, like Shakespeare’s Ariel, it reflects upon the ‘Magick’ that could confine it pining within the body’s physical limitation. However, it is language itself, like a shark’s fin moving through the distance between us that can form the bridge between self and other, between Now and Then.
It is no mere accident that the first of Iain Britton’s opening sequence, ‘The Vignettes’, should embed itself on the first page, fossil-like looking both forwards and outwards, whilst peering inwards to a stone past:

“but these eyes fossilised in glistening rock
embedded in the bone work of a carver’s
imagination / transfix the visitor / the

foreigner / to the jawline / the coastline
of a hill bridging hollowed-out ravines
hanging by threads of luminous particles /

these eyes light up / yet nothing flickers /
no church or tabernacle sings / constantly
they’re turning coded valedictions inwards”

On the back cover of The Intaglio Poems Peter Riley comments upon how the poet deals with the entanglement of the personal human condition and suggests that “Human problems, frequently a question of reconciling self and other, are read in terms of place, landscape, image, the clutter and scenery of civilisation…”. The “visitor”, like the reader of the poem, is transfixed by the stone eye in a manner a little like that of the wedding-guest held by the Ancient Mariner’s “glittering” one. As readers of these poems we cannot choose but hear. Words set their mark on the page as a “solitary window is splashed with the Pacific” (‘weather-vane’), “salt grains liquefy” and “gannets drop suddenly into the surf”. The ten opening vignettes, ornamental borders of trailing tendrils, are followed by eight meditations and then nine poems on the elements earth, fire and water before we arrive at an inner portal, the nine engraved pieces which illustrate the book’s title. There is a painterly aspect to this writing and a clear sense of the picture within the confines or window-frames of the page. As such it takes me back to an earlier piece by Britton which he published in Zone 2 (edited from University of Kent by Kat Peddie and Eleanor Perry). The fourth ‘equation’ in a sequence of six offered the reader a house with a girl, a room with a view:

“she shuts the door

of the house i built

stands at the table

at a vase of flowers on the table

she goes to the window

touches a fallen petal”

The house built of words “locks her in” and the interior takes on the existence of another world as the flowers (“orbitally hung”) “float / and colour-scape the room”. Now, held within the engravings of these new ‘Intaglio Poems’

“visions pack in quickly-taken breaths”

And “this teacher knows every brick / in his house”; he “writes messages / to himself” to alchemically transform place and conjure up “multiple / topographies” all of which spell out his name.
The Intaglio Poems concludes with nine short prose ‘narratives’; an eerie surrealism haunts these pieces and I find the world of the Belgian artist Paul Delvaux shimmering before my eyes and “love’s pictured pedestal” found in a ghost story. The poet admits to the accusation of “writing my name in water” and as I look back at the poems which blink their eyes in both directions, to the past and to the future, I cannot help but also recall Charles Tomlinson’s geometry of water in ‘Swimming Chenango Lake’:

“For to swim is also to take hold
On water’s meaning, to move in its embrace
And to be, between grasp and grasping, free.”

The Intaglio Poems by Iain Britton is an intriguing volume concerned with the ephemeral nature of things, as Nikolai Duffy writes. It is “carved out of a language aware of its own fragility” and images “cycle and recycle like tidal echoes”.

Ian Brinton, 7th October 2017

Scaplings by Michael Haslam (Calder Valley Poetry)

Scaplings by Michael Haslam (Calder Valley Poetry)

In the introduction to issue 1 of folded sheets (foldan sceatas), September 1986, the editor Michael Haslam wrote about his new magazine venture:

“It just aims to sheaf and bind some disparatenesses, making postal ground out of what else might run the risk of being several desperate isolations, facing the claims coherence makes upon identity.”

The subtitled address on the front cover of this exciting new venture some thirty years ago told us that the folded sheets in question were “of what new poetry is posted here” and on the fly-sheet there was an announcement concerning this “unplanned serial publication of new poetry, or prose / (or prose that is comparable to poetry, is similarly motivated, or at least may be self-conscious of the wherefore of its personally spoken tone)”. The eight issues of folded sheets contained poetry and prose by Kelvin Corcoran, Ken Edwards, Peter Hughes, Simon Marsh, Chris Torrance, John Wilkinson and many other important writers of the time. Issue 3 also contained a sequence of six poems by Peter Riley whose Pennine Tales was published by Bob Horne’s Calder Valley Poetry last year and which I reviewed for this blog at the end of July. In Riley’s six poems from folded sheets we stand “Finally on the edge of night” and recognise the “dark mottled fall of light / Tensed between the houses, which is / Itself a meaning but not itself articulate”. In the ninth poem from Pennine Tales the poet stands above Hebden Bridge:

“Out of the Hare & Hounds 11:20 with Mike Haslam
and stand on the edge of the moors. Difficult
to believe that a small bus will come and
pick us up. There is nothing here but stone
walls and distance. We are alone. We are nowhere.”

This new publication from Calder Valley Poetry offers a type of echoing reply as from one walker, one traveller, to another. Its full title is Scaplings, Star Jelly, and a Seeming Sense of Soul and it opens with references to other travellers whose ghosts haunt the heady lyrical surge that moves from bank to bank of these 36 poems:

“The edifice of work and life, an old retaining wall
that long held back a seam of flaking shale
collapses as a crumpled face into a rubble pile.

From high imperium to small importance fall
impotence, imprudence, impertinence and all
the way from imputation back to impact
trail the files for miles and fail
for want of style to face the facts beyond recall.”

The echo here is of course that of a traveller “from an antique land” whose discovery “of that colossal Wreck” in the desert sands of 1817 prompted Shelley to think of how high imperium falls to small importance:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Time and decay haunt Haslam’s masterful lyric display of fingers up and down a keyboard of Scarlatti sonatas. As Peter Riley puts it on the back cover of this delightful collection:

“On each of these 36 pages Michael Haslam sets out (on foot) into the world immediately confronting him, and gathers from it the words, experience, memories, percepts that he needs to form a poetry of rich texture. He does this singingly, so that the words echo each other and form queues, and with the sharpest awareness of all the bright play offered by language when it is opened up, when it faces its own history.”

As travellers move about leafing their way through pages of long told tales, Odysseus (“Nobody”) “steers / his craft across the shoals of an obscure idea”. The scaplings of “wedge-shaped lumps of offcut gritstone” are inserted into the mortar of language to hold the “block flush with the wallface”. Bunting would have loved these poems and I think of Peter Makin’s central book on the shaping of that Northumbrian’s verse:

“the good poem is the one that, once one has started saying its lines, an inner necessitation makes one want to say on – so interesting are the relations between the lines – through to the end.”

As Riley put it “words echo each other and form queues”; the walkers of a landscape walk over ground which shifts and changes; one which holds its original face; palimpsest:

“I view us two that day we came along the long catchwater drain
the climate light and delicate, a touch intemperate, the weather cold.
I can’t recall the exact date. The ground it seems is owned by some
consortium of infrastructure funds. When water passed
to private hands the heart deflated and evaporated from the state.

Our land miss-sold, how gently by permissive footpaths now
across their land our right to roam’s controlled! Free hearts for health
and heath. The heather blossom’s old. The physis that’s the bios,
physics of our lungs and things we hold above the ground beneath.”

To buy a copy of Michael Haslam’s Scaplings contact Bob Horne at http://www.caldervalleypoetry.com or caldervalleypoetry@yahoo.com

Ian Brinton, 23rd March 2017

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