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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

The Lonely Funeral by Maarten Inghels & F. Starik (Arc Publications)

The Lonely Funeral by Maarten Inghels & F. Starik (Arc Publications)

It was in June 1750 that Thomas Gray completed his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ before sending it to Horace Walpole:

“I have been here at Stoke a few days (where I shall continue good part of the summer); and having put an end to a thing, whose beginning you have seen long ago, I immediately send it to you.”

The poem became of course one of the most anthologized pieces throughout the past two-hundred and sixty-eight years and Arc’s new publication of The Lonely Funeral is firmly in that tradition of immensely powerful and haunting records of the deaths of those flowers “born to blush unseen”.
Starik’s Foreword to the volume places the scene:

“In Amsterdam there are approximately fifteen lonely funerals each year: lifelong junkies, solitary seniors, the occasional suicide. Undocumented migrants, drug mules, vagrants, victims of a questionable crime, professional drunkards who toppled into a canal weeks earlier. Most are discovered in their own home, after complaints by neighbours about the stench in the stairwell.”

And a ‘lonely funeral’ is one at which no one is present except pallbearers, one or two civil servants, the cemetery director and the funeral officiant. However, since November 2002 a project has got under way in which poets volunteer to attend these funerals of the unknown and forgotten so that they can read some words that place on record a shared sense of the common bond of humanity. The immense importance of this venture is of course for the living, as is true of all funerals. As Starik puts it “We pity no one. For us, all that counts is respect for a person’s life…the poet speaks in the darkness…We have no grief of our own”.
The first poem pays respect to an anonymous dead man who was found in an apartment in the Bijlmer, a social-housing district on the outskirts of Amesterdam. Starik suggests that he was probably from Ghana or Ivory Coast; nameless because without papers, without officially recognized identity. A migrating figure from The Dark Continent.

“Goodbye, nameless man, I salute you as you pass
into the last of lands where all are welcome,
where no one needs to know a thing about you.
Goodbye, man with no papers, no identity.

What brought you here? Who looks out through an empty window
now for you, nameless man, who’s waiting as I speak,
as I repeat my empty words in an almost empty room?
I came too late. I never knew you.”

When Gray sat in the churchyard at Stoke Poges in the mid-eighteenth century he gazed upon the stones which recorded humble lives. Buried there may be have been “Some village-Hampden that with dauntless breast / The little tyrant of his fields withstood” or some “mute inglorious Milton” who kept the “noiseless tenor” of his way. Gray names none of those whose resting-place is a “narrow cell” but what he does do is evoke a picture representing the “short and simple annals of the poor”. The breath of the poetry allows the reader to stand on the verge of individual clarity: we can almost see the picture of the living person who has been one of those flowers “born to blush unseen” where the use of the word “blush” conjures a hint of awareness, of social interaction.
Each poem is preceded by a short account of the known details concerning the body which is to be buried or cremated but the poems themselves speak in that darkness which constitutes our common bond. Number 40 is Mr. M.B. who died at the age of eighty-three:

“Just as the silence at his funeral was deafening, during his life Mr. M.B. also had no one to talk to. Andy had visited his place of residence in Antwerp-South, and had spoken to a neighbour. She did not know Mr. M.B. – yes, they had exchanged a word or two in the corridor once, when there was something wrong with his television, and he asked if she could help. But it never went as far as sitting down together in front of their favourite soap”.

The poem opens

“the things a person touches
carry their imprint for a while
an existence leaves a trail
that slowly fades away”

This is an immensely important book and I should like to see every school in this country acquire a couple of copies for their Libraries. It is a book which should be available within Secondary School English Departments where it could sit side by side with the powerful reconstructions from Chaucerian tale-telling, Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus for Comma Press in 2016. Gray’s elegiac meditations in a churchyard brought us to an awareness of “Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire” and less that fifty years later William Blake concluded his ‘Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ with the simplicity of an inclusive awareness of that common bond which keeps us pale: “Every thing that lives is Holy”. And what would a review of mine be without a passing reference to the poetry of J.H. Prynne whose introductory comment to the 1968 Ferry Press publication of Aristeas was from Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid:

“As to the destitute man who has no family, he takes his meals in the huts of his congeners; he enters a hut, takes –by right, not for charity – his seat by the fire, and shares the meal which always is scrupulously divided into equal parts; he sleeps where he has taken his evening meal.”

Ian Brinton, 1st September 2018

Stanze by Simon Marsh STILL LIFE by Ian Patterson (Oystercatcher Press)

Stanze by Simon Marsh  STILL LIFE by Ian Patterson (Oystercatcher Press)

Elegies have various narratives buried within them. Some, like Thomas Gray’s famous reflections in an eighteenth-century country churchyard, have incomplete ones: what might have been rather than what was. There are ironies underlying Gray’s use of the word ‘waste’ in the couplet

‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.’

Blushing suggests a social awareness, a young girl perhaps entertaining her earliest encounters with the opposite sex, and ‘waste’ records with a touch of wistful sorrow how those imagined ambitions of youth are lost to the inexorable marches of Time.
Simon Marsh’s sixteen short elegiac poems present the reader with narratives which accrue to become a ‘life’. The opening poem, ‘Notte’, registers the continuance of one narrative (‘nature’s circuitry’) acting its part as background to another narrative which has now reached conclusion. The inevitable new growth of seed ‘is soldered to / a board of silence’. The grief of personal loss cannot be contained within a narrative framework of magic and belief. When Leontes lost his wife in A Winter’s Tale he became the man who dwelt by a churchyard until the new statue of Hermione stirred from its pedestal and stepped down to greet him sixteen years after her death. Marsh’s sequence closes with another poem titled ‘Notte’ and here the ‘masonry bit / lodged in / our hearts’ causes memories to crumble as day breaks up night:

‘if you’re looking
for rubble
you’ve come
to the right place
night crumples
& is gone’

These sonnets are filled with moments of narrative: ‘caffeine stunned we breakfasted on cakes the size of runes’; ‘there was something wayward / in the way you searched / for last night’s embers / in the hearth’; ‘you kept me waiting often enough / but never quite like this’; scooping ‘vacant autumn oysters / from low tide silt’ near Margate.
When I edited a collection of essays about the work of Peter Hughes for Shearsman two years ago (An intuition of the particular), Simon Marsh opened his piece with such clarity of narrative that it comes as no surprise now to read his recollections ‘for Manuela Selvatico 1960-2010’ and have a past become a present:

‘In the middle of the night, after dinner in a trattoria on the Tuscolana outskirts of Rome, Hughes suggested we drive to Gran Sasso to watch the sunrise. We took a sizeable piece of pecorino cheese, a bottle of Jameson’s, the dog Peg, and set off.’

These stanzas, little rooms, that make up this fine Oystercatcher publication are reconstructed journeys that give a nod of recognition perhaps to Thomas Hardy’s ‘Poems of 1912-13’. Where Hardy opened ‘After a Journey’ with the assertive comment ‘Hereto I come to interview a ghost’ Simon Marsh opens ‘Ritorno’ with a sense of the risk involved in all Orphic ventures:

‘I return to the sea at my risk & in the end
decide to leave the beach alone
after all you filled the house with stones
I’ve numbered them for smoothness & taped
small flecks of rock wave here and thither
perhaps for later use…’

The risk involved in all backward glances is there immediately in the second of the two volumes dropped from the oystercatcher’s beak yesterday, STILL LIFE. Dedicated ‘to whom it may concern’, with an increasing feeling as we leaf through these carefully inscribed pages that it in fact concerns us all since absence and presence dominate our lives, the collection of poems opens with thorny difficulty: ‘NO WAY’:

‘No way to compare the very place
this sense felt before with pure breast
or self by adhesion among cranesbills

but at risk to restate or stage the world
of difference between the most difficult thing
and a life to imagine taking place between

one black bird and an other whole way’

Of course all life is individual and all sense of loss is personal. The limitation of language is that it cannot be the very thing it evokes and there is ‘no way to compare’ the particularity of ‘very place’. Every venture at contemplation of absence is a risk because nothing can be restated or staged again; language, symbolic gestures that arrive after the event, is imagination and the poet juxtaposes this limitation with the separated division of singularity in ‘one black bird’ (not even blackbird) and ‘an other’ (not even another).
When I wrote earlier this month about Peter Makin’s profoundly moving collection of poems from Isobar Press, Neck of the Woods, I referred to Fulke Greville’s poem ‘Absence and Presence’. Having spent some time weighing up the advantages of absence the Elizabethan poet concludes

‘But thoughts be not so brave,
With absent joy;
For you with that you have
Yourself destroy:
The absence which you glory,
Is that which makes you sorry,
And burn in vain:
For thought is not the weapon,
Wherewith thought’s ease men cheapen,
Absence is pain.’

This sequence of poems by Ian Patterson has a tone of quiet solemnity. There is a contemplative awareness of the fragility of humanity as ‘Unconnected with each other we meet / quiet and thoughtful and rock a little // regretfully round a building’. The titles of the poems offer us warnings: ‘NO WAY’; ‘WARNING IGNORED’; ‘THE MODE THAT WILL NOT BE WRITTEN’; ‘A SEEDY BOX’; ‘NIGHT VIEW’; ‘ONE’; ‘IMAGE DAMAGE’; ‘BROWN PAPER’; ‘FOOTSTEPS’; ‘EMPTY SPACE’; ‘COLD AGAIN’; ‘REBUKE’. They also offer us a serious reflective stance as the poet concludes his ‘REBUKE’ with the assertion that ‘It can be uncertain as whatever it was / received by the eye to disturb a power in my brain events / will be voyaging to trap the work of words shaped as if it still remains.’ Language may have its limitations but gaze carefully on what is after all STILL LIFE.
Tomorrow I shall be sending off my cheque for £25 to Oystercatcher Press renewing my subscription to a powerful and distinctive voice in contemporary British poetry. (www.oystercatcherpress.com)

Ian Brinton 25th October 2015.

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