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