The Coconstitution of Text and Context: Eco-Phenomenology in Peter Riley's Excavations

Sara R. Greaves.

"Our first truly archaeological poet", according to Charles Rzepka, was William Wordsworth, and like Wordsworth's "The Thorn", Riley's monologues "register the opacity of remains that arrive in the present moment of embodied encounter lacking narratives, offering little more than an inventory of anonymous bones and ashes, and a handful of measurements" (Rzepka, 1). Striving to interpret those remains, to break down the recalcitrant anonymity of death and reach the personal, they reveal a consciousness on the move, scrutinizing and feeling, musing and remembering, describing, deciphering and hypothesizing, caught up in a never-ending quest to recover the lost narratives of the long-dead lives. "The Thorn" was published in Lyrical Ballads, the canonical founding text of British Romanticism, and was part of the project to redefine lyrical poetry through, among other things, a new approach to nature. Although the comparison should not be taken too far, Riley's Excavations has perhaps a not so dissimilar ambition for renewing lyric poetry, and can helpfully be considered in terms of the relatively recent branch of philosophy known as eco-phenomenology. According to Charles Brown and Ted Toadvine in their introduction to Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself, phenomenology distinguishes itself by "its unique capacity for bringing to expression, rather than silencing, our relation with nature and the experience of value rooted in this relation" (Brown and Toadvine, xii). "Oikos", as Jonathan Bate recalls in The Song of the Earth, means "home" or "dwelling-place", and eco-phenomenology, like eco-poetics, is concerned with making or constituting the natural environment as a home for humanity[1]. Peter Riley's Excavations consists of a sequence of meditations on death and loss – the death of individuals but also of their stories and music, the loss of love and loved-ones –, in the course of which earth-based phenomena are drawn into a moving consciousness as it restlessly reaches for the words which will both find, and found, the earth as dwelling-place.

In an earlier study of Distant Points[2] (Greaves), I showed how diverse fragments are inserted into an overall embedding text through juxtaposition – an effect made more palpable by the material differentiation of the extracts through the use of different typefaces –, and how throughout the poems, textual and syntactical boundaries abound. As well as an effect of contrast and sharp limits, I showed that these points of juncture also work as hinges or pivots, thanks to a pervading syntactical ambiguity which allows the reading to continue over the boundaries, thus downtoning the collage effect. Reading the critic Kathleen Lundeen on William Blake and the problem of ontology, I was struck by her focus on the interaction of verbal text and visual design, and her contention that, "By peering through the seams in Blake's text – the verbal and visual borders – we may discover, as Blake evidently did, that ontological boundaries are actually perceptual boundaries, which dissolve with improved vision" (Lundeen, 162). The philosopher Irene J. Klaver has a similar description of boundaries, which she uses to illustrate her conception of eco-phenomenology. She writes: "A boundary stone does not limit one property against another, but marks a transition. Boundaries are places where different entities, different modes of being, different ontological domains, meet, interact with each other, give and take from each other – places of heterogeneity and diversity that call for negotiation, or translation" (Klaver, 162). She also isolates a model for dynamic interaction derived from Maurice Merleau-Ponty and considered by him to be "fundamental", based on "sedimentation and reactivation". She writes: "It is precisely this dynamic between reactivating the sedimented and the sedimentation of activity that I see as the guiding thread for contemporary phenomenology interested in the natural world" (Klaver, 157). This convergent interest in boundaries, and Merleau-Ponty's highly suggestive model, may prove helpful to a discussion of the coconstitution of text and context in Peter Riley's Excavations, while offering an apt neo-romantic replacement for the traditional Romantic model based on the reconciliation of opposites, as defined by Coleridge[3]. I shall take "text" and "context" in two different ways; first the two terms will be treated from a purely linguistic point of view, secondly, "text" will be taken to mean the whole body of poems, while "context" will be taken extra-textually and used to designate a particular referential framework, that of the environment, what Riley elsewhere calls "earthscape" (Riley, 1983), as follows: first, the term "text" will be taken to denote the meditative embedding that constitutes the main body of each poem, and "context" as the "circumstances or facts that surround a particular event or situation" (Webster's Dictionary), in this case the descriptions of the ancient burial mounds, embedded like strata in the text.

The Preface begins by focusing our attention on the factual nature of the poetic inspiration. It declares, "These are: meditations on 19th century excavation reports of the uncovered contents of prehistoric burial mounds in northern England, mostly of the period known as "early Bronze age", with emphasis on the apparent funerary disposition and orientation of the body and its parts in relation to other features of the tumulus and its whereabouts" (Riley, 2004, 5)[4]. Noteworthy in this introductory sentence is the word "report", which sets the tone for the factual, materialistic approach that anchors the meditations throughout, recalling thereby the phenomenological emphasis on "facticity"[5]. Moreover, the context is textual; it is not left outside but is materially included within the text in the form of italicized extracts such as: "four large flint flakes in a row along her back […] a yellow pebble the size and shape of a hen's egg set at the end of the row, at the base of her skull" (34); – extracts collaged together with snatches of Renaissance madrigals, producing a polarization between scientific facticity on one side, lyrical meditation on the other. One means of negotiating a boundary, Klaver writes, is to have the opposed fields translate into each other. This is what the two main discourses, the factual and the lyrical, do when they flow into one another, as Keith Tuma has pointed out[6], so that the opaque, unyielding material substances of the archaeological descriptions become increasingly emotional and meaningful, while the lyrical text becomes suffused with descriptive facticity.

Moreover, what I have here called "context" is not merely a fixed descriptive pole serving to trigger the meditations, and elements of the funerary descriptions recur taking on new significations. Thus the phrase "Both hands on top of his head" (119), which opens Part Three of Excavations is descriptive; it then recurs several times in the group of poems called "Preludes", which all relate to the same tumulus, and serves to illustrate different trains of thought, different meditations on the death, or life, recorded there. Although it functions first and foremost as description, it is quickly perceived as an index of pain: "pain beaming from the corner to the centre, where no one lives, no heart moves" (119). It then appears in brackets as a concrete illustration of the reflection on lyric poetry, serving to denounce the blandishments of the genre: "[Lyric] thieves its vocabulary from memory but disregards the submersion of pain in time (both hands on top of head) until it is too late" (119). Secondly it recurs in: "Then an eye-line emerges from the limbs' disarray, from the edge of the dome, and darts North-East, delocalised affect at the focus both hands on top of his head only to crash into a low stone wall, redirecting the possible world to about 15 degrees' aberration from reliance, and narrowing" (121). Here the italicized phrase is inserted in a sentence which starts literal then veers figurative; it is no longer simply an eloquent index of pain, but reads rather as an expression of horror in the face of imminent death. In the following example the phrase is not repeated as such, but summarized: "protected head". The meditating voice now reflects upon a possible modern identity for these human remains: "Perhaps a traveller, a modern politician, floating out for a term, pocket of hidden agenda two water-worn pebbles and protected head. From thought perhaps. Or the winds that bring difference, the impress of populations on the earth" (127). In this satirical portrait the meaning of the protected head is speculated upon, and seen as an unsympathetic response to other people's pain. Thus the descriptive phrase becomes a fluid poetic image subtly redefined by the flux of consciousness, its suggestiveness picking up the thematic threads of pain, death and inhumane politics, subsequently becoming more specific with the mention of Rwanda, Croatia and Transylvanian Jewish music. Meanwhile the context is visibly intertwined with the text, even as the boundary between the two becomes increasingly porous, and as the categories of text and context, past and present, seem to be neither static nor given and to develop in a relation neither of precedence nor hierarchy, but of reciprocity and coconstitution.

So far we have focused on the internal dynamics of border crossing, now let us turn to the external dynamics. At the beginning of Part III we may read: "And they unravelled his story and danced in the space his will created and set out a map or life on the floor "such that time and place are understandable, and can be wrought" (120). This is a description of the prehistoric funerary art, and we note the active role assigned to the spectator or map-reader: "can be wrought". Surely this is what Riley's prose poems try to do: unravel the stories and dance in the space, which is to say improvise rhythmically, and draw up a map of both nature and culture to be offered the reader as a help in his/her navigation – to borrow a favourite metaphor from Riley – through life; as a help, indeed, in understanding (that is to say, standing under) and thereby constructing, time and place, which is to say context. For, as the eco-phenomenological philosophers contend, our relation with our context, the natural environment, is not a given, is not there for the taking, but has to be constituted or "wrought".

Leaving "time" aside, "place" is the Yorkshire wolds. This earth-based context is most obviously represented through the naming of rocks or sediment with geological precision, thus bringing into consciousness – in keeping with the phenomenological emphasis on description and particulars – what lies beneath the surface, not as an indiscriminate mass, but as specialized substances: "chalk rubble, burnt earth, charcoal" (150). What is striking about their presentation, moreover, is that these substances tell stories, they bear narratives of erosion and resistance, of displacement and relocalisation: "of sand and clayey matter, which formed an eminence, being more resistant than the surrounding subsoil to denudation" (27). Insofar as they tell stories, these phenomena are not remote instances of radical otherness, but part of our world of language, of text. The title, Excavations, prepares us for a phenomenological approach in the vein of Merleau-Ponty, with its emphasis both on laying bare – as if to break through the veil of preconceived ideas –, and on building – as when the ground is excavated prior to construction –, as if to suggest a reciprocity of perception or an overlap between the seer and the seen. For Merleau-Ponty, indeed, visibility lies in the externalizing of what is internal, or vice versa, with the human body seen in a relation of continuity with the world: "Ce qu'il y a donc, ce ne sont pas des choses identiques à elles-mêmes qui, par après, s'offriraient au voyant, et ce n'est pas un voyant, vide d'abord, qui, par après, s'ouvrirait à elles, mais quelque chose dont nous ne saurions être plus près qu'en le palpant du regard, des choses que nous ne saurions rêver de voir 'toutes nues', parce que le regard même les enveloppe, les habille de sa chair" (Merleau-Ponty, 1964a, 171). This conception of fleshly continuity with the world is one of the most fruitful philosophical models for eco-phenomenology[7] and also seems to inform this poetry which insists obsessively on the position of the body in the earth.

Indeed, the burials are presented as maps, as an abstract language of lines, angles, directions and prepositions of place, all derived from the life led, a handful of disparate disconnected signs of which the referent is lost. The positions of the bodies are given with reference to the cardinal points: "a woman facing S" (199), "head to North facing East" (102), etc. This obsession with orientation reflects the archaeologists' passion for descriptive precision and has led to theories such as the one about the bodies being positioned so as to face the land the tribe is thought to have come from[8]. To the poet orientation is a sign language, and the disposition of the bones and objects holds the clues to the individual lives lived: "and the clues are in the disposition, very clear" (194), and "These tenuous dispositions are viewed as abstract and not mysterious" (124). Thus, the East is the direction of possibility, the West of result; the North suggests danger and adventure, the South ease and sedentariness. Nevertheless, the cardinal points do not work straight-forwardly as a code, but always command attention as literal, physical, spatial referents, thus arguing for what has been termed the eco-phenomenological paradigm of "humans-as-a-part-of-nature", as opposed to the discredited Cartesian model of "man-apart-from-nature"[9]. Indeed, while rocks are seen to tell stories, the experiences of the completed lives are branded in the earth's strata: "This structure gathers all the heat of an active life against fortune, scorches the ground with it, signs its fracture and gently half-seals it under yellow clay…" (120). Not a dichotomy, then, but a suggestive reciprocity: "…light and weight, mutually enacted" (145), or "This line […] where light and substance collide" (157), or again "solidified light" (179), in a phrase reminiscent of Merleau-Ponty's neologism: "la voluminosité du monde" (Merleau-Ponty, 1964b, 27). This reciprocity can be seen in the way the earth is constantly wrapped into the lyrical meditations, and, vice versa, in the numerous nature/culture combinations: "…through a landscape of sown teeth…" (133), "…which finds reparation on the furrowed edge of the consonant, reluctance in the wooded echo" (194), "…where ice coats the blade and the mind grazes narrative" (185); in an ongoing part-literal part-metaphorical gesture which leaps from phrase to phrase, from nature to culture, by a sort of leap of faith which reaches out into the unknown: "a strange dark thing made known and inhabitable" (176). The poems strain to retrieve what is lost through a dogged digging for meaning: "and we, slowly uncovering, layer upon layer, not understanding, revealing, mark upon mark, mark cancelling mark, footprints in the sand, rewriting memory to a set of affirmatives and departures/exact or not, but curved, floreate, lifting frail emblems from the earth in a stillness, with hints of marine débris" (173). It is in the course of such a quest, combining levity and gravity, that the poetry offers some effective ways of making matter matter.

The relationship between subject and object, humanity and nature, seer and seen, is at the heart of Merleau-Ponty's philosophy, as it was of Romantic philosophy, and the meaning of matter can be approached via his chiasmic formulation: "reactivation of the sedimented, sedimentation of the active" (Klaver, 157). According to this view, the traditional oppositions are seen not as dichotomous pairs or as antinomies, but as overlapping. In Le visible et l'invisible we read: "…le corps senti et le corps sentant sont comme l'envers et l'endroit, ou encore, comme deux segments d'un seul parcours circulaire, qui, par en haut, va de gauche à droite, et, par en bas, va de droite à gauche, mais qui n'est qu'un seul mouvement dans ses deux phases" (Merleau-Ponty, 1964a, 180). Merleau-Ponty's metaphor seems particularly appropriate to a poetry greatly concerned with actual sediment, with sand, chalk, clayey matter and so on, and there is also a topological contrast between hills and valleys, echoed moreover by a book mentioned in the bibliography to Distant Points by W.H. Pearsall, evocatively entitled "Mountains and Moorland". Valleys, as Riley remarks in an as yet unpublished interview[10], contain sediment, brought down from the mountains by rainfall and made fertile by the mountains' minerals, and mountains and moorlands, hills and valleys, can be said to be interconnected in a mutually fertilising circularity. Figuratively, mountains are an age-old symbol of freedom and escape, the valley the place of enclosure and tilling the land, associated with a safe sedentary existence – an opposition we have already seen in the cardinal points. Merleau-Ponty's chiasmus would be fruitful for a discussion of poetry generally, with respect to the relationship between speech and language, where language can be seen as sedimentation, in need of reactivation by poetic speech, and this is certainly the case here, where a high-flown yet casual lyricism does not prohibit a certain linguistic playfulness, which frequently opens onto the question of matter. A particularly telling example is "the ground", which recurs frequently throughout the poems in different grammatical forms, including as a singular noun, "a ground", to mean, among other things, the ground or basso ostinato in a piece of early music: "Lament on a ground" (128). According to this obviously self-referential phrase, the "ground" suggests the recurring burial descriptions with the cardinal points a little like the numbers in a figured bass, and the meditations the chords as they are "realised" by the harpsichordist, to produce a music not written or fixed but fluid and fugitive. The effect of such an analogy, whereby the ground becomes a ground and vice versa, is to intimate once again an overlap and interdependency between nature and culture, humanity and the earth. Here is another musical example: "…the harm of venture set against the harm of settlement and wrought into a linear harmony standing on three feet, singing words to save the world" (124). Here the word "harm" is brought into resonance with "harmony", lending the musical term a new etymological root in life's dilemmas.

Modern society, it seems, stands accused of ignoring death and pain as it ignores matter, or the earth, and Riley's meditations seem to obey the law of gravity in the way they come back down to earth towards the end of many of the poems with particulars, often incongruous details which are surprisingly uplifting: "small clouds scatter sky lightens above sheds and fills empty bottles" (80); "…in a caul of opening throats, where each vowel becomes a field of thrift" (28); "In the dark that is never quite black, the red seeds shuffle" (129). Death and pain are the heart of the matter, to be found at the heart of matter, the earthscape which constitutes our context of which humanity stands in for the text, in a disturbing, highly non-romantic reversal whereby nature is death and culture life, but where the terms are not opposed but almost reversible, caught up in the circulation of energy from one to the other: "If I was honest I turned, ever so cautiously, the trust I copied about its own pivot, set round with dark and fertile tokens as a phrasal shoulder heaves out of the earth in response to a circular cry" (108).

Circularity, reciprocity, overlapping: these terms are all appropriate to a textuality which posits a mode of perception in which the hiatus between humanity and nature has become almost obsolete, in which interiority and exteriority have become interchangeable. Perhaps this is because the means to an eco-phenomenology is through a phenomenology of death, which is the moment or place at which the meeting between that anagrammatic pair, heart and earth, or between matter and meaning, can be said to be epitomized, the point at which humanity and the world collide or coincide most dramatically, thus providing – paradoxically it may seem – an opening, a point of access. What the poems begin to offer, in terms of a relation with nature, is an approach to the traditional dualisms in which the inhabitable space depends on a dynamic, where the possibility of an oikos or dwelling-place lies in a fleeting, fluid, constantly flowing interaction between language and the world. As if echoing Merleau-Ponty's chiasmus, Peter Riley has said: "If you win the struggle you reduce your context to a language, and then you can step out of it, back into where you are" (Tuma, 1999/2000b, 14).


BATE, Jonathan, The Song of the Earth, London: Picador, 2000.
BROWN, Charles and TOADVINE, Ted, eds., Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself, Albany: State University of NY, 2003.
COLERIDGE, S.T., Biographia Literaria (1906), ed. George Watson, London: Everyman, 1991.
GREAVES, Sara, "Romanticism as a Mode within which to Work: Impersonality and Emotion in Basil Bunting's Briggflatts and Peter Riley's 'Distant Points'", Present Perfect I, Impersonality and emotion in Twentieth-Century British Literature, eds. Christine Reynier and Jean-Michel Ganteau, Montpellier III, 2005, 143-153.
KLAVER, Irene J., "Phenomenology on (the) Rocks", Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself, Albany: State University of NY, 2003, 155-169.
LUNDEEN, Kathleen, Knight of the Living Dead: William Blake and the Problem of Ontology, Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP, 2000.
MERLEAU-PONTY, Maurice, Phénoménologie de la perception, Mesnil-sur-l'Estrée: Gallimard, 1945.
------- Le Visible et l'invisible, Saint-Amand: Gallimard, 1964a.
------- L'Oeil et l'esprit, Mayenne: Gallimard, 1964b.
RILEY, Peter, Tracks and Mineshafts, Matlock: Grosseteste, 1983.
------- Distant Points : Excavations Part One Books One and Two, London: Reality Street, 1995.
------- Excavations, Hastings: Reality Street, 2004.
RZEPKA, Charles J., "From Relics to Remains: Wordsworth's "The Thorn" and the Emergence of Secular History", Romanticism on the Net, Issue 31, ed. Michael Eberle-Sinatra, Université de Montréal, ISSN 1267 1255 (electronic version), 2003.
TOADVINE, Ted, "The Primacy of Desire and its Ecological Consequences", Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself, Albany: State University of NY, 2003, 139-153.
TUMA, Keith, "Excavation and Contemplation: Peter Riley's Distant Points" and "An Interview with Peter Riley", "The Poetry of Peter Riley", The Gig 4/5, Toronto: Coach House, 1999/2000, 185-195, 7-27.


[1] "Ecopoetics asks in what respects a poem may be a making (Greek poiesis) of the dwelling-place – the prefix eco- is derived from Greek oikos, 'the home or place of dwelling'" (Bate, 75).
[2] This volume contains the first two books of the 2004 publication, Excavations.
[3] "This power [that of imagination], […] reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative …" (Coleridge, 174).
[4] From this point on the quotations from Peter Riley's Excavations will simply be referred to by their page number.
[5] "Mais la phénoménologie, c'est aussi une philosophie qui replace les essences dans l'existence et ne pense pas qu'on puisse comprendre l'homme et le monde autrement qu'à partir de leur 'facticité'" (Merleau-Ponty, 1945, 1).
[6] Keith Tuma observes that the archaeological prose has been "invariably rearranged, condensed", while the Renaissance lyrics are often "misremembered", so that the haunting recurrence of the factual descriptions of bodies in the tombs "gain[s] an affective weight" (Tuma, 1999/2000a, 188).
[7] "This problematic tendency is also apparent in recent phenomenologically oriented approaches to environmental philosophy, for example, in recent attempts to establish a kinship of the human and the natural on the basis of Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of corporeality and later ontology of flesh" (Toadvine, 139).
[8] "[A]nthropologists have found instances where in the disposition of burials the dead are set to face the land which the people are said to have come from, be this fact or fiction, and shall return to, dead or alive" (Riley, 2004, 214).
[9] Toadvine, 139. A footnote explains that: "I have adopted the expressions 'man-apart-from-nature' and 'humans-as-a-part-of-nature' from Don E. Marietta Jr., whose use of the masculine and gender-neutral expressions is intentional." (Toadvine, 150).
[10] Possibly in a future issue of Etudes britanniques contemporaines.


This article was first published in Etudes britanniques contemporaines, Numéro 30, Montpellier: Publications de l'Université Paul-Valéry, juin 2006

Sara Greaves
Université de Provence, Aix-Marseille 1.

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