From A Map of Reading Peter Riley's Passing Measures
53° 24.8' N 1° 27' W
I have been thinking about the title Passing Measures. What does our passing, our tenure of and through here, the world, this life, measure? Riley the walker is always encountering and passing by measures that others have made of their time here. And measure relates to words like 'soundings' and thus to language. Measures, in poetic terms, is perhaps obvious but we mustn't forget the older sense, older than metre. Senses of music and rhythmic structure.
But, then, I also find myself thinking about the principle that Wittgenstein establishes and explores in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that a proposition must be independent of what it records just as a measure must be independent of what it measures. What does that imply about 'poetry as measure'? One might almost say that poets and poetry are as obsessed with verification as Wittgenstein was in the Philosophische Bemerkungen.
Passing measures. A thing that governments do. A measure is a proposed legislative act. What act does a poem propose? Legislate: to make or enact laws. Is there a nod here to Shelley's 'unacknowledged legislators'? Well, I guess you could say that faith is a law that allows things to happen.
'Passing note or tone'. A note or tone foreign to the harmony, usually unaccented, that is interposed for melodic smoothness between essential notes or tones.' Passing. To a surprising degree. Exceedingly, extremely, very. Passing bell. The curfew tolls the knell of parting day. Passing. Marked by haste or inattention or inadequacy. A few passing remarks.
On p.22, the poem 'Distant Points' with 'the saint on his tiny island in the lake / like a doctor in his surgery'; and 'love like this'. To take the first phrase first, what pops into my head is Eliot's line from 'East Coker', 'The whole earth is our hospital' although I doubt that Riley takes much from Eliot. The saint and the doctor both speak to what Riley's own jacket note calls 'a meditative construct…reaching into an ethic of care'. But that's not only thing that makes the simile operative. One thing is clearly that the saint and the doctor perform the human condition as unconditionality: whatever comes through one's door. There might be a gentle irony at work though: a saint has all the time in the world to think, a doctor in a busy surgery little if any. Or perhaps no irony at all, merely a carefully compressed consideration of the relationship and intercirculation of thought and action.
Questions. Is the relationship between care and harm the 'great subject' of so-called experimentalist poetry in Britain in the postwar period, or more precisely, post-1970? Is this what distinguishes it from what Peter Middleton has called the poetry of mass observation and from what Ric Caddel once called High Street poetry? In this context, can Heaney's poetry be said to be exemplify the limited extent to which the dominant postwar anecdotal/confessional style can support a poetic founded on an exploration of the care/harm relationship? To demonstrate that, ultimately, it cannot witness it? That the anecdotal/confessional style cannot support - no, cannot sustain - the self as a source of insight?
And we haven't even started to think about form, whether it nourishes or starves.
Love recurs throughout this book. If I'm not reading Riley I often imagine that he's difficult and you do have to think about lines like 'The world-sheet breaks time open' in Sea Watch Elegies. But the difficulty comes from words like 'love', the plainness of them and Riley's uncompromising use of them. As if to say, I think we can all agree on what it means. In fact, Riley's use of the word is generally unqualified. As if we all know perfectly well what is and how it works. Love is at least a kind of theory of mind. That is, we can imagine others having it or not having it. Sometimes we can feel it.
53° 26' N 1° 20' W
The relation between outer and inner. 'Sparks of flesh' (23) – that is, us? What we do? Individually or in relation? We make the relation. And this is a poetry that wants to show that relation as it happens as constantly happening. The past and the present too. There is something about that inner-outer relation that doesn't change and that is what makes our relation between past and present. We are the relation. And the punctuation does a lot of this work, shows the 'happening'. There's not a lot of it: you have to divide the lines up into clauses yourself. And what there is doesn't function as you'd expect. It shows the flux of the felt, the thought, the observed. Commas are often like cuts and/or splices. And full stops are comfort stops or rests. The ends of poems are often just uncomfortable pauses. It is the form of the poem that makes them not the end of the thought. In one poem, the day is counted 'to a figured close'. 'Figured': senses of population, drawing, writing, estimating and understanding. We are making estimates and images in order to keep going. There are, it is said, three kinds of knowledge: imagination and opinion; reason; and intuition. This is poetry, that says, figures and is 'happening', that blurs those distinctions.
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I have given up counting the number of times the word 'love' appears in this poetry. Three examples:
i) 'a sense of love / Where centres meet and agree to become unstable'. (41)
ii) 'love's raging difference' (68)
iii) 'love fastens us to the earth / And time sees to the rest' (120)
This has the curious effect of introducing a note or undercurrent into a serious and meditative poetry of place and habitation, a note that is sometimes erotic, sometimes religious. But, more importantly, it introduces a note or undercurrent of possibility. Derrida writes in 'The Taste of Tears', his memorial for the philosopher Jean-Marie Benoist, 'One should not develop a taste for mourning, and yet mourn we must. We must, but we must not like it…' One could say the same about our feelings of being fragmented, dispossessed. The constant return to and circulation around 'love' in Riley's poetry is a way of reminding ourselves that we must not like those feelings, do not have to like them. Love is a step towards a collectivity even as it reveals itself as fragile, beset. In this sense, the number of times the word 'love' appears in this poetry signals a poetry of enquiry.
53° 24.8' N 1° 27' W
On the train this morning, two readings. A woman's foot tattooed in dark blue ink with what looks like a fragment of medieval tracery or an even earlier foliated scroll: a scrolling fragment of thorny vine. And in the first of Riley's poems entitled 'Djebel Bou Dabbous', the lines, 'The only god space I know is made in script / As a rich hollow at the heart of meaning / That can't be finished…' Never before has so much flesh so visibly carried the 'writing on and into' of the culture and its systems. And done so at the precise moment when careful writing is generally disregarded or, as some of my students would express it, 'dissed'.
'God space' – does this mean that what we inscribe here/there can only be an absence, a god-shaped space? Or does space still suggest the possibility of an entering in, a habitation by something from outside us, a moment when utterance suddenly opens on to what we might call 'otherance'? Well, says the poem, at least we can know that is an absence.
53° 44.58' N 0° 53' W
In the poem 'S.Cecilia in Trastevere': 'What moves between bright thought and finished body?' What a question. Is this like asking what moves between intuition and a sonnet? Between blueprint and mortared bricks? Is a finished body a dead one? A finished body is not necessarily a perfected one.
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His authority is the place and, sometimes, what man has put there. He notes it and quotes it. So if this is a poetry of enquiry, it is as if he is saying something and then backing it up. Supporting it. In the words of that church. Or, as the track has it. As the headland observes. As the scarp suggests.
46° 59.2' N 3° 09.7' E
I keep reading one or two phrases and then feeling tremendously fatigued, wanting to sleep. A late night partly to blame. But also the import of some of these phrases is enormous. There is a sense of a huge terrain that one has crossed, of exhausting thoughts. A long journey from the start to the finish of a line or a poem.
45° 23.5' N 3° 22.3' E
On p.19, 'To see one thing clearly we distort / the entire landscape.' This is, as the poem says later, a caution – a caution for the reader and the writer. But not only for them. Seeing clearly is also seeing carefully but care itself may be a distortion. We do not have multi-faceted concentration. We are not like the alien that David Bowie plays in The Man Who Fell To Earth. We cannot watch dozens of screens at the same time. We can shut out voices that inconvenience us.
Another word/concept that recurs: 'script'. On p.19, 'the script of light'. On p.43, 'a line of light writes final relief'. On p.98, 'an old ridge-and-furrow system' is an 'engrossed script'. The world, then, challenges us to be readers. But reminds us, if we can read, that everything we do writes here. And this is not some postmodern, self-reflexive cliché – although how can it be a cliché when many poets still write as if they've never entertained the thought? – but a matter of impression. And here's a thought: to pass a measure, you have to be able to entertain a thought.
On pp.53-4: 'A red mullet… // Eaten with care, with world trust / under the conflicting messages.' I have been wondering about that 'under'. A typical Riley 'turn'. It speaks to 'world trust' as a kind of ground bass that persists under the conflicting messages. Or it speaks to 'world trust' as a kind of space under the conflicting messages. Or it speaks to world trust under the rule, under the governance of, the conflicting messages. And that suggests a kind of Derridean gap. What Sean Gaston in another of the few books I have with me, The Impossible Mourning of Jacques Derrida, calls a gap that moves. Us. And Gaston also draws attention to something Heidegger says about Dasein, that it 'cannot signify anything like an occurrence at a position in 'world space'. (See Being and Time, 104-5). But there is a sense of movement involved in Dasein which, Gaston notes, Derrida picks up on in Aporias: 'by preceding oneself as if one had a meeting with a oneself that one is but does not know.' (Gaston, p.63).
'One is always labouring, it would seem, in the immense post facto of some existentially charged milieu', writes Gustaf Sobin on p.193 of Luminous Debris: Reflecting on Vestige in Provence and Languedoc. The temperature today hovers between 38-40°C. Couvrez-vous, says the bimbo on the Météo. Lizard on the windowsill. Insects on my arm and on this page, just black and red dots. David Morley told me off once for trying to write a poem in which similar insects were likened to particles, quarks, etc. But that was back when I thought that poetry had to be really 'zeitgeisty'. Now I think: let the novelists do that. Which is not to imply – old chestnut – that poetry is concerned with universals where other forms are not. But a lot of contemporary novelists just seem concerned with local noise/s. Or maybe it's just that they can't locate local noise/s. Well, at least we have Coetzee. At least we have Houellebecq.
Is it really true, as Sobin writes elsewhere in Luminous Debris, that we are so late to the world that we can only look backwards? And does this connect with something that Gaston draws our attention to in 'Plato's Pharmacy': Derrida writing that writing is 'the lost son' that always writes itself as the father-not-present? And then there is something else that Gaston notes, that Derrida hardly wrote a book. He only published collections of articles, lectures and talks. What poet sits down to write a book? He/she gathers fugitive pieces into a book. You connect the dots. You bridge the gaps. So the idea contained in the subtitle of Passing Measures is an important one: 'a collection of poems'. Not a 'selection' or a 'selected' and certainly not 'the' collected. Simply, 'a'. A collection of poems that are themselves recollections.
The titles of the poems. They come first but may have been written last. The word title contains the word 'tilt' which suggests an attempt, an almost Quixotic stab, at the subject of the poem. The word 'title' contains the word 'tile' which suggest that a title is a kind of roof for a poem, that it finishes the poem off. And then there are the gaps between titles and poems. The gaps that we as readers have to cross and once we've crossed those gaps we look back, read back, at the title like a bearing, an orientation point. If it's an Ashbery poem, for example, we can feel a bit let down, tricked even. By the time we get to the opening line, the title seems to have moved like the staircases in Hogwarts. In crossing that gap, then, do we know precisely where we are going or have we already forgotten why we set out? Or perhaps the gap between the title and the poem is a curious admixture of the two. Here are some crossings that Riley invites us to make between title and first line:
1. 'Ballad of the Broken Bridge' – 'If you want messages you must provide an orifice'.
2. 'Lacoste' – 'The landscape is a thought thing'.
3. 'Djebel Bou Dabbous' – 'Of what are we ashamed?'
50° 57' N 1° 50' E
A child shrieks, anxiety or delight spilling over into the carriage. 'Please make sure your luggage is labelled and is not blocking the aisles or the doorways.' One could write a lot about that cry – Lacanian discussions of need, demand and desire. How that cry is already the song of das Ding, the transcendent void that Lacan says drives the work desire. In the words of Henry Staten, one of the best readers of this aspect of Lacan's work, das Ding is 'The transcendent or transcendental non-object, the negative of the Platonic Idea in whose place it nevertheless stands, at the summit of the hierarchy of desires.' It's tempting to equate das Ding with the fact that Lacan had Courbet's 'L'Origine du Monde' hanging in his apartment for years and no-one who went there ever mentioned it. And art historians, who were none the wiser, thought the painting was elsewhere. But that's for another time and another symposium.
And, equally, one could write a lot about that polite, slightly accented request. That our passage here is always a kind of giving way, a consideration to and of others. But that it starts with that cry that gives no consideration, that begs to be heard, that pierces interpretation.
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My friend and translator, the Polish poet Jacek Gutorow, has said of his own work in an interview given to Jacek Podsiadło in 2001 that,
the poem is simultaneously a record of one's experiences and a continuing meditation on language as something getting in the way. So I'm obsessed by questions like: Can you faithfully translate your experiences into language? And, supposing you can't, what is to be done? How to write? What for? And in whose nameThese are urgent questions—though clearly not for all poets. These are urgent questions—though clearly not only for poets. The way we are living is the translation of our experiences. We can hear/see/whatever the translation happening if we choose to. Choosing enables singing. Choosing enables the category of questions that Gutorow only makes a tantalising selection from. We seem to have come round to another point of beginning.
© David Kennedy 2007