Ghostly Others on a Ridge-Top Walk: Peter Riley's "Aria with Small Lights"

Alistair Noon

Peter Riley's 286-line "Aria with Small Lights" meditates on the inevitability of death, on what's worthwhile in life, on the hurt of the world, and the necessity of the domestic. A lyrical self walks along a hill ridge in Tuscany, finds a graveyard, sees the lights of human settlement, reflects on his place in the world, makes asides on human suffering both past and present. The poem shifts through moods and modes of catharsis, humility, estrangement, gloom and consolation, and oscillates between the distant and the immediate. Maintaining cross-stanza rhyming from start to finish, its thirty-one stanzas mix elements of elegy, pastoral, ode, song, sestina, sonnet, and fugue.

Moving through the poem are a number of ghosts. But not so much putative paranormal phenomena as ghosts in the sense retained in the German cognate Geist, translatable as mind or spirit. The setting is night, and the first stanza already releases some of the spirits who will haunt the poem:

At an ordinary life I walked one night
on the high ridge top, Vitiana, great valley
of the Serchio north of Lucca, I walked
nobody about, late evening, the stone ginnels
and steps, enormous toads and fireflies, warm
darkness, I walked up behind the village.
There was a glow round a corner. In the hand
of the night haze I wasn't anyone, I had
no history, some kind of foreigner under a wall.
The lyrical self is ghostly: in this and later stanzas it is described variously as a "foreigner", a "stranger", "nameless and unknown", "a ghost entering / people's houses quietly through the closed door". The "glow round a corner" is both observed detail and a vortex for the various ghostly elements which participate in the poem. These include the inhabitants of the village where the walk takes place. They are never seen, but implied by that "glow round a corner", the "small lights" of the houses, their "lit windows". The animal denizens, too, are disembodied. Chief among these are the fireflies and toads, the Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns of the text. Neither are visible in their actual physical substance: the fireflies – the second form of small light in the poem - are present through their bioluminescence, the toads via their croaking. The environment itself becomes a kind of ghost in the poem, with which the speaker engages but from which he is also removed. Death is "the sea full of shadows waiting / to return".

There are also more identifiable ghosts in the poem. One is the father of the ridge-top walker: the latter is out walking as "the traces of my father / still hung about me", and is "in slow flight… from the shadow of my father." Modern-day immigrants are "not yet here and no longer there", the inmates of concentrations camps are recalled as "shades behind lethal wire / dressed in stripes", and the walker remembers "the southern victims of corporate greed". A wider, undefined history is also a kind of ghost: "in the smoke that / rises from the stage lights we sing of beauty and old wars".

Singers of beauty and old wars abound in the lines of the poem, though they are typically diaphanous rather than corporeal. The walking motif summons up Wordsworth, the graveyard setting and elegiac element call in on Thomas Gray (namechecked in the poem), the technique of repeated words and motifs revisits Sidney's "Astrophil and Stella". Glyn Pursglove, in a review of the poem (1) on its first publication by West House Books, pointed out that the final lines –

of 1965 are set in a nosegay and placed on the ground.
Turns and heads for home without a sound.
– echo the end of Milton's "Lycidas":

At last he rose and twitched his mantle blue:
Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.
You could also add: the end of Part III of Bunting's "Briggflatts" (a poem datelined – is it a coincidence? – 1965):

So he rose and led home silently through clean woodland
where every bough repeated the slowworm's song.
Odd bits of Dylan Thomas phrasing crop up: "it was the very town of death". Remember Yeats' "Nine bean-rows will I have there…" (The Lake Isle of Innisfree")? The walker finds "bean-frames on the rich hillside". Riley's "roots of separation" are the inverse of Eliot's "roots that clutch". At times a Biblical note sounds, specifically the tone of the letters of Paul (also namechecked): "And these are things that / we have always had". Another refraction of the Biblical is the Dantesque "lost names / file in at the door on a hopeless quest for peace". Shades of Auden and the Night Mail appear in the town "busy about its businesses telephoning across the land". "Mother ashes, grand dame, where is all that fuss?" has a generic Shakespearean or Marvellian quality to it. Way, way in the background are the encounters with the dead in The Odyssey and The Aeneid, when the respective heroes journey into the underworld. In Riley's poem though, the voices of the ghosts are very much a murmur rather than a shout (in contrast to the ghost who appears in another cemetery poem, the skinhead in Tony Harrison's "v.").

The literary ghost doing the most haunting is WS Graham. The very first words of the poem – "At an ordinary life" – have, through the unexpected but plausible preposition, a Grahamesque mixture of strangeness and clarity, doing unusual but meaningful things with the small words of the language too. "At" conceives of the noun which it describes as being a unitary whole, rather than an event unfolding over time, as the more usual, if prosaic, "during" or "in the course of" would imply. The first stanza contains the Graham-like enjambement of "warm / darkness", fracturing the collocation between adjective and noun and two stresses. The appeals to the reader, the "lurker behind", also recall the Man from Greenock: "where / are you this dark night hovering in and out / of the bean frames on the rich hillside". These lines utilize the technique of the sudden rhetorical question, coming in almost out of nowhere:

… And where do you come in
With your musical key-ring and brilliant
Whistle pitched for the whipped dog?

(Clusters Travelling Out, part 5)
Or again: "…What are these, who suddenly seem so educated and tall?" There seems to be a glance here at the career trajectory of the poet from a working-class background – WS Graham, Peter Riley, and, once more, Tony Harrison.

Other formal techniques ghost through the poem, contributing to a flow and unity that are part and parcel of the meaning. A variable rhyme scheme of ABCDEFGHI(J), carried over from stanza to stanza, has something of both the sonnet and the sestina, and gives a sense of simultaneity: the poem extends over time but still seems to be one moment, to represent one perception. The explicit musical reference in the title of the poem is justified by the transcendent, time-stopping quality it shares with live music. Words and phrases are not only repeated as in song, but modulated as in fugue. Frequently, a concept or image reappears in a variant form in the immediately following stanza: "no history" morphs into "no language", "mother rosebush" turns to "mother ash", "the southern victims of corporate greed" become "the victims of massive corporate indifference". At its most extended, the technique is used for a cameo appearance by Thomas Hardy (see Riley's online notes (2)) in the lines "an old man in Dorset seeking the art of forgetting / in slow sung syllables before dawn", which modulates to "this / old fellow walking slowly up to the graveyard where / his memories are errant fireflies". Modulation may extend through the whole poem, as is the case with – excuse the pun – the lightmotif of the poem: "small lights", "colourless lights", "the blue light", "the dim lamp", "lit windows", "the lit shrine", "the lights on the shrine", "points of cold fire", "the burial lights", "the earth-flares", "the sky fires", "yesterday's gold light on the white arch", "old light, Italian", "the burning light". In the poem's structure of reference, echo and association, the atoms are closely packed together yet are still able to move. There is a sense of both formality and fluidity.

The drive of the poem, then, is based on the counterpointing of a lyrical self with a set of ghostly others. The faintness with which these appear enacts the fundamental remove at which inhabitants of the "spoilt place" – the poem's vortex for safe geographical, intellectual and socioeconomic positions – experience the greater part of human misery. Musically, in terms of voices, the poem can be heard as both monophonic and polyphonic: consciousness is inherently lonely and compartmentalized, but a reaching out to and awareness of the outside world is always possible. The multiple layering of meaning and the strong intermeshing of the stanzas create a temporary unity that is compelling and hopeful, the hope that you "might yet / meet a new mind in a night glow." A poem in praise of human relationships, that blends pessimism and optimism.

Without wanting to buy wholeheartedly into Eliot's notion of the Tradition – not least for the way it lends itself to the notion of the "fewness" of poets, which Riley himself has attacked – I submit that you see a poet at work here pushing at the boundaries yet really drawing on the past. Plenty of poets do one or the other, a lesser number achieve both, as Riley does in this poem. TS's Big Idea has its other problems of course, including its overconfidence in our really knowing what was written and why it was written in the past, and why it has survived and other things haven't, as well as its author's lack of a sense of himself as a socially and culturally constructed individual. And literary knowingness does not in itself a good poem make. But "Aria with Small Lights" is a genuine attempt at Making It New rather than throwing everything overboard from the Steamship of Modernity.

The current position of poetry itself is configured in the very ghostlike "I can't stand the silence, the sad / messages reaching no one at all." And if you want to see the poem in terms of poetic conflicts, I would figure its poetics as a kind of non-violent protest in the Fifty Years War of the mainstream/avant-garde. "What I do is like a balancing trick, a ridge-top walk." (Interview with Keith Tuma (3)). This is the ridge-top walk, a Needed Message.


1. Poetry Salzburg Review, No. 7, Winter 2004/5.

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