A poem and an essay by Peter Hughes

To Peter Riley on His Sixtieth Birthday

Dear Peter,
Today I tried to think about your poem
but it wouldn't stop turning into fish.
Now it's moved to moon in a blue glass vase
& an ebb tide beyond the front garden.
No real fish today. Vegetables, yes,
& diggers down at the edge of the beach
in the eradicated Bronze Age site
where Seahenge cupped the last glow of low-tide.
Reconstructed in the orchard, we thought
about anomaly, fish, knots & fruit.
We contemplated reflected harvest,
the different waters, the out of the blue.
Take salinity and the lives of fish.
In the freshwater lakes of your poems,
or those early streams that fall through limestone,
fish absorb vast quantities of water
& therefore urinate incessantly.
Yet the fish in your East Anglian seas,
or inlets of Denmark, or north Welsh waves,
or still in the Mediterranean,
piss with concentrated economy,
resisting their surroundings like a fist.
That's why fish usually have to choose:
be saturated within & without
by the domestic, or venture beyond
with the oceanic heavy drinkers
who minimise their worldly sense & hole.
Not many leave the sea for the rivers;
or ride the river back down to the blue
transformation of waves & tidal change.
A few move the deep blue pressures between
the inhabited lands and the spring tides
to aesthetic theories which begin with
fish pee but change like bread cast on waters
darkening with nightfall, & deepening.
It's a matter of truth & completion,
weaving vatic & conversational,
implicating the salmon & the eel
with symbols moving below the water.
Knowing the tough motion of the ocean
is no greater threat than this meadow,
or unexpected gaps in Derbyshire,
or doors onto roads into the city
is good. Going off in cars & buses,
or elastic apparatus, or trains
these days, can be most rewarding of all
by circumventing the wise and static,
bricks in car parks & a tench I once knew
in Hinksey. Superior to many
it resisted every bait. Yet one day,
with the last couple of casts before dusk,
I tried a spinner which foul-hooked the tench
in the arse as it faced the other way.
No lessons can be learned from this of course.
You don't have to be up before the sun,
banging your shin on the edge of the thing,
to see the new day start with you as one
of its key & most benign components.
The moon has washed slowly east – the new day
reveals a line or two along the beach.
You never know what you will make or find
the new lines say – a stone's throw out to sea
an unexpected shoal is turning through
the poem like a single thought thought twice.

Some Thoughts on Snow Has Settled [....] Bury Me Here

The first poem in Snow Has Settled [....] Bury Me Here (Shearsman, 1996) has a title with musical associations – "Prelude" – and I find myself while reading it developing an image of the landscape as a great stave. The score is partly the traces of power and history, partly the response of "the calm baby in the self" which, however inexpert and unqualified, "suddenly says outright / The entire brochure of love and all. / Stay here before you fall." Your fall (into the "gently sloping dark" which hovers through the poem in spite of the enjambment of lines 3 to 4) is the final individual decay, but also a lapse from a kind of inclusive attention to the present.

Whilst it is entirely natural that poetry refer to, or evoke, music, Peter Riley's work does so with unusual persistence. He sometimes deals with music explicitly, as in Company Week and its associated sequence The Musicians The Instruments. In the former he writes: "you don't make notes at the time. You either hear the music or you don't.... You've only got this once; you have to put yourself out." There is an urgent tact here: don't muddy the waters you intend to drink from. Check the current before you stick your oar in. "Putting yourself out" suggests both inconveniencing merely private agendas, and extinguishing or marginalizing egoistic promptings. This emphasis on an alert and unselfish receptiveness to the world's diverse and complex musics seems to me to lie at the heart of Peter Riley's poetry, and this book.

Music and poetry are both made of sounds and silences. The silence is at the same time threatening and fecund: the antithesis of the art – as unbroken silence – yet also its site and essential ingredient. "We continue..." says "Wirksworth [2]," "resisting the arts of silence" (11). Yet in "Wirksworth [1]," it is a gap, or silence, that enables and resonates with the second half of the poem.

For that pause in the business and shopping
When a spark of world falls and locks
Itself behind the ear, a sky-connected fate
Capsule, small as a bee's sting, groping
Down the spine in search of a heart, down the throat
In search of a voice to say you make an art
Of these days among people, your prime state.  (10)

(The way "art" helps to form "heart," as well as vice versa, will not have escaped your attention either, because it is part of the business of the poem to make sure it doesn't. A whole book could be written on Riley's use of and investigations into rhyme.)

That potentially fecund silence, associated with a darkness not of absence but of germination, is given a local habitation throughout this book in the form of an arc, or dome. It is like a watermark through the text, a spectral presence, a vault in which the echoes never quite die away. Sometimes this is the dome of visible stars (most of the book has a nocturnal setting); sometimes a hill; sometimes the cupola of a church; sometimes it's the skull. These images accumulate as a kind of key signature: a form which variously traces human imaginative, moral and spiritual potential and the inter-relatedness thereof. And the delineation of this arc is associated with writing, as in "Djebel Bou Dabbous [1]":

      rich hollow at the heart of meaning
That can't be finished

And finishes us  (43)

The following poem, also entitled "Djebel Bou Dabbous," concludes with the line: "The God hollow throbs and hurts." Many of the poems powerfully register a precariousness in which "The day is held upright on the edge of nothing" (12). Yet the nothing is repeatedly plied back into the script as that

rich hollow at the heart of meaning
That can't be finished

And finishes us (43)

A paranoid interpretation would be to read "finishes us" as "destroys us." An entirely optimistic reading might paraphrase it as "completes us." The poem, of course, simply manifests the continual tension between the two.

The picture which remains most strongly for me as an afterimage of the whole book is that of the dome as experienced from the inside. It suggests a large receptiveness, a certain inwardness, and a simple curve which could picture an aspired-to sufficiency. The concave curve has nothing to do with withdrawal, however. Its shape is one of embracing the perceived; of gathering in the available signs. The self as satellite dish. "Gathering" as both verb and noun, each as precondition of the other.

"Gathering" reminds me that the collective, political dimensions of Peter Riley's poetry are sometimes underestimated. Early in the book, in "Wirksworth [1]," he says unequivocally:

                                        you make an art
Of these days among people, your prime state.  (10)

And in the final poem, the superb "Grand Hôtel du Square," the informing purpose of the whole text and life are given as "fullness" and "justice," the one dependent on the other. The poetry's ethical and aesthetic urgencies come from a fear of absence, and a fear and distrust of political and economic systems which pervert our residual human goodwill and desire in the name of abstractions and capitalist concepts of "profit."

Questions live like lit windows in the city night
Because they are needed because a death early or late
Is what the modern state delivers us to without a thought
Without a question asked or a truth known and carries itself
Through us from nothing to nowhere on a cheap ticket, a theatre
Of mutual hatred dressed in everything money can buy. As if
The vastness we inhabit spoke a single word of explanation
Or comfort, as we ease ourselves into its mouth.
A distant industrial murmur consigns hope to parallax
As the river runs massively out of sight.
                                                                    It would be easy
To settle here and now these unresolved endings by warm
And reaching image defiant rhythm or domesticating token.  (52)

Peter Riley's poetry does not pretend to replace traditions. Rather, it takes its place in the traditions it inevitably inhabits. He draws upon classical, medieval, romantic, modernist and postmodern presences. (In the last quotation there are vast associations which include Shakespeare and Dante. It's a big poem.) This book is perhaps unusually open to the voices and tones of English Romanticism, and to images from the Christian tradition. I think, for example, of the Keatsian last line of "little Bolehill" with its "real and final thing as true as leaves" (22), or the end of "S. Cecilia in Trastevere" where "a centre to the wasted life" is "finally standing / Whole and obvious, like an orchard in the rain" (34). To exemplify the use of Christian art and its icons we might quote the stunning opening quatrain from "S. Maria in Trastevere":

Final beings in a golden field, ravenous concavity,
Glowing up there in the darkness, impossible promise
Sucking our very breath to their eyes, every single thing
That's worth a thought burning away and there it is. (35)

Peter Riley is not an exclusive writer. He is willing, perhaps anxious, to include many philosophies and poetries within his own. This unusually receptive celebration of the world and its various human arts through the distinctively varied forms, metres, rhythms, rhymes and disjunctions of his work is the central purpose and achievement of Peter Riley's formidable body of poetry over these last thirty years. I look forward to watching it continue to grow, and glow.

'To Peter Riley on His Sixtieth Birthday' was first published in April Eye: Poems for Peter Riley (infernal methods, 2000). Some Thoughts on Snow Has Settled [....] Bury Me Here was previously published in The Gig 4/5: The Poetry of Peter Riley. Thank you to Nate Dorward for allowing its republication here.

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