Poetical Histories 1 - 4

Xtin of Xtinpore

Parts 1 to 3 of this piece have previously appeared on "Intercapillary Space". Part 4, covering Ospita, is new.


In the early 1980s, Peter Riley found an extraordinary stash of paper and came up with a plan to publish poetry on it. Poetical Histories No. 1 was published in 1985.

I found out about these wonderful pamphlets, touchable like fabric with the irresistible tactility of meticulous letterpress, because Pluvialis' 'Simple Objects' was No. 24 in 1993. I came across a copy during the Great Move to the house we shared in 2004, tucked somewhere unlikely in the tsunami of paper that followed us there: box upon box upon pile, where six-year-old academic journals rubbed noses with photocopies from American archives, elderly bank statements curled at the corners, telephone numbers on JSTOR articles, and reams and reams of irritable drafts of the uncapturable thoughts of a couple of terms ago. Every now and then, over the next couple of years, I'd come across another one of the Histories somewhere among The Paper.

When I moved, I had two copies of Simple Objects -- one on the cream Ingres Mongolfier paper, and another on the grey, which Pluvialis had given me as gifts. But I missed the others, drifting the house. Later, I found Peter's website, and all of a sudden I had a complete set.

I felt oddly guilty about that, as though I ought to have tracked them down, one at a time, drifing through bookshops and poetry this-and-thats and hiding among paper as they had always done. Pluvialis asked me if I was going to get a special box for them -- for she knows about my fetish for boxes. But I couldn't do it -- I already felt like I'd caged them.

I'm rather afraid of poetry much though I love it. Or perhaps I'm afraid of talking about it. There are lots of learned persons out there doing it. But I am going to plunge into my collection by telling you about each member of it -- what it is like to handle, what it looks like, what my favourite fragments are ... whether I like it. Each one is illustrated on the cover with a motif of one sort or another, which I'll use to illustrate my posts.

Most of these pamphlets contain only a single poem, so I cannot transcribe them. Many are only in print in this form. But if you are interested, many are still in print. Drop Peter Riley a line.

Poetical Histories No. 1 (1985)
Disguises of the Soul
Nicholas Moore

My copy is hand-numbered 88 in red ink on the reverse, and signed by the author in fading black fountain-pen ink. It is a warm poem, slightly grumpy but uncomplicated and satisfying to the touch, like putting your hand into grain.

My favourite lines:

I can, of course, make gods for you, too,
But you can make them for yourselves,
And worship them
Deplorably, endowing them

With inhuman powers. Superior beings
Daft as spacemen.

It is a story of the stories that we tell about the people that we love, how we make them into gods and goddesses. What I like best about it is that the poem doesn't do the obvious thing, which is to try to capture the elaborate fabulousness or transcendent perfection of the person we make up in our mind. Its finest flights of descriptive language are reserved for the ways that we try to pull this little trick, pulling mythological people fully formed from our heads, like Zeus.

The close of the poem allows his loved one just three properties: happy. Sad. Real.

My pamphlet is deckled on half its edges, and cut on the other half. It's slightly bumped on the top right corner, and there's the smallest inky smudge to the edge of the cover. And there's this winsome typographical quirk: the poem is divided into four sections, roman numbered. The typesetter has used "1" for "I", so that the sections are marked ".1.", ".11.", ".111." and ".1V."

Happy. Sad. Real.


Poetical Histories No. 2. (1986)
J H Prynne
B Dubourg & J H Prynne

Christ, this poem is harrowing. It is has the feel of the weeping that one does when the crying is nearly over -- not the major-keyed relief of the first tears or the quiet, minor-keyed almost-silence of the breathing when it's over, but the awful, desperate tiredness of the moments before you can stop. It is a poem of large numbers and acrid smells and ice and fire and a single exclamation point that comes at just the wrong moment. It makes angry and grieved sounds with words before even saying anything with them.

It is riddance from the duct we line,
cheering of high degree, O Fortune
rich in spoil, surfeit in pray. The amends
of Central Production set targets
for bright-eyed fury, smash-hits

Ranking the places where happy the man
who knows nothing more or less. Don't
blink, the stairs are already destroyed
for thus, à livre ouvert, no screams ring.
Her corpse hangs, burned to ashes.
My throat closes at the hanging "Don't".

The paper--cream Ingres--is guillotined on every edge, and the red ink used for Prynne's seals on the cover is smudged infinitesimally on the back. The typography is strangely duressed -- it invokes something handwritten, under stress. Not quite in a panic, but in desolate haste, as though nothing remains but to do this thing. Furry at the edges, the descending serifs almost disappearing, the tiniest, tiniest bit too much space between the word and the colon, the tiniest, tiniest bit too little space between the word and the dash. The open spaces in letters are sometimes filled with ink -- only the vowels, strangely.

The accents are tiny angry eyebrows, flint-shaped, oddly and disconcertingly sharp-edged against the blurred letters. It makes the French translation which follows look more tired, more frustrated, spotted with circumflexes as though the poem has dug its fingernails into its palms.

But the fi ligature is beautiful, perfect, a minute architectural drawing keeping a breath of air in "filth".


Poetical Histories No. 3
D S Marriott

Reading this poem is a very strange experience. It's typeset large and fervent, each serif planting its own tiny flag of occupation. The size of the lettering means that the smallest kink in the kerning and lining is obvious, and there is something faintly seasick about the way the text travels. The words themselves are like English translated out of itself and then back ten times, like the lyrics of a very familiar song sung in Portuguese or one's own name seen in a mirror. Someone speaks in the poem, saying something made out of nothing but syntax and words, and we are set afloat by language that is not built for understanding.

It is light and warm inside the poem, and it smells of roast potatoes and wood and the sounds of people talking in the background. The poet likes words like "sequela" and "canticle" and "scansion" but the poem is best when it is not talking this way -- when it is talking of roads and birds, houses and the sea.

My favourite lines are:

The kite flew highly, pleurisy, &
dark dough. & the passageway is
another earth, double handle and
ratchet, to the churning warmth.

I am desperately in love with the ampersand at the beginning of the sentence. I always feel a minute zing of rebellion when I begin a sentence with And, which I do often, and ampersands are like typographical sugar roses -- the decoration that is edible.

The type on the first page is pressed twice as firmly as the rest -- its reverse stands in a faint, nubbly block on the cover. The paper, cream Ingres, is guillotined on every side and there is a single tiny bump to the spine, otherwise what the booksellers call fine. And on the last two pages, my first glimpse of the watermark on the paper -- a crowned lion rampant, holding a little sabre aloft. He looks braced and a little astonished, as though he's been caught sleeping by an assassin. Although his tail is rather nobly and particularly curved for that, perhaps.


Poetical Histories No. 4
Peter Riley

At the traffic light, sometimes, the one in the next car. You look and he is there, not like usually, so many crash-test dummies in real people clothes. Eyes through the road and out the other side, sad folds in the blink, a scrape of jawline razor burn like a washed jam stain. The deodorant tossed hastily onto punch-drunk sheets before he ran out the door wondering about the call he hasn't gotten yet, not realising that a fragment is paying attention to the blue silk tie he saw on some guy on the tube last night which even then he didn't know he thought was pretty but his mind watched it for four stops.

This other person, this other life, and you are sad like you never are for yourself.

Ospita is terribly, terribly sad; musically, mountainously sad, a blackbird sotto voce in a frosted hedge for the spring which seems impossible. It is dying and human voices calling desperation and imperatives and hope and faith shot down again and again until we wish that nothing were left but instead they stubbornly drag themselves through the rooms of the poem smeared with blood and rage. On the cover, a figure in a coat leans in to the receiver in a telephone booth. Merciless instruments of hope and grief and the promise of connections, voices into nothing. The gobsmacking truth of:

Anger the oxide of faith

The typesetting is large and dark and unpredictable, the first leaf near open-faced, the inside leaves bleeding through the paper, inky petechiae in the right margins of the page before, the moment after you hurt yourself but before the pain.

But it is not the personal, bodily, intimate hurt of reading Prynne, the hot, dry-eyed grief of his rhythms. Ospita is a sadness taken apart, audible but unseen, glimpsed but muted through a window of rhyme and delicate, lilting melody in language, torn-off papery streamers of Shakespearean heroes that never were:

The ear tips and clouded underwing
Swoops across the sky. Then where and where
In this globe of health we balance and bear
From room to room, where is a lasting thing?
Where is a good done that also stays it?
Someone attempts the new soft swing but out
In the earthglow between mind and chest
Brilliant metallic birds like kisses dive to rest.

And skyward, birds -- birds everywhere in flight: lapwings, plovers, gulls, swallows, exquisite in their obliviousness, perfect in their presentness.

The poem is thick with houses and landscapes, ground, grass, rooms, fields, doors, sky, and wonderfully, in a moment of spectacular evocative flight, tree-top sarcens. Everywhere is dark and unpromising, slamming and stripping, empty and loud, far and threatening. But at the last, a walk. A walk dredging soil and walls, roofs and grass from the cold and muck and putting them back under our feet and over our heads. No voices but a silent piano waiting.

Thick with languages I walked without stealth
The fields of angry farmers, proud
To be harmless and legal, half and half,
No one could fathom my strong shoes

In the cover sheet there is a wrinkle in the paper, the odd slashy crease you iron into your shirt when you're in too much of a hurry. Faint and flattened like an old scar.

Peter Riley printed 'Marzipan/Masserpain' on two different colours of paper: parchment cream & ivory.
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