Tom Lowenstein

Excavation and Contemplation: Peter Riley's Distant Points

An earlier version of this essay was published in The Gig 4/5, The Poetry of Peter Riley. Thanks to Nate Dorward for permission to reprint it here. A new afterword has been added in the light of Riley's subsequent Excavations in full.

On the front cover of Distant Points is a reproduction of a page of William Blake variously credited: in Distant Points as "Elisha in the Chamber on the Wall" and by the Tate Gallery as "A Vision." It is a monochrome composition, in sepia wash over pencil. One former owner of the drawing, W. Graham Robertson, wrote on the back: "A Vision. Probably representing the Poet, in the innermost shrine of the Imagination, writing from angelic dictation." Whether prophet or poet – and for "fairly obvious reasons," he has said, Peter Riley modestly suppressed the Tate Gallery title – this inspired figure at the centre of the page sits at a table beneath the circular glow of a lamp, presumably writing to the dictation of his spirit helper, who shines beside him with an inner light. The two forms are situated in a classically proportioned shrine, which is recessed in a series of frames whose severe perspective draws the eye uncomfortably towards the centre of a chilly, somewhat repellent composition.

More cheerfully, and in apparent if not intentional counterpoint to Blake's drawing, the back cover of Distant Points shows a photo of the author – on holiday somewhere in northern Europe – propped against the sunlit wall of a small house. The vegetation, variously battered and springing up in pots round the white pebbledash of the house exterior, suggests that the season is late winter or early spring. The sun strikes the poet from the left, creating a reduced diagrammatic shadow leading from his right leg. The sun is low and misses Riley's head, so the shadow is truncated, extending downward from shoulder level, rendering only the arms, leg and open jacket in a shape which, somewhat in the Vorticist manner, is cleanly angled and irregular.

While Riley's figure leans intently toward the camera, his shadow moves away into the house, sloping purposively into the recess of a doorway, which is one of two cut into the façade. The shadow's long neck, wrinkled by the moulding of the door jamb, is already halfway in. What will the shadow encounter in the dark house interior? Will it, like Blake's prophet, sit at the writing table – "drown'd in shady woe, and visionary joy," as in the Preludium to Blake's Europe – while the poet himself is off in a landscape of neolithic burials or the relics of nineteenth-century industrial workings? It is landscapes such as these that have inspired much of Riley's poetic excavation of the last two decades.

If the figure in Blake's shrine suggests a visionary poetic project, the half-rhyming coincidence of its twentieth-century shadow is perhaps just as close to the issue. Many of Peter Riley's volumes of the 1980s and 1990s have evoked this process of entry and descent into solemn, frequently dark, almost always stony places. The strata of the locations can be geological and industrial, as in Tracks and Mineshafts (1983) which excavates the counterpoint of local habitation and exploitative economic invasion, while in Alstonefield (1995) the impulse is instead to explore or reconstruct a midlands pastoral. The downward spiral of Ospita (1987) takes the reader into a more subjective nekuia with a grim symbolic trajectory. Sea Watches (1991), a work in gestes of more happily manoeuvred consciousness, takes the opposite direction. If one impulse is to descend, another is to travel through light and the marine breezes. The one direction demands its contrary, without which, to paraphrase Blake, there would be no progression.

Riley's work is comparable to Blake's in one further respect. Blake's later poems were designed and self-published as books, just as much of Riley's work is conceived in terms of integral poetic volumes. Even Ospita and Sea Watches (the latter's writing magnificently extended over twelve years) are works which, despite their relative brevity, are comparable in scope and complexity of texture to the longer poems.

Distant Points is also a "work" in a different sense. Like Alstonefield, whose parts are likewise in continuous, parallel composition, Distant Points is ongoing. Comprising Part One, Books One and Two of Excavations it runs to about a hundred prose paragraphs, and is followed in typescript by Vacated Thrones, which is Excavations Part One, Book Three, a text of roughly the same length as the pages so far published.

If Distant Points is, in the modernist tradition, a work in progress moving gradually into print with independent presses, it is also "work" in a more traditional sense, that of focused research and fieldwork. Like any work of scholarly habit, Distant Points concludes with its appropriate – albeit disconcertingly abstruse – bibliography, the central items of which are two distinct kinds of writing which accompany, counterpoint, contradict and coincide with each other throughout the text. One idiom, to which I shall return later, consists of brief quotations from English madrigal verse of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But the other, lying at the core of the work (as acknowledged by Riley's title page), is that of "the researches of J R Mortimer in the Yorkshire Wolds." Riley's poetry is excavated from Mortimer's Forty Years' Researches in British and Saxon Burial Mounds in East Yorkshire (1905), his commentaries continuing or insinuating themselves into the syntax of passages from Mortimer's treatise. The second, unpublished installment of Excavations is based on the similar but slightly earlier archaeological researches of Canon William Greenwell. Part Two – which I haven’t seen – apparently develops a similarly montaged idiom from records of excavations in the Derbyshire and Staffordshire Peak District.

Mortimer's work is "concerned with the human burial deposits of the so-called Neolithic/Bronze age culture" (Riley's endnote), unearthed round the turn of the century from tumuli in the Yorkshire Wolds. Riley's numbered paragraphs follow the somewhat confusing numbering-system with which Mortimer identified individual burials. Each paragraph – the longest is about twenty lines – dwells on an individual burial. "Excavation" thus takes place on two related levels and in two senses. First, on the level of poetic structure, there are the lines excavated, quoted, transferred from Mortimer (often in altered form). Second, and more important to the argument of the poem, is Riley's excavation of a particular and previously submerged life. Anonymous as it remains, this life is unearthed, brought to our view and warmed by the imaginative counter–inhumation of the poet's regard – even though this regard remains incommunicable to the anonymous dead, and the poet can only be, to the dead, reciprocally anonymous.

Riley opens Distant Points by focussing our attention on the word "commerce", a word which he has for some years pursued and reviled, but for which he now suggests a new connotation. The book opens in this way: "the body in its final commerce : love and despair for a completed memory or spoken heart." Politically and economically anathema to Riley in its transactional, nonmetaphoric sense, the word here evokes human interaction with earth, with world. It is in death and burial that the body, previously an inhabitant of earth's surface and an escapee from its embrace, becomes a component of the earth, at last absorbed completely into the "commerce" or inter-relationship that until now has sustained it. Riley's four final nouns, "love," "despair," "memory," "heart," with their strangely elevated naïveté, are forced at once to cohabit with the nineteenth-century writer's impassive mortuary record (quotations from Mortimer throughout the volume are in italics): "enclosed in a small inner dome of grey/drab-coloured [river-bed] clay, brought from some distance... and folded in." This archaeological fragment spliced into Riley's opening gesture is paradoxically more alive than the disingenuously generalised love–despair–memory–heart quarter of the twentieth-century poet. Next comes the first of the bold-type madrigal fragments – "So my journey ended" – followed by a more tightly entwined passage of archaeology, madrigal and commentary that extends to the end of the first paragraph, the language serially acquiring tension, releasing it, and again intensifying, in a movement of phrases bewildering in tonal variety. Once more the reverberant words rumble into the prose-poem: "heart," "death," "life," "pain"; this second heavy nominal quartet, reminiscent of Tudor song or Blake's "The Divine Image" ("To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love..."), is closed with a loosely thrown-off "signed and delivered," while the final eight words, followed by a raised W. C. Williams period in bold, read: "tensed wing / spread fan / drumming over the hill."

I have followed the first paragraph closely so as to indicate something of how Riley has constructed all hundred or so meditations in Distant Points, and to suggest that his method is one that goes a step further than the more familiar process of montage or collage. The weave and movement here rather suggests a continuous unpicking and intertwining. Just as persons and the stuff that supported their identities have been buried and their elements semi-dispersed, so their remains, once exhumed, are both further dismembered and, in the process of archaeological classification, reintegrated. This double process of unpicking and convergence, disintegration and consolidation is re-enacted in the collaborating yet mutually discordant elements of the poem.

But while Riley controls the developing process of this movement, there is nothing that resembles a conclusion in any of the poems or the book-as-poem. Units of Riley's own language are offset with fragments of archaeology and piercingly disruptive song, but however imbricated or polyphonically scored the poems are, they remain an opaque netherworld jumble. Amongst the bric-a-brac – the bricolage of the end-product of so many lives – the poem elaborates the bric-a-brac of possible ways of evoking that complication and confusion: this is its compulsive motif, and perhaps its most compelling interest.

I have described the writing in Distant Points merely as paragraphs, but as Riley points out in his endnotes, the paragraphs are "poems or meditations" – similar in certain constructional ways to seventeenth century devotional writing, in which discourse is hung around scriptural citations with which a reader is assumed to be familiar. The nearest thing in Riley's bibliography to Traherne's Centuries or anything like it is a work of 1658 by Sir Thomas Browne (Tudor madrigal is a far cry from the detached or even semi-impersonal conscious thought I have in mind), but it is important to consider Riley's longer works as, among other things, meditative structures. It is meditation, the uninhibited movement of thought arising from the contemplation of places, landscape and encounters, of the passage, strata and character of time, human and nonhuman – the imbrication of all these things in the developing process of registration – that lies at the heart of his contemplative process. Meditation, a term that Riley uses in Distant Points and with more frequency in Noon Province, is a condition of receptivity and observation: a mode suspended between mental activity and a quasi-passive repose, as thought moves in and around its object and then sometimes reflexively back to the contemplative moment itself.

In Noon Province, for example, the poet is in Provençe (sometimes, as in Sea Watches, listening to music on headphones), meditating on the juxtaposition of the present moment with some ancient habitation:

Anywhere in the world the
Mind wakes while I
Contemplate a field corner...
                                 and I
Harvest exclusive result. (46)

Stretched in the stone chamber
Awake and listening
To the dark stone silence that
Grew from nothing. (74)
Riley's humanistic meditation, or "Walking the mind, walking the prosody" (56), works on the assumption that all experience may be incorporated within poetic apprehension, and that prosody, the spontaneous product of the exercised, learned and practised mind, follows as a natural reflex. That experience is heterogeneous and transient, yet unified and inclusive; the phenomena that go into it issue from multiple strata of time. The poet is a continuous and, as far as possible, impersonal observer; he struggles to track the continuum without either succumbing to its welter or letting his work fragment into "occasional" poems which ignore it. Though Noon Province is apparently a collection of short, discrete poems, these in fact hang together as topographically dispersed elements of a single, semivisionary process.

What is the nature of Riley's meditation in Distant Points? It is helpful to look first at a few passages from Alstonefield, a volume chronologically parallel to Distant Points. I have used the word "imbrication" to describe at least one element of Riley's method. In Alstonefield, this process of woven interfoliation of multiple preoccupations is suggested in several places. For example:

I retire to a distance. . .
keeping to the edge of the necessary plot:
trade, marriage, maintenance, the sacred cast
of continuance always at risk, fixed with loss,
moon marks on stone trenching the calendar. (12)
The speaker is involved yet at a distance; free but conscripted; balanced between the quotidian present and celestial contemplation. Tangled in necessary trade balances (cf. Riley's oxymoronic self-description as an "unemployed book dealer" in the unpublished Excavations Part One, Book Three), he yet views them as elements of a "sacred cast" whose ostensible banality is nonetheless part of a unifying visionary enterprise, just as the banal lives of ancient people were calendrically sanctified. These tensions, depersonalised in Riley's characteristically offhand phraseology, are the stuff of a meditation not on any single experiential element or sacred project, but on the texture of human experience, where such contradictions may occur both serially and more or less at once.

Another Alstonefield sentence: "Poor / accidental thing, she said, poor rabbit" (13). This line-and-a-half is the conclusion of a scene in which a woman anticipates the closure of her child's innocence, while "the cruel captains of earth" stand waiting in heavy poise. Whether or not the lines are parodic sentimentality or another daring geste of feeling, they are relevant to Distant Points in their unsentimental truth. Our origins and destinies are accidental; we hop around like rabbits grazing where we happen to have cropped up. Pity and love (we are close again to Blake) offer no protection: but neither is despair in the face of that knowledge serviceable or morally interesting.

Finally, a yet closer figure from Alstonefield, in which the grave is an "unvalued space,"

                   where we didn't take any
advantage but sailed away, leaving
old bones kicked around the churchyard
and carried off by dogs and wrote out
the only true thing we are, a record
of love. (11)
The dogs in the churchyard are making off with yesterday's bones, but what of the more deeply unknowable encrustations, the ruins that fill every surface metre which is not ostensibly a burial site? We coexist with countless dead, whose individual, family, tribal, national associations are beyond statistical classifications. The chain of historical process that leads from the Bronze Age through Mortimer in the nineteenth century and down to the late-twentieth-century poet is in retrospect an unlikely one. Riley's preoccupation with such concerns emerges elsewhere and everywhere: in Tracks and Mineshafts where "thousands of deaths [scar] the walls of the tunnels and shafts" (37), or in Noon Province where "we think we hear faint voices // In the ground and between the stones, / Dealing and deciding in a lost tongue / A far and fragile history" (20).

Distant Points draws all these concerns into deeper, more extreme, if more obliquely expressed, contemplation. If the victims of industrial workings in eighteenth and nineteenth century Derbyshire cannot be known, they may analogically through other historical sources be imagined. Neolithic people may likewise be imagined in various ways – most convincingly, sometimes, in the children's historical romances of Rosemary Sutcliffe, or in the patient empathetic scientific writings of P. V. Glob (The Mound People, The Bog People, etc.). But neither of these writers is primarily engaged with the condition of unknowability. The one reconstructs retrospectively into narrative. The other seeks to shed humane agnostic light on what had been deliberately consigned to the netherworld of a peculiar and by now impenetrable cosmos. Riley's project is, by contrast, to muse unknowingly on the inchoate. His paragraphs and the language from which they are built collect, converge, into simulacra of the opaque objects which they make no reasonable attempt to describe. Yet the present, he would suggest, is no less jumbled and complex.

Of course the suspicion arises that such collocations may be just too easy. Perhaps anything with pretence to some sort of majestic expression ripped out of context is liable, on account of the more hygienic air through which it is transported, to accrue meaning (cf. what Tom Phillips extrapolated from A Human Document). The love/death commonplaces Riley has dismembered (and sometimes rewritten!) from Renaissance lute songs and madrigal books become almost suffocatingly intense in their new setting, traces as enigmatic as those in the depths of Bronze Age burials, or as brutally truncated as the humanoid bits of supper Alstonefield's dogs run round with.

Phrases such as "Making all the shadowes flie" (18), "you cruell cares," "that was you, and not you" (19), "Come, come, while I have a heart" (24), enjambed with Riley's similarly dismembered passages from the archaeological record and the cement of his own lyrical philosophizing, combine to create suggestions, and powerful ones, of what it is, having enjoyed a present that was once passionately contemporary but is now distant, to have no reality. To the unknowable Bronze Age individual both the madrigal performer who sings "that was you, and not you" and the twentieth-century poet who writes equally of "bilberry dust" and "A plastic bag rustling in an aspen" are Distant Points (18, 38). It is not just the dead who dwell at the extreme point, or "those who, like Ilyich, suddenly pass at death into adulthood" (38): the present too is no more or less a portion of the continuing historical and posthistorical movement into the air and into earth. The poet is himself defined by history, generated from divergent points, like the jumble of earth, stones and bones that shoots up from neolithic strata. He may attempt to imagine what an ancient body might have been: "massed shadows behind the head, where if the neck were touched it would be sexual" (19). But the spade stops bluntly on what remains opaque: "burnt matter: charcoal, with earth, lumps of chalk, human bone fragments and probably flesh, in a dish-shaped hole behind the head." "The person," he concludes, "becomes an object. . . cut into its own ground" (52).

The dead want no books, for their underworld knowledge and/or post hoc nescience is already more complete that the living can imagine. The living, on the other hand, must be grateful to a scribe courageous enough to explore, as in Distant Points, a vantage from which the contrary states – being/nonbeing, person/nonentity – find balance or at least some mutually informative commerce. If Distant Points is in some quasi-ceremonial way a book of the dead – a guidance text for the recent dead or a map of their territory – it is also a record of contemplation of the dead. If Distant Points shows Riley at his most uncompromisingly modernist, it is also a book which harks back to models – from Egypt, Tibet or seventeenth century England – that are recognizably archaic.

Poets and shamans in traditional societies often have the task of raking through the boneyards on which humanity improvises its present. It is a risky business, for the ghosts will, likely, take a snap at sacrilegious divagations. But if this book has ancient, eschatological formulae somewhere within its framework, its energy lies in the agnostic freedom of Riley's imagination. There is in Distant Points nonetheless a recognizable trace of a shamanistic process that has informed several of Riley's later writings. Shamanism can be unpleasant. If, in tribal situ, the system offers harmony, it can also displace nonpractitioners to the sidelines. Shamanism may provide communal theatre but, looked at another way, it may inflate the lead psychic ego at the expense of the ensemble. Neoshamanism in the West can take on these negatives as well as many new ones of its own.

Nonetheless, shamanism like other systems of thought can move sideways over previously tight borders. And it has its place in Western poetics so long as the practitioner, as in Riley's case, makes no claims to actual practise; the poetic authenticity of the shamanistic element depends on the presence of Blake's "shady woe, and visionary joy." I have mentioned the painful nekuia of Ospita, a work of bleak personal negativity. At the opposite extreme are the happy lines in Sea Watches:

Almost asleep in the thin walls, undeliberately
I send my soul out like a night bird or a witch
To fly over the dark roads (8)
Here the writer's consciousness achieves a rarefied uplift which is as pure an exaltation as the spiritual dereliction of Ospita is deep in netherworld subjectivity. Suspended between these opposites, perhaps less visibly, is the skein of meditational experiences which informs Noon Province. Here the poet moves both along the surface of the landscape and down into historical shades which over the centuries have given the landscape its surface character. Provençal heat, colour and stone, the rhythms of darkness and light, and of the connective thought linking the poems – all these contrive to suffuse the book with an atmosphere of trance.

It is a cliché that initiated shamans are specialists in spirit flight and ecstatic suspension between this and the other world they visit. Eliade and others have tabulated the co-ordinates of classical shamanistic topography, the souls of its practitioners deviating from horizontal relations in ordinary time and travelling up to worlds in the sky, or down through the earth or to underwater spirit regions. There is no sense in which Peter Riley's work suggests ethnographically defined ritual events like these; his voice is neither rhetorical nor ecstatic, but one of persistent self-extension into otherness, into regions of scarcely imaginable opacity. This is an important aspect of Distant Points and other late works: in them, the shamanistic element has moral and poetic meaning in the empathic relations of writer to the region of the elsewhere. Through study and meditation the poet creates for interred realities a parallel one, a voice which recalls them from their disintegration. And just as those realities are as ordinary as the poet's own, his voyaging is never separate from the movement of daily intercourse or a meditative walk.

It is hard positively to enjoy, probably easy to dislike a work at once so impressive and bewildering, as original and derived, as intense and apparently casual as Distant Points. The conjunctions are dazzling; the motifs universal; the shafts of lyrical or grey deathlike speech from both Riley and supportive structural apparatus often overwhelming. Unlike other recent work – Alstonefield, Sea Watches, Noon Province in particular – Distant Points is a recalcitrant, sometimes rebarbative text. Dislocated and restless, the eye forks over the paragraphs in search of connections that make sense, greedy for threads, veins, intercalations offering a route through the labyrinths of discord. And is this not the nature of an excavation? We follow a progression from eye to spade, trowel, specimen box, laboratory cabinet and finally museum – or its linguistic semi-equivalent, the published, catalogued and reviewed volume.

The archaeologist arrives at sense presumably when the rubble has been separated and classified. But we get perhaps only half the view to which Riley has invited us if we decontextualize ourselves from the confusion of unclassifiable clutter which, I think Riley suggests, societies extended in time but collective in experience inevitably give rise to. So as the eye forks round the paragraphs, that angular shadow still slopes fugitively inward, inviting the reader – scarified by the process – to his "wonderful labour" ("Ospita," Noon Province 108). It is a unique enterprise, and all the more satisfying for its fugitive and demanding nature.

Bibliographic Afterword

Since the publication of Distant Points in 1995, that book has been incorporated by Reality Street Editions into a yet more extensive meditation. The whole work, published in 2004, is titled Excavations: Distant Points having comprised Part One, Books 1 and 2 of the whole. To the fifty-nine pages of the earlier edition, Peter Riley has added Excavations Part Two, titled Vacated Thrones, some eighty extra pages. Dioscuria represents a relatively short final section. In a recent letter, Riley noted that ‘There was revision of some texts in Distant Points when [the new book appeared], but I don't think they'd prove significant.’ Thus while the earlier material is republished more or less as it was, the second publication is more than double the size of the earlier volume.

If Parts 1 and 2 remain substantially as they came out, the passages that follow represent both deepening and variation. Along with new material, a Preface provides a usefully interpretive way in. Introducing the 2004 edition, Riley suggests:

these pieces can be read in various ways…from pure text to monologue. My own preference is to read the piece whenever possible as a kind of choros danced over the exhumed remains, as at that point near the end of many of the tragedies when a screen is drawn back revealing a tableau of death… If so, it is a Chorus often uncertain between tragedy and comedy, whose members do not necessarily agree with each other, or even belong to the same group, and of which the author struggles to assume the leadership, but concerned together with bringing the remotest remnant of presence into the full theatre.
This is more than helpful, for while Distant Points rendered its motifs variously visible and obscure, it is generous that the author should now ascend a stage so multiply occupied and provide his overview. Riley’s volume is of course a uniquely sustained meditation on death, and in the absence, today, of genres that made this more ordinary and philosophically amenable in the 16th and 17th centuries, his suggestion of choric commentaries and/or laments points us to some understanding of how his paragraphs are compounded of many kinds of perishable media, the language moving around, explaining and incorporating the relics which prompted his exploration.

In this connection, it is worth quoting the final passage of Dioscuria:

Like Buxtehude, like a man vanished completely into a resonance. Really no bit of person whatsoever but a space in which a world-meaning resounds, the soaring towers of zero. And isn’t that the final home to which all of anyone’s work and life is voluntarily donasted, the greatest knowable thing…
It is, presumably, from the ultimately unknowable – those relics which the reader can only take on trust – that anything remotely intelligible can be derived. The exercise involved in contemplating such materials (and they are as evident in the human body as in museums and antiquarian writings) has no limit. Riley’s project as finally realised here, suggests, in itself, a territory, both physical and metaphysical, with astonishingly remote boundaries.

Works Cited

Peter Riley. Alstonefield. London: Oasis; Plymouth: Shearsman, 1995.
–––––––. Distant Points: Excavations Part One Books One and Two. London: Reality Street Editions, 1995.
-------. Excavations. London: Reality Street Editions, 2004.
–––––––. Noon Province et autres poèmes. Bilingual edition, with translations by Lorand Gaspar, Sarah Clair and Claire Malroux. Saint-Pierre-la-Vielle, France: Atelier La Feugraie, 1996.
–––––––. Sea Watches. Kenilworth: Prest Roots, 1991.
–––––––. Tracks and Mineshafts. Matlock: Grosseteste, 1983.

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