Peter Riley's Excavations

An easter book review by Melissa Flores-Bórquez & Edmund Hardy

M: The earth is open. We both have Peter Riley's book of multi-voiced excavations before us. A surface, a condensed plane between two volumes or strata; a limit or membrane implying a relation of movement and energy. And the soil is a stack of "horizons", in the jargon of soil-analysis, and an excavation destroys a site in order to map it.

E: The book follows late nineteenth century excavation reports of "early Bronze age" burial mounds. It consists of 181 short text (excavations?), each one numbered as a particular site.
M: The principal sources are J. R. Mortimer's Forty Years' Researches in British and Saxon Burial Mounds in East Yorkshire (1905), William Greenwell's British Barrows (1877), and then Thomas Bateman's Ten Years' Diggings in Celtic and Saxon Grave-hills (1861). The nineteenth century fascination with antiquity provides the "parent soil", or bedrock, for Riley's project.

E: Those sources are quoted, mostly in italics, sometimes not; often it is the position of bones and of embodied bones which are described, "the body in its final commerce". A third substance or bedrock appears in bold, phrases from lyrics and carols, predominantly from the 16th and 17th centuries but drawing on a wider net too. Here is excavation 7:

the food that finally blocks the face, as a town blocks lights • pains of succession tightly crouched. But beneath this was another body, head to South facing West, six black flint discs behind his head ... five more of these scattered through the body of the mound, and one on the western horizon in its own house: There, be there my trust, never part I fixed there, I blocked my face with knowledge facing the plangent sunrise and a sky shard calling me to fidelity turned my life round to a short song at a great distance further. Distinct ringing of the earth as the great black stars gather to the nail-head.

M: The surface of this poetry already presents us with this overlaying: The plain text drops back; the bold presents vertical movements out; the italics are a base-line. Brackets & punctuation points are further interruptions.

E: But then the overlaying shifts as you begin to read. The design of the book also seems relevant. It's a narrow, tall shape, like a notebook or a field guide. You could (just about) put it in your pocket. It's a kind of archaeological field song-book. In 7 above, the "six black flint discs" are imbued with an idea, so the reading eye moves towards "great black stars". I excavate as I read, layer/line by line, down through the stacks of typographical differentiation. 124 involves Rothko's "works on paper 1944-1969", "There in the page held out from the page, and the distance that clads proximity".

M: Only some of the pieces form this kind of movement, though, for often it's not an encounter, but a meditation "on", or more accurately "among", the archaeological details – boat shapes, cardinal points, the arrangement of the "bodies".

It's a researched poem of points so distant they're beyond the horizon. It pushes, say, the method of Muriel Rukeyser's Book of the Dead — which begins and ends, "These roads will take you into your own country" — towards a place where it's your own echoes you hear, no other voices.

E: Book of the Dead presents a counter-memory of the Gauley Bridge mining disaster, & draws on documentary sources such as Congressional Subcommittee transcripts. Rukeyser wrote, "Poetry can extend the document."

M: It's extended back into the clay. Like the boy sleeping in a shady hollow in a thick wall of bricks on the cover. And the clay is thick, in Excavations, thick and "folded in", it's very claustrophobic, obsessions over-coded through each other, blocks & pits.

All night by the rose I lay. But there was no rose. A circular flint disc, five flint splinters, and a lump of burnt wood formed the entire contents I had lived. And do, a desert in the garden while the night singers convolve.

E: Why isn't it "Al night bi the rosë I lay"? The 'plain' type takes on the other sources, loads itself; incorporates pop song to cries of protest –("Then the wide wilderness of what still shall be where strange fruit hang, gather the flesh, up into one ravelling cry") – layers keep leaking, strata re-stratifying, "Through a thin stratum of dried blood, tomorrow turns over." The intensities keep overlapping on each other; although there are puns & wry juxtapositions, these don't really cross the other close registers.

M: To focus on the quotations from lyric, often the shortness of the snippets re-invigorates a familiar line: "needs must part" is a new thought without the ante-"we", or even one of the most quoted of all, pearles that were his eies, here juxtaposed: "a cup of child bones that were his eyes".

E: Other reviewers have talked about life-after-death and transcendence in this book. Michael Peverett points out that "poetry tends to animate what it talks about", focusing in on the context of the various quotations from the Bible in Excavations, and Keith Tuma quotes John Hall on Riley's poetics with approval: "a hesitant self-contradictory and doomed transcendentalism."

M: I felt the choice of lyrics from the "English renaissance", of course a "re-birth", kept the emphasis on natal saying & the selves we aren't, bodies whose only power is the power to be affected, death as a sounding board, even if these little lyric flecks were just to "fill the vacuum" as Riley puts it in an interview, adding "I don't know, they just started sprouting up like budgerigar seed on a waste dump producing African violets". I believe Riley when he says I don't know, and ends his comments with "But I'm no expert on Excavations. That's the kind of thing it is." That's the book's great strength, its real ability to shift like soil with its particles, horizons, vertical & horizontal expansions. You might call it a high style beaten out on the plains, pre-fragmented by the forces of a place.

E: Riley also says, "I valued the obsessive melancholic focus on love-loss in those songs, as an edge of refusal against human will and desire." It's as if, in death and its placeless locations, a measure is taken; how can you care about the living if you aren't concerned with the dead. The poems also repeat (among many repeated refrains) the idea of home, if that idea makes sense when we do live outside with others; setting out & arriving home from the start. If there is a "doomed transcendentalism", it appears in the emblem of wholeness, another refrain, a whole encountered from the very edge.

M: Origins, returns, really must you? And run the risk of joining the "Heideggerian stable lads going mop, mop, in the Augean horse-boxes of Being"? (Drew Milne) Unless you could be a radically un-stable Heraklean palynologist of the flora rhetoricae?

E: Well, enticing as that prospect might be, I will push on: in the essay 'What Are Poets For?' Heidegger writes: "To sing, truly to say worldly existence, to say out of the haleness of the whole pure draft and to say only this, means: to belong to the precinct of beings themselves." But in this singing, the poet finds the draft entirely impure, but the singing continues.

And we shall found a res publica, a thing of the heart, a forward thing. From (not at) the centre a spreading lustre is cast back, that opens the edge darkness to language. Dim things become visible, a table, telephone, silent, barely distinguishable forms in the black paint, behind the portrait – become sayable, as attenuated desire teaches silence | Sodenly afraide Half wakying half slepyng naming the artefacts that succeed us... There was nothing at the centre, but exactly due East three urns in line (dim things) emerging from the obscurity And gretly dismayed A wooman sat weepyng the line of demarcation turns on anxiety to attain distance: the child grows older and further from, and learns to walk in fear... | a strange, dark thing made known and inhabitable: cursors (across the earth) from the soul of, the beautiful reason for (being) that maintains the planet's course at a slight differential from a point or middle where/ the song rises while the seas, do ebb and flow – where light arrives and is cast off, light dispensed, across shadowed ground. And back to the centre, cracked with words.

M: Moving on to the theatrical ode, Riley writes, in the preface, that he thinks of each excavation as a form of Chorus, wavering between tragedy & comedy and not agreeing with each other. The dead never shut up, their voices & cries keep murmuring, the historicity of language! We join in the chorus too.

E: Theatre is there in Browne's Urn Burial, as Browne wrote to Thomas Le Gros: "We cannot but wish these urns might have the effect of theatrical vessels and great hippodrome urns in Rome", where the hippodrome urns were conceived to resound the people at the shows. Browne's apologia for investigating burials goes like this: "But seeing they arose as they lay, almost in silence among us, at least in short account suddenly passed over, we were very unwilling they should die again and be buried twice among us."

Reality Street, 2004, 1-874400-26-1 Price: £9 200x120mm paperback 218pp]

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