A few notes in the margins of Peter Riley's Royal Signals

Edmund Hardy

Royal Signals: From the war diary of Arthur Riley (1906-1983).

"This work, written on 6th April 1984, is a collage and narration of phrases taken from the diary my father left behind of his experiences as a soldier (radio operator) in North Africa, Italy and Palestine 1943-1945." There is one italicised intervention towards the end of the piece – at the moment of Victory – which changes the overall impression considerably, as a lens passed over the poem. The phrases we are given are ones of location, description, status; songs sung.
By road to Tunisia
(500 miles)

Through Atlas Mountains
(storks' nest on house roof)

Arrived at Ghardimoua
(concentration point)
Royal Signals was published, I believe, in a small run in 1995, which I haven't seen. Now collected into the middle of The Day's Final Balance, it runs to ten pages. Private signals from Royal service, beginning with

1943. Trucks to docks.
and ending,

Passed through Paris at night
a series of markings with a different life either side.

Royal Signals does contain common elements familiar from other war diaries – from different ranks and arms of the military – such as the initial making strange journey to the front or theatre, followed by a registering of the many dead which now must be known by the senses. The war diaries which do not follow these patterns are those which are part of the institutional fabric itself, the unit diaries officially kept, necessary mass observation of personnel and terrain, containing maps, morale reports, and so on.

Holy City
cheer our way

Bathed and washed clothes in stream
Slept in barn
Sets closed down

Refugees returning with cart-loads of furniture
Unlike a poem which might juxtapose sources – a Second World War piece such as Jorie Graham's ‘Spoken from the Hedgerows’ (in Overlord, soldiers' testimony as one plane), or Riley's own experiment in documentary voicing, Excavations, the poetry of Royal Signals is an archival publicising of one record, a document of state mobilisation. As such it doesn't attempt to disperse the historicity of the presented text, the danger of a dispersion into cross-cut ornament.

Truck over-turns returning
from Tunis
eight injured (Hiscox badly)

Hut across valley
celebrating all night –
drums and wailing

Quiet day, washing, mending, etc.
The lines are fragments wrinkled by the forceful interlacing of hierarchical harm.

Bibliogrphical note: 'Royal Signals' was indeed first published in 1995 by Kelvin Corcoran's Cheltenham based 'Short Run' in an edition of 60 copies, of which 20 in the gift of the author and six copies signed and with additional text in the author's holograph.
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