Rumbling Elongations and Luxuriant Profusion


Peter Riley. The Day's Final Balance: Uncollected Writings 1965-2006.
[Shearsman Books, Exeter, 2007, 208 pp.]


Peter Riley had this to say about Nicholas Moore's later poems, introducing a selection of them for the Conductors of Chaos anthology (ed. Iain Sinclair, 1996):

     Everything loosened up in this orgy of pre-rejected writing.
     Since nobody was listening, the poetry could be 'anything'.
     Long meditations, short epigrams, rhymed and unrhymed,
     measured and unmeasured, sonnets, songs, ballads, blues,
     straight philosophical statements, symbolic landscapes,
     surrealist figurations, imagist trances, jokes and nonsense,
     poems in gobbledegook, outrageous travesty and satire,
     calm description,  detective poems, jazz poems, cricket
     poems, haiku, doggerel, pure 1940s lyrics and
persona
     narratives. . . all 'rubbish', all free as the wind.

Nothing in
The Day's Final Balance is so flagrantly rubbish - Riley is hardly a neglected poet as Moore was - but the aesthetic space that Riley is admiring does have a counterpart here, most obviously in the hundred or more very short poems that comprise "Floating Verses" , a very complex form because of how it slipslides vertiginously between the silly, accessible

     Tuesday

     Got up.
     Stayed.
     Went back.

and the highly wrought:

     The party of children in wheelchairs at the planetarium
     And their stately indifference.

Another phrase from that introduction also resonates: Moore's "claiming a personal meditative space" in defiance of the public literary world. The most characteristic of the floating verses lie between the extremes, between quotidian throwaway and a lyricism that's a little sullied by the deflating implications of its neighbours. But the real work of the page develops behind the verses: a world in which lyricism, philosophy, jokes, nonsense and banality all rub along composes both the meditative space and what it meditates.  

And, to some degree, a similar space is opened up by the book as a whole. As an instance of that genre of qualified legitimation, an
Uncollected Writings, it delights in being deliberately a very mixed bag.

Riley's work is full of paradoxes. For besides this leaning towards the freedom and space of an unliterary aesthetic, his work also contains
Alstonefield, one of the most finished of modern English poems, so sincerely enthused over as, so to speak, possessing the classic status that its form on the page seems to propose. If at times enthusiasm for Riley has tended to take the form only of votes rather than witnesses - but you cannot cross-examine a vote - Alstonefield has certainly begun to generate a small hill of commentary with that communal momentum that becomes mutually enlightening, and engaging. Reading the pieces by Jamie Wilkes and Kelvin Corcoran on the recent symposium in Intercapillary Space (http://intercapillaryspace.blogspot.com/2007/10/peter-riley-symposium.html), you feel you want to join in. The presence here of "Alstonefield VI" is perhaps the most substantial reason why people will buy The Day's Final Balance - this and also the prose piece "Alstonefield" are essential pendants to the earlier work, summating and slipping out beyond it. "Alstonefield VI" consists of twenty stanzas, of which this is one:

     And all the people in the land, as the clouds clear,
     without priority, the fruit of work, all pain and
     sorrows over. These are the ghosts in the white stone,
     written in the strata: Go down, you blood red roses.
     And all the work in the land, as the stars fade, doesn't
     bear more result than a leaf reaching the ground, all
     its joys a history. Such are the songs that surround us,
     near and far to comforting me, shadows on the sea.
     So with some sense of purpose on a thick morning I
     pass by empty fields to a tree-crowned pinnacle.

The "thick morning" varies the "warm day" of the previous stanza. Its haze is re-figured in a number of other images with other intention: bread ovens smoking, houses that are heaps of smouldering ash (in a war-torn village), a smoke-filled cellar (musicians in Cluj), a view of Paris from Belleville on a misty morning. The poem is freely conversational, though decorated with high-style generalities and internal rhymes; despite these formal bracers the stanzas have trouble arriving at a resonant close, though apparently they strive to, and the poem eventually elects to stop in mid-stanza. The thought has occurred to me that the poem confesses to having moved outside the orbit of the original
Alstonefield; confesses in a recurrently comic spirit as if this is a comic failure, but holds in its belly the alternative possibility of being a serious critique of the earlier poem.

Another paradox: Riley is both a fine writer and a maker of writings. Two skills that imply almost contrary interests, and you would think that one would quickly give way to the other, but this has never yet happened.  For the former, try this:

     Like a sob interrupted by a froth of blood
     The far cry of the cockerel tore apart the misty air

(Riley versioning Baudelaire in the last part of "Memory Street"). For the latter, see, in
The Day's Final Balance, such pieces as the eloquently restrained "Royal Signals", based on the war diaries of Riley's father, or the "Small Square Plots", written over other people's poems from the 1940s, perhaps the most difficult poem here because it both asserts historical context and then declines it in the reading.

Another paradox: there is a luxuriance in the profusion of works that Riley has written or over-written or re-written, yet there's a persistent aesthetic of plainness in the diction. Look at this evocation of soprano saxophone, a complete section from "Six Musical Experiences":

     5. Steve Lacy (soprano saxophone)

     Carefully, feeling the way, like a slug, testing the ground
     with our horns, retracting and proceeding, and, as the day
     gathers force, opening out, breathing in a wider and wider
     landscape. The full and chiming biomental sphere, bright
     with trees and mice and nesting orioles. . .

     Song at the pitch of hunger, the blackbird in the late evening,
     breaking his time across the stones of the valley by the
     slight rain for the truth of it, lost for the furtherance . . .

     This "we" is no more than a trust, and an audience.

     And the mice, what about the mice? They are gnawing holes
     in our hearts,

     To let through the light.

I suppose the rumbling elongation of the second paragraph ("for the truth of it, lost for the furtherance") is what most clearly identifies this as Riley's work. But the thin sound of the saxophone is also there in the threadbare beginning and end of this piece. "Carefully" is such a colourless word, a word that you know was not chased down in the dictionary but merely said; compare the leaf "reaching" the ground in the quotation from "Alstonefield VI".  The words "beautiful lack" rise out of the final poem in "Small Square Plots" as an epigrammatic description for this effect, which it also instantiates - for "beautiful" is a colourless word, too. (The resultant emptiness/spaciousness and illuminating darkness are what I draw from Melissa Flores-Borquez' "General Remarks" in the aforementioned symposium.)

These paradoxes are all latently present in the triumphant early poem "Introitus" which begins this collection. The author, on the Stade at Hastings, gets absorbed into the mechanics of walking on shingle:

                                you have to
     lean forwards so you'd fall if you didn't push
     your feet back from a firm step down and
     back sharp forcing the separate ground
     to consolidate underneath you, with a marked
     flip as you lift each foot, scattering
     stones behind, gaining momentum.

The description does not strike you as gobsmackingly evocative, yet with repeated attention it does seem distinctive: there's a strength arising from the author working himself into a position from which to find something new about the world. As this continues the marine space gathers around the poem:

     That nothing comes
     is good. No news
     across the shore is
     excellent, the truth
      is there for a start.

     The flesh is full
     of what there is
     there / then,
     has that, offers
     back self, is one
     of all that.

A palpable sense of getting somewhere and knowing it suffuses the poem. It, the thing that "begins" in the poem's opening line, is carrying on happening. Few of the other early poems match this opener, I think only the one called "Archilochus: the complete fragments" (in fact, versions of just a few of them - but wonderful versions that are engineered to make a complete artefact).  Here, as in the later "Three Pastoral Poems", we are tantalized by the sketch of a project from which might have sprung the immense flow of an
Excavations.

Perhaps it is related to the unliterary plainness mentioned above, but some of the prose pieces here hardly suggest a considerable writer at all: the "Carpathian Pieces" in particular are like superior blog entries, contemplating the beggars and spiny dry fruits that get into your sandals that any other intelligent northern European notices in southern Europe. The content is sometimes modestly interesting, but it's composed shoddily and the impression is that the writer is not bothered about being elegant or circumspect in order to satisfy the expectations of a critical audience. Nevertheless, in "St Albans"
there is a kind of link between the shoddiness and the wasteland subject which could be expressive - which sometimes is expressive precisely in failing to be competently expressive! Biographically this habit of slipshod expression may provide the unexpected opening for the kind of art that Riley makes when he's really making. There's a directness in the connection that is a peculiar strength. Or again, "Manchester" is mainly a casually interesting memoir - Riley does not strike me as really interested in cities, unless when they are a smear of lights on the horizon - but it's when he gives vent to loose political generalities that the forces that underlie his creativity begin to push up through the prose:

     I make a terrible mess of the days, but I never agreed
     to Salford. In the end there were conflicts between
     that broad liberality of the thriving city where any
     worker might have access to the fullest reach, and that
     which made the city thrive, which stripped the worker
     of everything but abject ambition, and grew fat on
     his/her heart-consuming worry until the whole country
     is steered on fear. The burrowing had to stop. In the
     end it didn't matter how any bunch of seekers wrapped
     themselves in the fabric of the town, it was going to go
     on as an illusory thriving running into the ground. The
     creative focus lay out of sight.

As the metaphors pull away from mere analysis I suddenly begin to feel how it's really not such a long step to get to this (from the inspiriting "Prose poems and pieces written at the time of writing
Excavations", which reflect the light of their greater companion):

     A step forward and the past clarifies. Geometry of the
     heartland, moon marks on the   ridge, the river stepping
     down the vale... What we work to, lies here in the decided
     risk, the speech saying yes, on, yellow feather at the world
     focus as the chest empties into [song] bursts into [help]

I've mentioned most of the things I like best in
The Day's Final Balance, but perhaps I haven't sufficiently emphasized the stray, welcoming lyric poems that are best discovered by leafing through the book at random, so I'll end with one of the "Four Transylvanian Songs":

     I ask unspeaking earth,
     silent totality, for help,
     to mend the heart
     badly broken

     And hurting. It is not the heart
     but we say heart to describe the hurt.
     The earth banging on my coffin lid
     will silence all that.

     And I'll be a star in the sky
     shining faintly at the edge of the sky over the forest
     and around midnight I'll poke around the houses
     to see what my loves are up to.


            Michael Peverett 2007