'footsteps measured in millennia'


Due North,
Peter Riley (101pp, Shearsman)


I've just finished reading DUE NORTH by Peter Riley. It took me a considered while to read it, because it's a serious book of poetry. 'No one thinks hard enough for poetry,' wrote the poet Kelvin Corcoran, but Peter Riley's is certainly a book that will make you think hard: about form and content; about late Modernist poetic style; about socio-political geographies and ecologies; about human settlement and migration; about population growth and industry; about war and displacement and the combatant's return home to change; about 'the north' (real, imagined, material and metaphor); about song, music and hope, and about poetry's value in expressing and exploring these things, and more. I'm glad to discover that the book has been shortlisted for the Forward Prize Best Collection this year, no doubt thanks to Carrie Etter's inclusion on the judging panel.

This book-length poem is arranged in 12 chapters, one of which, The Ascent of Kinder Scout
, was previously published as a chapbook by Longbarrow Press in 2014. It's the standout section of the book in my opinion and, in prose poem form, deals with the Kinder Trespass of April 1832 - a protest by 400 walkers against the enclosure of large tracts of upland Derbyshire. Riley mixes this with personal memories of childhood walks in the area and with the wider concerns of the book as a whole. The final section of the book, Angel Meadow, was also of particular interest to this reader, dealing as it does with the C19th slums of Manchester and the sanitary reforms that led to their demolition and refiguring following the mid-century cholera epidemics and continued ravishments of typhus and other diseases. In verse and prose, Riley creates a psychogeographic urban palimpsest of the area, inhabited by the ghosts of past and present, with many faces peering in at the window, or flowing along on the hidden, subterranean course of the river Irk. Both of these sections demonstrate poetry's particular ability to collapse the divisions of historical time and geography, as well as the social divisions of history, and to bring past and present together in the same breath. I don't particularly want to selectively quote from such a powerful long poem, but the following line exemplifies what I mean here: “Infant mortality among the Manchester 'Low Irish' 1830s: 50%, among the Kalahari Bushmen 1970s: 50%”.

I've been thrilled throughout this book by its commitment to weaving such complexities together. And these things are
complicated. As is the poem, in places.  You have to think hard for its poetry, which blends lyric verse, prose poem, reportage, collaged materials, song and fact, into a richly textured sonic landscape. But for such 'footsteps measured in millennia' one would expect it to be so. I imagine in time that this book might become significant, in the way that Bunting's Briggflatts is significant, or W.S. Graham's The Nightfishing. It's certainly not out of place to mention all three in the same breath. Very highly recommended.

    © Andy Brown 2015