'To walk with thought in the very
muscle': Riley's new collection is a master-class in writing about place and
the self/selves moving through. The experience of reading it is both assisted
and slowed by preamble and intra-text exposition, so be prepared for some
effortful half-hours which mimic the arduousness of some of the journeys
written about from such an inventive variety of angles. Through all of it
Riley's subtle exactitude of language guides us through his spun-off
connections and analyses in 'A landscape which is a state of mind/ but not
always the same state of mind.'
So we find, in the title poem 'The Glacial Stairway', a chronicle of a walk
in the Pyrenees replicated 48 years after its first undertaking, the younger
self making brief, flickering appearances, the changes in the landscape and
the self carefully observed - and above, as Riley encourages us to look:
At night the
stars occupy their river, blazed along the skystrip,
like babies' mouths in the night like something calling
What does it want?
The end of the journey, in a contemporary concrete 'wilderness' is
depressing, but not without hope of remedy:
me. How could the world think without its soul? Always if
you look for
it there is something curative, the words held in the seeds
the mountain slopes, far away, waiting patiently for winter.
Other approaches to place include 'Best at Night Alone', with the poet
sitting by the window on a sequence of nights and being infiltrated by other
voices; a mentally hectic walk from 'Kings Cross to SOAS'; the 59 paragraphs
of 'Western States (1)' from which are excavated the 59 short poems of
'Western States (2)'. The last lines of the latter have a valedictory air,
one hopes more appropriate to the end of a trip that to anything more
back where I come from
good old dog,
we never lost hope did we.
The fact that travel is a beguiling metaphor for the course of a life and the
excursions of the mind has in recent times spawned a vogue for travel
literature, in which the fusion of topography and autobiography has led (it
seems increasingly) to some self-indulgently shallow results. No risk of that
with Riley. The narratives of places and the getting to them, the piecing
together of a world-view from a mosaic of reaction and interaction,
projecting a self-portrait certainly but one done in the serendipitous
materials of history, nature and politics - by such means does Riley take us
into his landscapes and refresh our views of our own.