Academic journal article Chicago Review

On Peter Riley's Lyric Excavations

Academic journal article Chicago Review

On Peter Riley's Lyric Excavations

Article excerpt

Opening to the first page of Peter Riley's Distant Points (1995), the first volume in an ongoing series of what the book's jacket describes well enough as "prose-poems in which any singular voice is constantly interrupted by itself in another guise, and a whole theatre of masks jostles for position around the central condition of meditation," we find two "poems" or passages which look like this:


the body in its final commerce: love and despair for a completed memory or spoken heart enclosed in a small inner dome of grey/drab-coloured [river-bed] clay, brought from some distance (from the valley bottoms) and folded in, So my journey ended moulded in the substance of arrival I depart and afire over the dome and a final tumulus of local topsoil / benign memorial where the heart is brought to the exchange: death for life, relict for pain / double-sealed, signed and delivered - under all that press released to articulate its long silence, long descended * tensed wing / spread fan / drumming over the hill.


folded in river clay, the boat on the hilltop lying East-West facing upwards Right hand on Right shoulder Left arm across the body gradients of sleep, to die, to dream, or mean/beyond his feet to the East a row of three circular pits or stake-holes dawn trap as the compass arc closes southwards and the heart is secured by azimuth, all terrors past: She only drave me to dispaire/dead child, cancelled future in a satellite cloak hovering to SE. Yet the loss, folded into history, sails adroit in the clay ship over commerce and habit, bound for (to) this frozen screen where [cursive] we don't live, but do (love) say, and cannot fail.(1)

How might the reader negotiate such a text? A first sentence fragment juxtaposes two phrases on opposite sides of a colon, perhaps to offer an initial articulation of the poem's concerns - the body in "its final commerce" (what could that mean?), the emotions attendant upon the desire to speak and in some sense "complete" memory and emotion. Clearly, we know at least that we are on some of the most traditional grounds of lyric, seeking a language adequate for our mortality, remembering the anguish of the word that would redeem while memorializing. But that's to get ahead of myself, reading the last lines of the second passage, where loss, "folded into history," is taken as the ground not only enabling but in some sense requiring a writing that "cannot fail." Our first reading of the poem must take account of the disjuncture between that first sentence-fragment and a next set in italics, that strangely affect-less description of what (at first reading) we do not know. With brackets and parentheses, this phrase itself is interrupted, as if by qualifying or clarifying commentary. Then a third, bold typeface makes its first appearance, together with the first-person. A journey's end is declared, to be followed after the return of the normative typeface which describes "arrival" as "moulded" (like clay?) by another bold-face fragment declaring the beginning of a journey. An ending before a beginning. Reading down below in the second passage we note that this bold-face font there presents antiquated spellings, indicating perhaps that such language has been imported from another source. It reads like lyric poetry, like renaissance song.

But of course I am being willfully naive here. We think we know from The Waste Land, from Pound's Cantos, and from many another modernist poem, how to negotiate the poetics of collage and juxtaposition - we have experienced these texts and read the commentaries over the course of time. Moreover, in the book's notes, Riley provides more help in explaining that his "meditative" texts are "concerned with the human burial deposits of the so-called Neolithic/Bronze Age culture of what is now the Yorkshire Wolds," and are based upon "late nineteenth century tumulus excavation accounts by J. R. Mortimer (1905) and Canon William Greenwell (1877)" - though the volume we are reading here uses only the Mortimer text (60). …

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