Peter Riley: Uncollected Poems

These poems missed inclusion in Peter’s Collected Poems (Shearsman Books 2018) because they were hidden from sight in the corners of old notebooks, long forgotten poetry magazines, or letters to other people. Others he knew about but thought were incomplete; in some cases he was wrong, and in others they did lack a completion, but he was able to find one, which was not necessarily an ending. From start to finish there is an inclination not to allow given summative gestures.

They are in roughly chronological order, from some of the first poems to have survived from the mid 1960s, to the latest. There may be more somewhere.

Some of these poems have been published in or by Molly Bloom, face down in the book of revelations‘(for Peter Hughes on his 60th birthday), The Grosseteste Review, Blackbox Manifold, Shearsman, Tenth Muse, Two Rivers Press, c___c press, Goat’s Head Press.




This centre we take with us
everywhere we go like a ring on a finger
so that where we are will always be
in some sense London.

The churches in this city
gather light in the morning
as a mountain does. The bird
flies to its nest.

We’ll get out of here one day,
these squalid bed-sitting-rooms and
selling lampshades or what-
ever we do which certainly isn’t
what we came here to do
but all we can think of
is a pastoral alternative – slopes and
curlews and one day we’ll
get there one day, holding
to our breasts the capital
of thought and what it was
we loved here.



An old woman pushes
a battered pram over
the asphalt, torn
gloves, shawl, moves
erratically, worried,
spits on the
asphalt, coughs
and spits again.



By night the tap drips, the gas-fire
hisses for more shillings, occasional
cars pass outside. Be ready
to leave any time at short notice.
Always keep a suitcase handy.

Snow came but was trodden away
quickly into slush and mud.

Cold black lines
intersect on the pavement.



Remaining unsettled. A quick
wish hits the zenith, tears
the mental light and settles
quietly on a new leaf.

Will you be
too cold in the distance
wrapped in
patience and don’t be afraid.


with acknowledgement to the original translator, Frans van Rosevelt


pushes in on me:
I’m too wide!
I’m too wide!

I grasped
at the unformed
in eternity

and caught it,
and it cast me
beyond width.

Now, everywhere else,
the self is too thin.
If you’d been there too
you’d know what I’m talking about.


Having sung love
doesn’t stop the hurt
for love’s duress is tight and strong,
I am an object inside it,
xxxxxa pain in the body of love –
so tightly bound in,
how can you talk of restraint?


So as love allows it
I pity my heartpangs
and grow deaf to her demand
while my claims are nothing to her force.
So as the dying swan
first sings and then bows out,
what love asks of me now
let me in such custom complete.


Had I known how far I could fall
I would have concentrated on rising
and if I had donated myself
entirely to love I would have had
proper return from my expense,
an agreement between living and love.
xxxxThen I’d inhabit upperness
xxxxand all the things my lower
xxxxacts reveal the lack of.
xxxxThis is the question that arises.



Do not the people, furious of eye, in their song
cast themselves into the day as a whole, so that
suddenly stepping out of the car the patter
of rain on leaves is in a process of completion
remembering every sarabande, hope’s slow flag,
the poppy field blazed up the col.



Stones in thin grass,
small birds flutter in trees,
stone fitted against stone.

Two ravens high up the cliffs,
olive trees and small conifers filtering light.
Not sleeping and not saying: watching,
watching the old man.



Stars between the black branches,
a rustling in the hedge…
Silently, the wall collapses
of the house behind me where you sleep
in the loft. My hand reaching out into the night
will not find you except as a created form.
Sparks drifting through the tree-tops.



O God let a few chords
descend on their heads
in the dying villages, let
a beam of alcohol settle
and let it be home-made.



I go singing on the road, low in intellect.
“I love to hear those evening crows go by”

remembering “Aren’t I the queen of the world now?”
and the white gravestone up on the brown moor.

How could you use a poor maiden so?


after Goethe

But who is this, off-course, lost among shrubs…?
The hedge closes behind him,
the grass stands up again,
the waste ground eats him up.

Who will heal his pains, since
balm became poison, peace war, since
fullness of love became hatred?
First scorned, now scorns,
feeds secretly on his
pride, his ingathering self-love
and suppresses compassion.

Is there not then one note in all your music
to turn his head for a moment
and draw his breath, one plea that
the pavements remain unblooded,
and open his revolutionary cataracts
to the thousand springs
all round him, where his heart is.


after Rilke
with gamelan notes added

No longer for ears — sound
that, like a deeper ear
hears us, the apparent hearers.
We change places, inner worlds
sketched onto the outside.
A temple before there were temples,
a solution saturated with
insoluble gods: GONG!

The big gong must never be damped —
there is a god inside it who mustn’t be interfered with.

Sum of our silences,
making known only to itself,
roar that turns to itself
silenced by itself
a duration wrung out of fading,
re-poured star: GONG!

The gong controls the ending of every piece —

You, whom we never forget,
who gave birth to yourself in loss,
a no longer understood festival,
wine at invisible mouth,
storm in the supporting column,
the wanderer’s fall into the route,
betrayal, ours, of everything:

slow to the penultimate note,
stop, short pause, and GONG.
Orchestra casually concedes the last note.



GONG (2)

There is only one gong.

Dispersed droning, perverted silence,
the whole ambience transformed into a thousand sounds,
goes away and comes back: strange closeness
of the tide of infinity.

The smaller ‘gongs’ hung near it
are called swnkam and kempul.

Best to close eyes and renounce mouth,
remain mute, blind, dazzled:
the whole space sounding, touching us,
wanting nothing of us but our hearing.

They have to bear, with us,
the indignity of hanging around
producing notes of music.

Who would tolerate it? The shallow ear
quickly overflows and, full of all the sounds,
don’t we press against our own ear
the vast shell which is ear of the world?

The big knobbed gong (gong agen)
can be said to have an audible pitch

As if one were in the process of
melting down the bronze gods
in order to add to them
the enormous Gods, all gold,
who destroy themselves with droning.
And from all these gods
emerging in metallic flares
arise the ultimate
royal sounds!

but so low it is as much felt as heard.
And it oscillates (ombak: ‘ocean waves’)

(… bronze trees, which, listening, make
the round fruit ripen
by resonating autumn…)



A great boat setting out at night.
Children in free play on the harbour side.
Wine to relax the stomach.
A friend to put you right when necessary.


Now is the time, John, to drink the red wine
as the English summer closes close to
blood heat good for the aromas
and we partake of something that we are.
Why weren’t you at your funeral?


The woods swaying, crows propelled across the sky
outbursts of diagonal rain. The road follows the valley
and we follow our fathers under the calling of crows,
following the echoes, which return us where we came
from and they all turn to us, holding a glass of wine.
Owls, trees, and ancestors, these are the signs
that guide us, these are the eyes that open a road
between pastures across the hills leading
to a modest settlement with an ancient church. Here among
leaning tombstones she waits for us in the cold
strong wind from north. When we get there she’ll
bring us in to the warm, and a glass of the local brew.



xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxAfter the war
the affection we had won was contained
as by the walls of a room, red brick,
and the true place was always there.
There was nowhere else, no other hope was retained
but the song where love stokes its own heat,
passing round mugs of tea in candle-light, the sweet,
ever sweet, relief of company, as of ripening wheat.


Teach me the meaning of the word “statute”
and I am with you all the way there,
and standing barefoot on a Herdwick rug,
earthfast, I’ll warble to the night sky
the song for recalling parliaments,
dictionary in left hand hot water-bottle
in right and so compose a redemptive anthem
but what comes out is Goodnight Irene.
Sometimes I live sometimes I die we need help.
We need to find out what we want to be.
We have lost it and handed the decisions to lizards.
We need a law, we need a constitution
or for ever be the victims of our own deals
and lost children in our own dreams.


Every morning at a quarter to eight
six schoolgirls pass by my window
on the towpath, chattering. I can’t hear
what they say, but the tone is
normally bright. Then one voice says
I can’t stand it any more and another says
Yes, it’s not fair. I am merely the scribe
to this world. I am merely the librarian
to these spirits. I sit quietly at my table
while these world spirits pass my window
at 7:45 every weekday morning, rain or shine.



Sleep, little centipedes, while the earth rots,
dream of Manchester. Not since Angel Meadow
has there been such governmental slaughter,
the bodies scattered across the squares and
bundled in shop doorways through the winter
hope lost from faces turning upwards
an underclass without ceremonies or recompense
Palestinians forced out of their land, thinking
ghazals in brick waiting rooms while civil servants
play cat and mouse. Feed them a bit of hope and
snatch it back, Jack; who are not unkind people
by nature but deprived of mind space. Wake up.

(This is an alternative text of a poem which appeared in the book Truth, Justice and the Companionship of Owls (Longbarrow Press 2018, page 84) rewritten to make it clear that I do not wish to denigrate the town of Rochdale, Lancs, in any way. )


Peter Riley was born in Stockport and recently moved to Hebden Bridge after 28 years in Cambridge. He is the author of 17 books of poetry 1967-2015, which have been gathered into a two-volume Collected Poems published by Shearsman. His long poem Due North was shortlisted for the Forward best collection prize in 2016. Dawn Songs, three essays on music, was published by Shearsman in 2017. He is the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review website.

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