ARCHLUTES AND LATE NIGHT BUSES: Peter Riley’s Pennine Tales & Hushings
reviewed by David Hackbridge Johnson
I first came across Peter Riley’s work in connection with Nicholas Moore’s poems. Riley’s advocacy of the unjustly forgotten New Apocalyptic poet resulted in among other things his editing of the selection Longings of the Acrobats. The poems in that volume made me not only eager to track down as many of the original Moore slim volumes as I could (only The Glass Tower with illustrations by Lucien Freud remains beyond my budget) but curious also about Riley.
Often searches of the internet for poets reading their own work proves fruitless but with Peter Riley I was in luck, coming across a short reading on YouTube. Among the powerful poems some lines particularly stood out: ‘Jeremy Prynne I wish I could play the archlute / to your physical ear.’ The imagining of this scene was irresistible; at first it made me smile. When I teach Renaissance or Baroque music to my students there is often much amusement if I show them film of the archlute; only the even larger theorbo elicits more delight. These smiles soon turn to rapt attention when the player begins to play on either of these noble instruments, perhaps a prelude by Robert de Visée. But then I rushed from Riley’s ‘wish’ to an instant scene of a recital where his wish is granted even though ‘wish’ might imply that Riley isn’t a practitioner and desires to be so. And ‘to your physical ear’ might mean a recital given by Riley to the audient Prynne, or more likely an accompaniment. But an accompaniment to what? Not a musical instrument but a ‘physical ear’; the instrument of perception itself. I take ‘physical ear’ to be a reference to Prynne’s concept of thinking with ‘mental ears’. Now Prynne emphasises this concept as being somewhat provisional in his article Mental Ears and Poetic Work , due to its extensive use of abstraction and ‘crucial obscurity’. Perhaps Riley’s archlute is a musical plea for a less internalised concept, something sensual like ‘a walk together / over the dark moorlands’. But then the punchline that brought me full circle back to humour: ‘believing in something / I don’t know what.’ A killer enjambment especially as there is no comma after ‘something’. I shan’t continue with this close reading of this one poem or the whole essay will stall, only I might say that Riley’s imaginary walk with Prynne across the moors remains a wish in the poem, so is ‘mental’ rather than ‘physical’; in any case one should ask whether Riley takes the archlute with him to accompany the walk, an awkward prospect. Then there is the subtlety of ‘believing in something’ – a desire for belief but where those things worthy of belief perhaps remain unknown or have been known and abandoned. Much ambiguity is at work here.
That I am able to make quotations shows that, after a brief enquiry to the poet, I managed to find out in which volume of his the poem resides. Pennine Tales is the first of two Riley volumes published so far by Calder Valley Poetry. The ‘archlute’ poem is no. 12 of 24 poems in the book, each with 12 lines, although the poems are not numbered or titled. At first glance I thought they were sonnets and they do have the sense of containment redolent of that form and there are occasional hints of a volta. I’ve prefaced these remarks with the wished-for moorland walk with Prynne since it combines what appear to be some of the cycle’s concerns: journeys, or waiting for journeys to begin (often at night and by various modes of transport), the companionship of fellow poets, and nocturnal thoughts on the Yorkshire moors: these seem to be threads running through Pennine Tales.
Firstly, transport. Train spotters and bus spotters might like to make a check list. I’ve done it for them, although there are no numbers. The first poem (p.7) has a mini bus and a train. The next poem mentions a bus shelter and a station forecourt, the next, the ‘last train for Leeds’. There is ‘turbulence on the platform’ (p.14). Much waiting for buses is endured; their appearance usually consoling (pp.15, 16 and 27). Goods trains pass through (pp.22 and 28). I think I am right in saying that Riley is never in any of these vehicles; the journeys, like the one with Prynne, are wished for or imminent. We hear of the ‘lighted vehicle’ (p.15) and the ‘bright chariot’ (p.27) which instil a sense of the bus as saviour; on cold nights no doubt it is. There is a sense in which the poet might at any point become stranded, as if the walks or pub visits might end in difficulty. Alternatively, buses trundling up the road might be signals that the poem and the tenor of its argument can be artificially ended, the journey home putting a stop to the ruminations. And yet the very first poem gives a fearful image of a bus journey that goes wrong: ‘…But they have caught / the wrong bus and will be delivered into nothing,’ (p.7). After this the reader might not trust the ‘bright chariot’ to take the correct route. The idea of last buses or last trains brings to mind the idea of a last resort; that missing the last means of getting home strands the poet in the poem.
The ‘goods trains passing through’ sparked a memory flood for me; my grandparents on my father’s side lived on Pedder Street at the corner with Weston Street in Preston; a site dominated by two things: the huge spire of St. Walburge Catholic Church, and the railway line that followed Pedder Street behind a tall brick wall. In the attic it was possible to see over the wall and watch the trains, many of them trundling freight on innumerable bogeys. Memories of my brother and I, setting up Grandad’s model trains on a trestle table in the attic, waiting for the real trains to come before we moved ours … these evocations set off anew by Riley’s mere mention of such movements. The goods trains that people ‘check their watches’ to (p.28), speak of transport as something moving in the night and giving signal to sleep with the feeling that the machines of society are working as we dream – a potent association that ‘reaffirms presence’.
A gentler means of transport is touched on in the poem on page 10, as the poet takes a walk near the river with its canal boats and ‘dark towpath’. As with the last buses and trains this is a night journey. The canal is revisited on page 16 where it illuminates a scene which ‘is increasingly not a nowhere’, as if some hope remains and that in ‘rest we remain in transmission’ – a feeling that there are connections that can be passed on. Perhaps there is an appeal to slower means of getting about, early industrial means of transportation, albeit now only for pleasure cruising. This change of use, or redundancy of old modes of journeying, is important for the book as a whole as we will see.
Prynne is not the only poet whose company Riley seeks; indeed, as the two friends ‘tremble between beliefs’ a whole phalanx of fellow walkers are brought to the task: Wordsworth, Clare, Shakespeare, Hardy and ‘Sometimes hundreds’ – and at this point the moorland becomes ‘the tired dark page’ – landscape becomes the very page where belief is sought. Perhaps Shakespeare has the answer but he ‘repeatedly disappears’. Apart from brief references to Branwell Brontë (p. 9) and Ted Hughes (p.12) it is fellow poet Michael Haslam who appears in Pennine Tales as an actual not merely wished-for presence; we see the two poets at closing time waiting for the bus in ‘a dark nowhere which encompasses the world’ – Haslam alights at a cancelled pub in the next poem, the pub an indication of another ‘nowhere’ conspiring to erase a former sight of communal drinking and life. These dispersals into nowhere are given the quick sting of topicality at the mention of the Calais refugee camp – Riley slips this in not in a polemical way and the reader gets the point without strain within the fabric of the poem.
I see now that by pursuing these threads of buses and fellow poets I’ve performed a kind of botched autopsy – but the poems are alive to so much else that I haven’t touched on; really I’ve only dwelt on the means of conveyance leaving out the gist of the thoughts and feelings conveyed. But in a way these mechanics of movement are tied to the themes of personal and societal journeys. The first poem sets up some of these ideas: the minibus is heading ‘for the tops / full of ghosts’ and they want the poet back ‘in the peace and jubilee / of diurnal normality’ – yet as mentioned earlier in this piece the ghosts are on the wrong bus and they can only welcome him to ‘the nothing of death’. The poem has images of an ‘abandoned chapel’ and ‘demolished mills’, reminders of industrial and spiritual decay. These images hint at the slow journeys to eventual degenerated states, while buses, trains and canals still ply the old arteries but perhaps end in the ‘dark nowhere’ of the poem on page 15. These old routes allow a kind of touristic survey of once thriving towns, long victim to a ‘capital aristocracy’ (p.24) – day trips for industrial archaeologists. Journeys might form the infrastructure of the poems but quietly one realises that this infrastructure is part of what the poems are about; the way people move for life and work, how new routes replace old but vestiges of movement remain in forgotten sidings, canals, buses to cancelled pubs with echoes of communal conviviality now lost. Then there is Riley walking and thinking; on page 20 the walk takes him to a scene ‘all washed up’ and where ‘water flees to the town’ – and at this point a volta – a rhetorical shift as if the immediacy of the trod land forces the thought into open statement: ‘Until society and economy / are brought to support each other…/ there are badly swollen people among us.’ This alarming idea of an inundated population left beached on the ‘earthen bank’ glimpsed at the start of the poem is perhaps the most urgent emotive force that Riley expresses in the cycle; this poem being its key point; a diagnosis of social economy in a blasted landscape, its stones and rain remnants of the exploited earth and its inhabitants.
In 2017, (a year after Pennine Tales), Hushings was published. The structure is similar to the earlier volume: 18 poems of 12 lines. There are continuities between both books: landscape is ever present and always discovered in the sense that although ‘there’ it is read in different ways as Riley surveys with poetic eyes (and ears), buses (now to the delight of the bus spotters, actually numbered!) idle at bus stops, music is another common thread – we hear a motet by Brumel, Grieg’s Solveig’s Song sung by a man to an audience of sheep (what a beautiful picture!), Handel’s Dove sei, amato bene?, some folk songs, and a band plays Set Me Free. I think the political voice is more prominent in Hushings; the directness of ‘Here we wait, as if waiting / for the return of truthful politics.’ (p.11), and ‘Politics crying out for a moral imperative,’ (p.14) testify to this. This last quotation is worth exploring since it debates in mocking ironic tones the possible purpose of poetry. A fuller quotation: ‘Politics crying out for moral imperative, / and it’s not poetry’s job. Poetry can wait / like an old minibus in a garage while / we sleep, slightly losing oil.’ I think it’s clear from the tone that Riley would prefer a rather less decrepit engagement than the one offered by an aged bus. The image seems to be about power and lack of it, both in poetry and in daily life and how they can be conjoined. Auden’s ‘For poetry makes nothing happen’ might lurk in the background here.
Hushings contains personal memories too; the first poem has Riley going to school for the first time in 1945 and I assume the ‘five-year-old mounting for the / first time the stone steps that lead up to the / assembly hall,’ (p.13) is Riley too. These recollections don’t pull the book into autobiography since they are imbedded in what the poet of today is experiencing and they act as a springboard for further thought; perhaps a key passage being the one that begins in the poem on page 19: ‘you find some place to live and you move in. / Once the door is closed and voice gains in strength / and proposes a self…’ – this self is then shown to focus life through a long list of institutions, institutions that appear to be threatened, hence ‘The shrivelling’ that concludes the list. This proposing of the self in communal organisations is one potential answer to Auden’s pessimism. Indicting the causes of the shrivelling might be the very least of ‘poetry’s job’. Riley’s ‘appeals for volunteers’ indicate the level of state withdrawal from services and he posits a return to self-help in the face of such emptying out of governmental responsibility. The poem on page 17 finds a place ‘split by failed / hopes galore’ and mentions ‘the collapsed mills and closed libraries.’ – communal life hollowed out leaving the poet to take ‘the stony road’ with a hint that the stones are those of the dismantled or neglected buildings. This landscape wants repairing.
What is left in this reduced world? For one thing, ghosts; these appeared in the very first poem of Pennine Tales, getting on the wrong bus, and they appear many more times in Hushings: ‘family ghosts’ (p.14), ‘Whisper to me good ghost’ (p.19), and ‘Such a spectre orders regional ghosts’ (p.20). Although all ghosts might be lost, in limbo, only partially accessible, they are present reminders of the past and Riley wants to commune with them and the ghosts are ‘not / illuminated but responding, accepting the offer.’ – here Riley includes lost voices into his art in a way that avoids sentiment and makes a bridge between ages.
A word about the title. Hushings, Riley tells us in his brief notes, are exposed cones of limestone formed when water is released from a reservoir so that revealed ore may be more easily extracted. There might be a metaphor at work here; a traumatised landscape will always leave a remnant, inundations will devastate but expose the workings beneath, a product of damaged earth; I think it a most convincing way to frame some of the themes Riley touches upon.
Both of these books are beautifully designed and typeset (using my own favourite font: Garamond) by Bob Horne. I find I can read the poems individually but also as part of a large sequence that really flows through both books; the connectedness of the themes gives a structure that paradoxically points to the decay of connectedness around the poems’ concerns – and this is not to say that irony is the tool of such a paradox; rather that the poet observes and charts the process of his thought in the landscape traversed. There is a Wordsworthian element here; it is surely no accident that Riley evokes the solitary reaper on page 8. Now Wordsworth, having been transfixed by the reaper’s singing, walks on and has an indelible memory of the song: ‘And, as I mounted up the hill, / The music in my heart I bore, / Long after it was heard no more.’ – yet I think Riley hopes to speak as if part of the reaper’s experience, not merely as an observer: ‘you are my word in the world and together / we’ll walk through fear and cold weather…’ – there is a chain of evolving meaning here from Wordsworth to Riley with a strong hint of Hardy in between and in this way Riley underlines the community of poets both dead and alive that was seen in Pennine Tales. This is surely one of poetry’s long-term aims; something that might indeed make something ‘happen’. One might paraphrase the epithet of E.M. Forster’s and say that Riley reveals a decaying world where ‘only disconnect’ holds sway, yet there is hope, not only in the very remembering of the past but in what it might teach us (in the least didactic way) to preserve; that all this and no doubt more is achieved through a quiet but incisive voice is a testament to the subtle power of Riley’s poetry. I should say that the cumulative effect of reading both books one after the other is that of a slow gathering of emotion and power; the final poem of Hushings with its murmuring choir’s ‘moan for the world’s departure’ is both moving and vital. And we are left with the unforgettable folk song ‘Shallow Brown’.
‘Shallow Brown, you’re going to leave me,
Shallow, oh Shallow Brown,
‘Shallow Brown, you’re going to leave me,
Shallow, oh Shallow Brown.
Shallow Brown, don’t e’er deceive me,
Shallow, oh Shallow Brown,
Shallow Brown, don’t e’er deceive me,
Shallow, oh Shallow Brown…’
David Hackbridge Johnson began composing at the age of 11 and has written works in all genres. His works have been widely performed.
John Foggin ‘s Dark Watchers reviewed by Ian Parks
Dark Watchers by John Foggin. £7. Calder Valley Poetry. ISBN 978-1-9160387-0-7
In 2013 I edited an anthology of contemporary Yorkshire poetry called Versions of the North. Since then, occasionally, I’ve encountered a poet who, if I’d known their work at the time, I would have included without hesitation – and this is one of those occasions. John Foggin’s work stubbornly resists categorisation; it exists on its own terms, arising from the life, observations, and emotions of the writer and, as such, is a timely antidote to the rise of the career poet. It is radical poetry in the most fundamental sense in that it refuses to bow to current fashions in poetry and the literary trends that precipitate them. Instead we have a poetry which is about something, that is at once engaging and challenging, that deals with the questions surrounding what it means to be human – and to be a finite, politicised individual cast adrift in the middle of existence, making sense as and when it can through language and a certain rootedness to the landscape. The landscape, of course, is Yorkshire – and something of its ruggedness finds its way into these sculpted sinuous poems; so much so that I’m constantly reminded, when reading them, of the work of Henry Moore. It is no coincidence to find that Dark Waters carries no dedication to a single person but to the 1945 Labour government of Clement Attlee which ushered in the National Health Service and the democratisation of the education system from which I, and I assume John Foggin also, benefitted.
John Foggin lives in Ossett, West Yorkshire. All the virtues found in his last pamphlet collection Advice to a Traveller – his ear for the colloquial, his unerring instinct for rhythm, and his almost plain-speaking poetic voice – are very much in evidence in Dark Watchers except, in the new collection, they intensify. The intensity serves a purpose. ‘Every thing’ as Foggin announces in the title poem ‘depends / on everything else’ – and it is precisely this sense of interconnectedness which drives the individual poems and the collection itself forward through a series of outstanding pieces such as Rambling, The Bright Silences, Brief Encounters and culminating in the final poem But I Know You, Orion which is short enough to quote in full:
the three bright studs of your belt,
how you swing past my window,
going west, which is to say you stay
exactly where you are, while
I and my window, the garden, the motorway,
the and the plains of silt and the sea
all tilt to the east and the sun come rising.
Watching you, I grow dizzy, as though
this bed slides like snow to tumble
off the edge into where there is no
falling or anything to measure it.
Nothing in this poetry is far removed from the actual – window, garden, motorway, plains, and sea – and yet it manages to communicate a numinence which lies beyond the material world as we perceive it, an underlying reality that can only be touched (and expressed) adequately through poetry. And so it is this piercing quality that permeates so much of Foggin’s work that I want to draw attention to here. Once seen and assimilated the reader begins to notice how it occurs everywhere, underpinning the abstract philosophical ideas with a generous slice of realism. No poetry except in things, to paraphrase Coleridge, might well prove to be Foggin’s mantra too.
Bob Horne at Calder Valley Poetry should be congratulated for adding this outstanding collection to his enterprising list. As Greta Stoddart observes ‘the image and spirit of the material world’ finds full expression in a poetry that is ‘deeply thoughtful’ and ultimately ‘metaphysical’. It is also a poetry that challenges our perceptions of the material world in which we live. It operates, as it were, on more than one level as all true poetry should. It offers us a glimpse of an underlying reality inhabited by ghosts form the past and the Dark Watchers themselves who act as ever-present and yet invisible witnesses (in the Biblical sense) to the unravelling of our lives. In the short poem Call It Dust Foggin begins by suggesting that when ‘death arrives… / we’ll be looking somewhere else, / the wrong way, thinking wrong thoughts’ and goes on, in the second stanza to speculate that perhaps ‘love comes like this, too’ cementing the age-long connection between love and death. And yet, as Foggin himself is acutely aware, we are limited to our perceptions and to what he calls ‘the falling short of language’. Poetry operates between these two poles: the falling short of perception and the falling short of language. True poetry will seek to reconcile those tensions through itself; and true poets will always be fascinated by the interface produced by this effort of reconciliation. John Foggin is a true poet and I for one eagerly await the publication of another full-length collection in which these preoccupations can be explored more fully. What we have already is a remarkable thing.
Ian Parks was born in 1959 in Mexborough, South Yorkshire. The son of a miner, he has taught creative writing at the universities of Sheffield, Leeds, Oxford, De Montfort and Hull. His many collections include Gargoyles in Winter, Shell Island, The Landing Stage, Love Poems 1979-2009, The Exile’s House and The Cavafy Variations. He is the editor of Versions of the North: Contemporary Yorkshire Poetry and runs Read to Write in Doncaster. His most recent collection is Citizens (Smokestack Books. 2017).