Much of my poetry reading consists of browsing my way through stacks of long-ago purchased but unread books. There’s no decent poetry bookshop within an hour and a half, so I end up buying masses of stuff when I visit the metropoles, then working my way through it later. Needless to say, I don’t do a very good job of keeping up with what’s hottest off the presses. (Yes, do send books – much obliged, and I’m sure we can arrange some sort of swap!)
Which explains why I’ve only now gotten around to reading Peter Riley’s Distant Points: Excavations Part One Books One and Two (Reality Street Editions, 1995). Riley is known as a “Cambridge” poet, which means he’s part of the group vaguely associated with J. H. Prynne – in short, one of the most important epicenters of innovative poetry in the United Kingdom. (The invisibility of interesting British poetry in the United States will be one of the recurrent themes of this blog, I think, something that ought to begin to be rectified by rich websites such as Robert Sheppard’s Pages.)
Distant Points is a series of prose poems, Riley explains, “concerned with the human burial deposits of the so-called Neolithic/Bronze Age culture of what is now the Yorkshire Wolds, as documented in two books of late 19th Century tumulus excavation accounts: by J R. Mortimer (1905) and Canon William Greenwell (1877).” Each poem is titled with the numerical designation of an individual excavation, and combines verbatim descriptions of the mound’s contents – often eliciting a good deal of unintentional (to their original authors) pathos – with linguistic material Riley draws from any number of other sources: various works on Renaissance music, Pound, Kierkegaard, Jacques Roubaud, Elaine Scarry, Beckett, Sir Thomas Browne, etc. It makes for a fascinating mix, which grows in emotional intensity over the course of the book. Here, for instance, from page 37:
head to East, upper torso lying on its back but crouched at a right-angle and knees turned sharply to left, and the head also turned to face South… remembering all the tricks of warmth, twisting aside, avoiding the sky Both hands raised to the head, the left touching the neck, the right arm doubled back with the hand behind the head but clear, clearly coloured clearly set, a whole row of sorrows parting the air, rote of stedfastnes in the hands’ guardian delay. Spun then in passion’s careless reach who thought a life was a sum, with double sorrow dowbyl sorow complayn I must of the failure, to clear before dawn and bring the disadvantaged to their gathering or the self to its principal. As it did in the wrested moment, earth Like heavn still in it selfe delighted.
This strikes me as an extraordinary poetry, one which takes the techniques of modernism to almost a certain limit, yet retains the entire lyric and emotional intensity of the English tradition behind Riley. I’m not sure I see in any point in speaking of this work as somehow “postmodern”: if anything, it announces how much life remains in the techniques and procedures of high modernism.