The Llŷn Writings by Peter Riley
Shearsman Books, £8.95
Review by C.J.Allen
Ah, The Holiday Poem, that notable weakness of the poetry-inclined, educated, literary middle-classes everywhere. You know the sort of thing … You go to Tuscany/Marrakesh/Bucharest. You wander around with your melancholy/charming companion/guidebook. You swoon over the architecture/paintings/atmosphere of decayed gentility. You meet a colourful cab driver/peasant/street urchin. You go back to your hotel/pension/apartment. You open up your laptop/notebook/mini-bar. You start to write The Holiday Poem.
Now the thing about The Holiday Poem, of course, is that despite its usually being polite, superficially modest and competently written, despite its liberal intelligence and sensitivity, despite its decency and sincerity, it is, almost always, boring. The poet went somewhere, saw something, ate something, met someone, thought something - and then decided it would be very nice if he told us all about it, in verse. It’s the poem as dull post-card, the poem as pointless, low-voltage show-off (‘Check me out, I’m no run-of-the-mill holiday-maker, I don’t just go for the weather and the cheap leather-goods. No Siree, I write poems about it’).
So when I read that “The Llŷn Writings” is a complete collection of all peter Riley’s writings that have resulted from annual visits to the Llŷn Peninsula in North Wales between 1977 and 1988 …’ I was, understandably, on my guard. But I need not have been. Because “The Llŷn Writings” gently overturns my carefully wrought prejudices about The Holiday Poem, by virtue of its being the utter antithesis of polite, mundane accounts of ‘somewhere else’. "The Llŷn Writings" is, in fact, a not infrequently challenging and sophisticated collection of poems-of-place from which Peter Riley’s imagination and poetry take dramatic flight. These are not ‘empirical poems in the accepted English mode’ (as the blurb points out). These are poems of collapsed time-scales and realities. They are not at all boring.
The book opens with ‘Sea Watches’, an ‘extended sequence’ (itself a phrase to strike mild terror into the inner-being of the dedicated student of contemporary poetry; but, again, we need not have worried), that first appeared in “Passing Measures” (from Carcanet in 2000). It is written in tight, 6 line stanzas, each stanza rhyming with the next stanza but one – so stanza one rhymes with stanza three, two with four etc. It’s clever but not just-for-the-sake-of-it clever. The distant chime of the separated rhymes adds a kind of longing note, a sort of far-off rhythmic pulse like … well … like the sea, I suppose.
Almost there we hesitate, and turn, high on the soft
Edge of Britain, to view the whole story: the sea barking
Up both sides of the peninsula to the point, top
Crest of land, pilgrims’ goal or final extent
Of a life’s coming and going called together when
There is after all a focus, an intellectual love.
Grey concrete road down the old stream cleft
To the bay, white sand, slab sea, guard dog barking,
Chug of generator at the beach shop:
Unchanged items. And the same us with different
Surfaces, year after year we are here again.
Alternative to eternity; if our love is proven.
That mention of the ‘pilgrims’ goal’, by the way, is a reference to Bardsey Island - a major medieval pilgrimage destination – just off the coast of the Llŷn Peninsula. The notion of pilgrimage – historical, religious pilgrimage as well as its contemporary secular equivalent in the annual Riley family holiday – recurs throughout the book, which is, in part, an exploration of the very idea of the ritual journey. If that makes it sound rather hefty and worthy it isn’t meant to. “The Llŷn Writings” is a thoughtful consideration of, amongst other things, journey and ritual, but it’s thoughtful in the ‘thinking-with-your-feelings’ way that Elizabeth Bishop said poetry does best.
I like very much ‘the soft/ Edge of Britain’, the ‘barking’ sea, and the way the language runs between the lyrical and the hurried, telegraphed remark. I was also suitably chilled and discomfited by the idea of ‘… the same us with different/ surfaces …’ that seems to speak at once very economically and yet profoundly about the ineluctable wearing-away of things that Time has made one of its grisly specialities.
I haven’t read a great deal of Peter Riley’s poetry, but I am aware of its association with the Cambridge School, and there are aspects of the writing that have what I can only think of calling an experimental dimension – although I dislike the word ‘experimental’ in this context, as it suggests a kind of uncertainty very distant from the poetry itself. "The Llŷn Writings" finds poetry in lots of different forms. There are poems in prose, poems as notes on or for other poems, an ‘abandoned poem’, and something called ‘The Nightwatch Notebook’ which is explained as being
‘Texts prepared in 1989 for Sea Watches VIII then called ‘Eight Sea Sunsets’ and the whole work ‘Shining Cloth’, written at night out on the cliff or on returning to the caravan, in either case in the dark and not entirely legible.’
Here is an excerpt, headed ‘Sunday’:
Cloudy complicated sunset, patches and layers shifting
against each other on the horizon, a dark underlay
moving gently from left to right, family of three choughs
on the headland, their hollow cries
Sitting so still “a god might enter him”
Sitting so still an equation might settle on his arm.
And this is from the (untitled) final section
And so calm and clear the shining cloth
curvature of [?thought] which
passes, becomes cloudy, spreads
into a width of mental movement
also in [ ] of largesse for
tomorrow, [ ]ing what we keep
when we lose the moon and the sea and the whole
[two lines written on top of each other]
saves terrestrial events from waste.
These are lines that seem to resonate with the strange, de-personalised authority of the uncovered fragment. They are swift, slightly tentative and, perhaps because of that, all the more immediate and strong. The phrases and ideas build one upon another, build, occasionally stumble and then rebuild, so that the authority is not assumed, but accrues.
The voice sounding through "The Llŷn Writings" is not a big, hectoring Poetry Voice, neither is it wise-cracking or wistful; it’s simply true to itself. There is a respect for the reader’s intelligence; the poetry doesn’t talk down to you or try to win you over with flashy poetry-stuff and big, knockout punch-lines. It’s not afraid of difficulty, because to fear difficulty doesn’t just limit your world view, it limits what you can do with the language, and one of the things that Peter Riley is clearly trying to do here is extend the range and reach of the language.
Again and again, "The Llŷn Writings" hits a hauntingly lyrical and elegiac note. It is beautiful in the way that sad music is beautiful. It’s full of looking back, seeking not so much resolution as recognition that you were there once and the something that happened happened to you; in that sense it treads the Wordsworthian line of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’. The collection concludes with ‘Llŷn Going’:
Going away now. The chances diminish,
of returning. I wonder if my daughter
will bring her children here, and find
a Mrs Jones still here. Me not here, me
Singing my hymn. Lift up your heart
and your voice. I wonder if the sound
will reach the far shore, I wonder
if the sea’s continual code will ever
be broken …
Sometimes "The Llŷn Writings" is a book of poems and sometimes it’s a poet’s notebook, a memoir, a passage from a guidebook, or half a history lesson. Part of the charm of the book is its apparent honesty, the way the material is arranged (I almost want to say exhibited), the way the reader gets to see the notes and memories turn into poems, and then the poems turn back into notes or fragments of autobiography. The whole thing is very open and – curiously for material that is often allusive and stylistically disruptive – accessible. It has the unfinished quality of a life.
© C. J. Allen, 2007