Maurice Riordan, Shoulder Tap – review

Maurice Riordan’s subtly wrought Shoulder Tap draws beauty and wide imaginative reach as much from what it doesn’t say as from what it does. Its very quietness makes faint inflections and shifts of tone seem rich with implication. And a tendency to self-effacement, even when ostensibly talking about himself, seems to reflect the poet’s imaginative receptiveness. His ‘I’ becomes a medium of perception rather than a centre of attention, fading into things he sees or remembers. These things may be concrete experiences, or hauntings by other writers or singers. Such hauntings are sometimes explicit and extended, like a fine translation of Baudelaire’s ‘La Charogne’ and a poem ‘after Laforgue’, sometimes obvious but glancing, and sometimes the faintest of elusive undertones. Allusions of the latter kind find an apt metaphor in the ‘shoulder tap’ of the title poem.

However, Riordan’s receptiveness and self-effacement never involve a loss of artistic control. More than a medium of perception he’s a medium of balance between opposing ways of responding to the same perceptions. He attunes the cadences of natural speech to an apparently effortless formality. This lets him engage us intimately while remaining detached and noncommittal, and that in turn allows a remarkable shimmering between tones.

‘Gravel’ is an outstanding example of this:

for Frank

I, too, will spend an hour playing with the gravel.
Sorting and cleaning it. It does love the dirt.
Dead leaves, grit, seeds that can sprout. And it hides
the odd slug or worm. We can’t be having that!
Some of these stones have come a great distance.

I can no longer tell which are from Uist or Orkney.
And there’s one came from a mountain in Sarawak.
Could it be this basalt with a twinkle of schist?
A shame. It’s somehow joined the rabble tipped
here one morning from the Travis Perkins lorry.

I’m acting the snob! Each and every anonymous stone
has its captive soul, its own fixed little being.
And stones are time travellers. They start out in lake or esker,
or on the seafloor having housed small creatures.
The very tips of the Himalayas are limestone.

All these mute souls, who can tell their journeys …
How can I be their god! I’m too bald to be a saviour.
Though for an hour we’ll sift them through our hands.
Each one – like the last poems of Celan – born dark.
Each one condemned for the duration of the earth.

The overt occasion is trivial: the speaker is sifting the old gravel on his drive. As the poem develops, however, it leads us with wonderful lightness through small personal memories to vast perspectives of geological and cosmological time, and implicit metaphysical speculations on the value of existence. It does so in a way that hovers between profundity and play, like Andrew Marvell in the famous ‘To His Coy Mistress’. Already in the opening sentence, ‘I, too, will spend an hour playing with the gravel’, its solemn pacing makes it seem fraught with not-yet-revealed implications, but ‘playing with the gravel’ hints at an ironic and jokey reading. The whole poem strikes me as a beautifully constructed echo chamber, a whispering gallery of voices, some clear – like the echoes of the Pythagorean ideas in Nerval’s ‘Vers Dorés’ in the third stanza  – some more elusive, hovering below the threshold of consciousness like a word one struggles to remember. Crucially, Riordan lets the reader decide how seriously to take all this. In the end he imagines himself as God at the Last Judgement, deciding which souls – or stones – shall be saved and which thrown away, or rather protests that he can’t be God because he’s too bald to be a saviour! The whole poem is like the Duck Rabbit drawing, but what makes it simultaneously disturbing and consoling is that as reader you experience the gravity, the humour and the absurdity together in a continual oscillation.

The poem as deftly constructed mobile shimmering in a breeze of changing responses perhaps reaches its apogee in ‘Slatterns’, a brilliant found poem composed of quotations from a catalogue for an art exhibition. Seven sentences imbue the almost banal factualism of what they actually say with a melancholy developing from their fragmentariness: torn out of context, their feeling of incompleteness heightened by their lack of full stops, they seem to reach across the page in a vain search for the connections that would give them meaning.  The last two present a startling shift and are the more insidiously moving for their deadpan tone:

The figures stirred in me an inexplicable sense of identification

& I found, to my surprise, I was weeping


Maurice Riordan, Shoulder Tap, 72pp, £14.99 hardback, Faber & Faber Ltd.

I would like to thank Ann and Peter Sansom and Suzannah Evans for permission to post this extract from my review of books by Maurice Riordan, Threa Almontaser and Tua Forsström in issue 68 of The North, and Maurice Riordan and the Faber permissions department for permission to quote ‘Gravel’ in full on my website.


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