Review – Pennine Tales by Peter Riley

Pennine Tales by Peter Riley. Calder Valley Poetry. £4.50. ISBN: 978-0-9934973-2-2.

 Peter Riley was really only a name to me until I read this attractively produced booklet from Calder Valley Poetry. Knowing his links to Jeremy Prynne and the “Cambridge School”, I thought he might seem dauntingly experimental. In fact the poems of Pennine Tales are accessible and beautifully written. There are twenty-four, each twelve lines long.

From the start, I loved the polished fluency of the rhythms, with lines slipping seamlessly over line endings except where there’s a precisely calibrated hesitancy or interruption or gathering for emphasis in the flow of the thought.

Such skill is a physical and aesthetic pleasure in itself. It’s also the condition of another kind of seamlessness and ease for which these poems are remarkable. We get a taste of it in the first poem, beginning

Red flicker through the trees. The last minibus
leaves from the station, heading for the tops
full of ghosts, ghosts with notebooks, ancestors
from Halifax: farmers, publicans, clerks, looking
for me, wanting me back in the peace and jubilee
of diurnal normality. But they have caught
the wrong bus and will be delivered into nothing …

There’s something quietly startling about the ghosts. Our imaginations are set flickering between the physical world and a parallel, immaterial one. The subdued tone both muffles and sustains the shock, making it linger rather than being dissipated in the moment of impact. The touch is beautifully light, except in the jingling of “jubilee” and “normality”. The slipping between material and immaterial worlds is made easier by the way the physical world seems not quite substantial, with the bus dematerialised to a glimpsed “red flicker through the trees”. There’s a gravity and weight under the lightness, though, and a constant movement of half-caught suggestions under the surface of the writing. This includes the way the world of myth is made to shadow the “real” one, so that at the end of this first poem a Homeric or Dantean “dark river” draws “the last minibus” into its imaginative orbit. In fact everything in the poem seems volatile and shifting. “But they have caught / the wrong bus” sounds at once sombre and comic. “And will be delivered into nothing” is similarly equivocal. “Delivered” is surprising because the sense of release it brings abruptly reverses the movement into sombre reflection, but the word itself is a little well of meanings and associations sending out ripples of thought, and the whole phrase shimmers with ambiguity.

So the qualification to calling these poems accessible is to say that they’re never quite graspable. They lead you on and in as much by their elusiveness as by their inviting approachability, and it’s the combination of the two that gives them their richness.

This first poem’s movement between the actual and the phantasmal is one example of what Roy Fisher, quoted on the back sleeve, calls Riley’s “mediating between inner and outer experience in a way that makes for free passage to and fro”. The movement is often associated with an elegiac feeling. Riley’s reflections often touch on death. Physical settings by owl-haunted, wooded hillsides or exposed moorland roads at night, in the wind or under the stars, and the recurrent situation of waiting for a bus, naturally suggest metaphors of transience and the end of life. The landscape of abandoned chapels and demolished mills gives this a historical dimension. All the poems are set in the Upper Calder Valley, and the sense of rootedness in a particular small area is very strong. However, the movement between inner and outer experiences creates its own spaciousness. Drawn into the poet’s mind, we find a fluid palimpsest of perceptions and relations, involving vast vistas of space and time. The marginal place he stands in becomes the centre of the world or the solar system, because the centre is wherever you look out from, and he brings to this centre a long life of wide-ranging experience in other places and fields of knowledge:

I walk with Wordsworth, and poor Clare,
Shakespeare who repeatedly disappears,
and Hardy, guide and spokesman. Sometimes
hundreds of us walk the tired dark page, water
with stars in it leaking into our boots …

Altogether, I’ve discovered a poet essentially new to me, who’s given me considerable pleasure and a desire to know more of his work. There are, of course, things he doesn’t give, at least in this book. Although various individuals are named, none of them become substantial presences. This reflects a rarefied quality to the writing that did jar for me in one of the several poems that bring in political reflections. The third line of my final quotation is memorable and beautifully poised, but I felt that if the refugees at Calais and the people in the townships were to be invoked at all they should have been presented more solidly:

We are in the length and breadth of a dark nowhere
which encompasses the world. In this vast nowhere
the refugees at Calais cover their heads in dark tents
the township people murmur under iron roofs
contented for the moment, worried for the future
and along the road a lighted vehicle appears in
Old Town where old trust survives and needs us.

I would like to thank David Cooke and Anthony Costello, the editors of The High Window, for permission to repost this review. You can link to The High Window site with its many poems, articles and reviews by clicking here.


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