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02 June 2016 @ 11:10 am
Review of Pennine Tales by Peter Riley, pub. Calder Valley Poetry 2016  
Considering how long most of us (and I mean poets, who tend to be non-drivers) spend waiting for and travelling on public transport, it's a wonder it doesn't generate more poems, at least in the UK. I suppose there are a few train poems, though nowhere near as many as in the US, where trains seem to be regarded as romantic rather than utilitarian, but buses are woefully under-represented; the only well-known poet I can call to mind offhand who wrote interestingly on and about buses is Louis MacNeice.

His buses (and trains) tended to be urban. The ones in this pamphlet (another pleasingly designed, well-produced publication from Calder Valley Poetry) are rural, set in the Calder Valley that gives said press its name. Not all the 24 poems are specifically set on, or waiting for, transport, but a lot are, and this does two things to the collection. It emphasises the sense of transience in a collection already haunted by mortality – "returning to our rest we remain in transmission" - and it affects the poet's and reader's way of seeing. This is a poetry of moments: things and people glimpsed in passing or experienced for a set period of time, and about which we can speculate but never be certain. Even the form, each poem confined to 12 lines, suggests a limited, though intense, experience in a confined space.

The eye (and the I) in these poems is forever looking in from outside; lights are seen in windows but we can only guess, rather than know exactly, what goes on behind them:
behind rows of small windows take tablets,
set the clock, do what they usually do.

The imprecision of that " do what they usually do" is entirely deliberate, a refusal to invent. Right from the start, these poems, undefined by titles, tantalise the reader with ambiguities, infinite possibilities that will never become certainties, things we think we have seen but are not sure or must then reassess. The opening of the first:
Red flicker through the trees. The last minibus
leaves from the station
takes us off-balance from the first two words. It is natural to read them as noun-verb, but then their number would not agree; we read "red flicker" expecting "red flickers" and must then go back and see adjective-noun rather than noun-verb. And hardly have we got our head round that, when the innocent-looking real verb "leaves", in the next sentence, returns our minds inevitably to the trees and turns verb into noun, singular into plural, the red flicker of the lights into autumn leaves falling…

This sort of ambiguity and uncertainty can in fact only be got via great sureness and precision in the use of language, a feature of the whole pamphlet. The way, on a journey, an unrecognised bit of landscape turns into a familiar one is beautifully captured:
Bits of fence and house-front left and right telling us
where we are, which is increasingly not a nowhere.
The metaphorical aspect of the "journey" is always mercifully understated, and we are never allowed to forget that whatever figurative connotations a "bright chariot" may have, it is also a bus lit up at night-time.

Because of the perspective of these poems, features which might normally irritate the reader need instead to be accepted, notably the partial communication of personal information. When "Michael/gets off at his cancelled pub", any reader except perhaps Michael and his friends will be baffled: in what sense cancelled? Licence revoked? Change of use? Is it an event that's been cancelled (but then why alight there?). We cannot know exactly what "cancelled" means, nor indeed whether it matters to an understanding of this poem, and normally that might be a problem, the kind of insiderish non-communication that excludes the general reader. But in a way, this is the whole point of these poems: the universe we are passing through is full of just such information and we are not given anywhere near long enough to fathom it, rather like the goods trains in these memorable lines:
To arrive, to stay, to become old, to learn
the details, the stone paths strung over the hills,
the football fields below. Goods trains passing through.
Sally M: words 4sallymn on June 2nd, 2016 09:28 pm (UTC)
I like the seeming simplicity... and envy the skill of it.

Edited at 2016-06-02 09:28 pm (UTC)