Blackbox Manifold

Issue 10: Peter Riley


Words are not magic crystals. What’s that

faint tapping in the night? It is Ted Hughes

wishing he’d stayed in Mytholmroyd and not

been made into a hero by hungry clerks

or his wife into a martyr by ideologues.

Tap. Tap. Is that you? Can you hear me? In the

night, in the womb, are we safe for the moment?

Do you remember a brief moment in Cambridge meadows

untouched by print, police, or prizes,

or the Penguins that waddle above our icy graves

bearing their own biographies across the icy flats:

an egg-dance and a swift fish.


Poverty stretched across frontiers fills

the resulting space with trills.


A life of repeated partings

stands behind the welcome and draws


Tears at the farewell. All our

loved ones were lost


Into unknown regions and well

may they persist for all we know


Sustained by consorts, trilling

like birds in the dawn.



The world heals us and casts us out, healed, into a black desert.

Every year at the new year fire we renew the terms of this

contract, the route to the centre, turn of the wheel, delight

in daily tasks while the new baby sleeps our sleep for us

entirely meshed in the chords. Until next year, when


it again becomes time to know what you’re saying.

The harmony includes cruelty and disdain, a bird lodges

briefly in the tree beside the graveyard and flies away

to the east. Haydn doesn’t belong here and the gypsies

don’t come to church. Someone’s knocking at the door.


Something’s knocking at the door, some force greater

than self sufficiency, longer than the forests and

wider than the army. It involves Haydn, out in the villages

listening to the gypsy bands and making notes, it means

the hymn, our last connective, ending and emptying.


The hymn ends with grace if the people we employ

get honest payment. Nobody in the wide west

believes this, the big numbers rattle in circular tombs.

But it is so, ultimately and yesterday and without end.

The gypsy band plays for singing and dancing


and every tune is our requiem, our bonfire in the snow.

The day of wrath approaches from the direction

of Austria, candle flames in the dark graveyard

as the watery star passes across the sky and

it is not enough to thrive, or to understand.


It is not enough to create. Look to the future

as a specific task to be completed before dawn

for the sake of humanity, the earth-bound music

that buds from the withered rosebush, called

back from the wild places, dark stone in hand.


From the black fates of Europe, the acres of despair just

round the corner, may wisdom protect us and lead us in

a linked circle for we have given thought and

worked hard. But have we stood on the ridgetop in

snow as the winter blaze dies down and viewed the harm?


No. But we have joined in the singing in the church,

Haydn in Hungarian from the days of the Empire

and felt the pull of intellection towards peace. If only

the gypsies too had been there the offer

would have been a crowning.


The daily ferry pulls into the harbour

as the shadows contract. Next time you look

it’s gone, down the coast, sailing

soft seas full of light, normal living.


There is no other access except footpaths

which are hell without a mule. The mountains rise

almost from the shoreline. The sea spilling

light proposes equity across the land, as usual.


Poseidon groans in the dark medium, the wash

against the shore in the empty bay where the ships came

in 1941 to rescue an army. The runners turned their

backs on the sea and headed for the summits on


almost vertical goat tracks, carrying radios on their backs.

Their fears are not ours. We await the news,

the pain of the earthly concept. The ferry lights

come round the headland again, on earth and on time.


after Rilke

with gamelan notes


No longer for ears -- sound

that,  like a deeper ear

hears us, the apparent hearers.

We change places. Inner worlds

sketched onto the outside...

A temple before there were temples,

a solution saturated with

insoluble gods...: gong!

                                                                                                                                         The big gong must never be damped

                                                                                    --     there is a god inside it  who mustn’t be interfered with.

Sum of our silences,

making known only to itself,

roar that inturns to itself

silenced by itself

a duration wrung out of fading,

re-poured star:  gong!

                                                                                                                              The gong controls the end of every piece--

You, whom we never forget,

who gave birth to yourself in loss,

a no longer understood festival,

wine at invisible mouth,

storm in the supporting column,

the wanderer’s fall into the route,

betrayal, ours, of everything...:  gong!

                                                                                                                     slow to the penultimate note, stop, short pause, and gong.

                                                                                                     Then the orchestra casually concedes the  final note.


GONG (2)

                                                                                                                                                  There is only one gong.


Dispersed droning, perverted silence,

the whole ambience transformed into a thousand sounds,

goes away and comes back: strange closeness

of the tide of infinity.

                                                                                                                                       The smaller ‘gongs’  hung near    it

                                                                                                                                        are called swnkam and kempul.

Best to close eyes and renounce mouth,

remain mute, blind, dazzled:

the whole space sounding, touching us,

wanting nothing of us but our hearing.

                                                                                                                                           They have to bear, with us,

                                                                                                the indignity of producing notes of music.

Who would tolerate it? The shallow ear

quickly overflows and, full of all the sounds,

don’t we press against our own ear

the vast shell of the ear of the world?

                                                                                                                                        The big knobbed gong, gong agen,

                                                                                                        can be said to have an audible pitch


As if one were in the process of

melting down the bronze gods

in order to add to them

the enormous Gods, all gold,

who destroy themselves in droning.

And from all these gods

emerging in metallic flares

arise the ultimate

royal sounds!

                                                                                                                                     but so low it is as much felt as heard.

                                                                                                    And it oscillates (ombak: ‘ocean waves’)



(... bronze trees, which listening make

the round fruit ripen

by their resonating season...)


after Goethe


But who is this, off-course, lost among shrubs...?

The hedge closes behind him,

the grass stands up again,

the waste ground eats him up.


Who will heal his pains, since

balm became poison, peace war, since

fullness of love became hatred?

First scorned, now scorns,

feeds secretly on his

pride, his ingathering self-love

and suppresses compassion.


Is there not then one note in all your music

to turn his head for a moment

and draw his breath, one plea for

the pavements to stay unblooded,

and open his revolutionary cataracts

to the thousand springs

all round him, where his heart lies.

Peter Riley lives in retirement in Hebden Bridge, having been a teacher, lecturer, bookseller, and a few other things. He is the author of fifteen books of poetry, and some of prose concerning travel and music. His most recent book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet 2011).