Issue 20: Peter Riley
the last nine poems from RING CAIRNS
It was the days of Sandy Denny,
who entered my sleep in the middle of the night
singing one star awake, that soon will fall,
and in my darkness lit a candle and placed it
on the bedside table in a saucer of water.
And O! the toxic powder, the sexual fears,
the frozen streets, the hand that comes in
sideways and takes all, the food banks,
the lost grandchildren weeping on the moors,
the abandoned hope, the stuck to the pavement,
the can’t afford the fare, the can’t hear what you say,
the burning tower, the smashed saucer.
It was the days of Edgard Varèse.
I dreamt a whole war, and woke
to an empty street in first light,
and in Arabic, a beautiful language,
spoke my way past the care-homes
and agencies towards the open land.
The war was between artillery and artillery.
The worst thing was the quietness, with
a ticking noise and drum-taps between
enormous crashes full of brass bands
and exploding factories. The open lands
responded in Arabic, Where have all the birds gone?
Those were the days of pale moon rising
over the apartment block opposite,
stormy weather on its way, stay
here with me. And all the choirs in the land
howled again in perfect accord
and all the bones buried in the land
“so close that one would touch another”
were entirely in our keeping. As the moon
mooned outside we conceived a future.
Letters and breves on finger pads
touching your cheek. Regarding your impudence.
It was different after we threw ourselves away.
We looked everywhere in the grass. It was the days
of Tony Hancock and we should be here somewhere.
Words stuck in glottis, only half pretending to be real,
we contradicted and steered hope into a wall shouting
Hey! who did that? You, we, everyone did. I was there
and saw you turning your self on the spit, a good meal
for any hungry aristocrat who never says
a word and doesn’t pretend for a second to care
if we live (on) (on what) or die piecemeal.
So hoist the mainsail and stutter the prayer of days
and swell those organs with radical pride and declare
we’re going back to the home no longer there.
Slowly through the stonewrack of Nab Hill,
and not a bird heard, not a shriek or a cheap
in all the abandoned delphs, where someone
thought of picking up the waste and building
wind-shelters where few ever go.
This hard, wet, cold, nothing land of
mud slopes and terrible grass, not asking
what we want. This aristocratic bogland
that lays its eggs and runs away, whose stones
make our tombs, ring cairns, sentences, dances,
memory dances on the marble floor all night
in the days of The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book.
Now the worm sleeps in its earth and the bat
rides the dark air and windows on the surface
of the canal speak of a warm wind from west.
And maybe a red flower on the windowsill
and maybe dignity and continuity. Soon
the last star will fade and dignity and honour
will be words we sometime use. We only use
the words we can trust, that speak exactly what
they are, words that can’t become artillery. The waves
mock us and the desert hisses, the hard moor grass
stands aside while slow cows file towards home.
These are the days of Les Filles d’Allighabad.
Slow cattle plod the dust towards home
and I follow, looking for that sleepy time
when the mind, alone, is calm enough
to judge the quick and the dead, our
lost collaborators. Sheep scattered
like bushes on the high heaths, to them
chewing is a form of thought, with us
thought is a form of being chewed.
And they shall have us, they shall finish us off
until we never were, we shall be smears of calcium
in lumps of clay under ring cairns, burning bright enough
to remind them after centuries that they lost the earth.
Sleep, little centipedes, while the earth rots,
dream of Manchester. Never since Angel Meadow
has there been such governmental slaughter,
the bodies scattered across the squares and
bundled in shop doorways through the winter
hope lost from the faces turning upwards
an underclass without ceremonies or recompense
and Palestinians forced out of their land to be
treated as vermin in Rochdale, and played with
by civil servants, feed them a bit of hope and
snatch it back, Jack; who are not unkind people
by nature but deprived of mind space. Wake up.
Wake up everything you can think of.
Language for instance. Any language.
Swedish. Du som har mitt hela hjärte.
Work it out, until it smiles on you
and breaks your heart. Elolinola, that
fleeting smile, what become of your days?
We kept the images at bay for as long
as possible but here they come---
the black river crashing under the station
the huts on the horizon, the snowdrops as
due. The last of the wine, another century
of massacres, the hope extant in one blind rhyme.
Peter Riley was born in Stockport in 1940 and recently retired to Hebden Bridge after living for 28 years in Cambridge. He is the author of a heap of books and pamphlets, most recently two pamphlets issued by Calder Valley Poetry, Pennine Tales (2016) and Hushings (2017). Dawn Songs, three essays on music, was published by Shearsman in 2017.