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.