Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Sea Watches - Peter Riley

Attempting to fill one of the many gaps in my reading, I read 'Sea Watches' from Peter Riley's The Llyn Writings last night. It's a series? sequence? of eight sections, each section having eight stanzas of six lines. The stanzas are numbered, suggesting that each section is itself to be seen as a series of shorter pieces, rather than simply an eight-stanza poem. Certainly this could work earlier on, where each stanza relates to, but seems independent of, the preceding ones - though later on the stanzas becomes more interconnected.

There are passages and effects in here that I like a lot, and it's interesting to see how the poem does some very familiar things and some which are less familiar. The tone is heterogeneous - what seems to me a basically modernist calling into service of whatever phrase or register does the job, rather than (something which seems more traditional) a tone defined by fidelity to a 'voice' or a setting. Yet the effect is not so much an impersonal, inyerface modernism as something strangely personal, as if the poem or poet's distinctive 'voice' is revealed in the editing intelligence which marshals the various tones. And since Riley is happy to meditate and mediate, I'm partly reminded of a Romantic poet - going to a place, observing it and himself in it, and extrapolating. (This could be awful, but generally it works very well.)

Some excellent lines (driving along thinking about being dead, 'At a bad cliff corner the family leaps at my throat'), but on the whole I think the effect is cumulative, with geographical and psychological detail arising and chiming between stanzas and between sections. My favourite is section II ('Sandlogged'). The contrast between geographical and natural detail and human activity is partly brought out by a contrast between an elemental or mythical register ('Look how the wasps wallow in their graves'/Bathing is ripe blackberries, drinking their blood') and a social and sometimes bathetic one ('people. blurring over the sands like brush-/strokes, shouting and lying'; 'the pleasure zone'). The ugliness of a phrase like 'the pleasure zone' can be offputting, till Riley brings the two registers together:

Beyond the pleasure zone the cormorants skim steadily
over their door to success crying at a pitch
Of failure (this is the solitary walk between crowds
On the clifftop pastures) and those crazy birds rush
To and from their island capital, unable to deceive
Themselves out of constant pleasure, constant thrall.

The nearness this comes to anthropomorphism is what makes it. It isn't 'ooh, look at the cormorant, they're happy in comparison to us', but something much slighter and more dangerous - the cormorants are put beside us as both similar and dissimilar, and we learn something to our comfort and about their peril.

There are some funny line-breaks going on. 'Brush-/strokes' above enables the rhyme scheme (the end-words of alternate stanzas rhyme, i.e. ABCDEF GHIJKL ABCDEF GHIJKL ABCDEF GHIJKL ABCDEF GHIJKL), but this sort of contortion becomes obtrusive at times. Maybe you just have to live with it in a longer poem, but that's hardly a satisfactory conclusion. At the same time there are some line-breaks of rare beauty. For example:

Fields of wheat and pasturage halting at the level
Sea, where the fish shoals move in and out of reach

- where taking 'sea' over to the next line places it with (in) the sea, and ensures the land and sea are separated cleanly as the text implies.

That's all for now of my amorphous first reactions.


Post a Comment

<< Home