Peter Riley, Due North (Bristol: Shearsman, 2015)
Colin Simms, Hen Harrier: Poems (Bristol: Shearsman, 2015)
There is a piety, it is thought, about ruralists: they defend a forgotten illusory countryside; genuflect towards natural phenomena in ways mystical and Romantic long since sensibly abandoned by the denizens of motorways glued to televisual nature (Springwatch badger preferred to real smelly thing: cull ‘em then watch ‘em have babies on your misty webcam). But there are tougher-minded inhabitants of the wilder edgelands and highlands, tougher than the priestly Packhams of the byways, and more intellectually, spiritually and politically absorbed in the intricate complexities, histories and trajectories of the natural world, and by the scapes at the margins of metropolitan culture.
For a start there is Colin Simms: a naturalist poet whose life’s work is dedicated to the watching and experiencing of wild creatures and their real active presence in the world. The transcription of that energy into his language engages full attentiveness, a scoped and instressed enrhythming of the seen heard felt encounter, an en-naturing of English to take on the local inflections of the spaces /times of his experiencing of the living beings in their specific habitats. Hen Harrier, almost incredibly, contains two hundred pages of poems about his sightings of one particular hawk, the hen harrier (known as the ‘gled’ in the North), in England, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, America (where it is known as the Marsh Harrier). This follows on from similar collection-ventures: he has whole books dedicated, severally, to the otter, to the goshawk, to the gyrfalcon, to the pine marten. Simms has been walking the moors and wild places since the 1940s, in the company, often, of poets and writers (he records walks with Basil Bunting, Peter Riley, Robert MacFarlane, Tom Pickard, conversations with MacDiarmid), more often with those who live out in the wild, the shepherds, rangers, naturalists, and most of the time on his own, in vivid though curiously collective encounters with the birds. The poems are intricately there on the page, have a delicacy, force and punchy accuracy that blends Gurney, Clare, Hopkins to Poundian-Objectivist modernist styles fusing lyric with accurate knowledge, patient observation, local dialectical voicings (Bunting, Griffiths, Pickard). That accurate knowledge acknowledges how local communities continue to live alongside the birds, enabling witty languaging as naming to occur based on real exhilarated companionship: we learn so much about that language through these poems, that a Irish name for the bird is ‘Fuck-the-gale’, for instance. The praise of the hen harrier is based on the absolutely specific qualities of the species, their low ‘quartering’ flight when hunting, the dihedral pitch of the wings, their extraordinary agility in high winds, the tatterdemalion herring-bone patterns of the blue-white, slate-grey, nut-brown feathers of the ringtail female, the ghostly white and grey-blue male with the black at the tip of its wings (‘wing tips dipped in India ink’), the owl-like faces and behavior, their herding and harrowing of golden plover flocks, the extraordinary sky dance the male performs when courting, rising high then plummeting down and swooping up again (‘sky-diving those spring days / hill-mist mate below in excited haze’), the equally spectacular food-pass when the male drops food to the ringtail flying upside down, their open ground hunting-fields on moor and water meadow, their ground-nests, their vulnerability to keeper shooting and forestry, and especially the grace of their ‘precision glide’, the intricacy of the zigzag winnowing of the long grasses, the long legs, superfine hearing and circling low flight designed for hunting voles and lizards and mice hidden in grasses among hummocks and ‘sphagnum mounds’ (‘leggy as the leaning ling / low over these high grouse-grounds / “circus” implies her circuits’). This lavish attention is naturalist-addiction, and the poems’ lyricism amounts to an act of love; Simms remembers sighting the harrier with Bunting from his own garden and realizing the rhyme of this deep bird-watching and poetry: ‘observations can become art by love’. But this is also a kind of true making, for the whole collection builds up into an epic sequence of loving observations that holds to a distinctive line about poetry’s hold on the life of the world. This is post-Romantic: it has the same clear-sighted confidence in the relations of the words on the page to the grace of the movements of the natural creatures in the wild that compelled Wordsworth, Clare and Hopkins to identify the natural imagination-in-language with a poetry of close observation. At the same time, the poems forge bonds of friendship with fellow watchers, with fellow lovers, with fellow communities through the words they find best suited to the task. The relish for the words on the tongue is palpable, haptically charged, musical with close dialect-love – note the close music of the language here: ‘harrier flights low over becks, sikes and swales / foods and spates’; and here:
she exhibits caution, temerity
using the height of dyke, hang of peat haggs, wind-waves in bracken
and ling clinging to the slopes in brakes; awaits wind slacken
gliding so low
The close acoustics are joyous not pompous, lightly taking on the idiom of hagg and ling and sikes and swales the better to scape the bird in its gritstone and heather environment. The accuracy of the observation is preserved nevertheless, and this is no trick, for the accuracy has been won by way of the relish. It is by releasing the language densities and play that the words get closer to their object. Colin Simms’ work is a sheer gliding, tacking, teasing pleasure, like the flight and acrobatics of the hen harrier: it reinvents the notational attention and joyful surprise of poetry as natural observation without sentimentality, with some hard edge to its satire of the destructive forces of the world, and always with the patience and passion of its gaze on a vanishing species.
And then there is Peter Riley – passionate plain speaker for the times, the Hazlittian/Wordsworthian political-lyrical presiding intelligencer of these isles, the visionary of the states of the country(side) as it is and has been and will become, the craftsman of the speech of the people for the people, the advocate and clairvoyant curator of the tongue as held in common. Riley’s work insists, proudly, obdurately, on the plain rights of the citizen as defined, still, by the old left: this is poetry written by Tom Paine if he could have written a line, by Edgell Rickword to match that fine forgotten voice, a poetry that Stuart Hall could admire, a poetry that will not be rocked off its attachments to the 1930s modernist plain style by any theory-driven militant or by mainstream enticements or by modernity’s endless attrition or by ruralist neo-Georgians with their axes to grind. Due North meditates on migration, and in the spirit of the public intellectual Riley has always been, connects the current crises of migrant workers, persecuted Roma, fugitives on Mediterranean waters, to the long durée of migration locked into the genome, the pastoral nomadic hunter-gatherers of the species that have shaped the way the species-unconscious operates, the ways our bodies live and breathe and yearn; and to the other migratory patterns of other times, the shifting poor, the hungry marchers, the displaced persons, the trespassers and unemployed wanderers, the children, even, on their bikes swirling about town. The collection invites us to imagine a collective: its big sequence boldly patchworks together many kinds of migrant, so many (I did not know the flow of beings so many) that it becomes a disservice to the species to uphold any critical distance, to preserve modishly a taste and tact that does not succumb to that nomadic energy. The collection is bitter, broken nearly, by the obduracies and compulsions that have destroyed all communitarian feeling, all collective passion and class vision in this country – this is poetry that is unafraid to say yes it is nostalgic for a time when the people were a people together in principle, together in mind and heart. It is bold enough, too, to look you in the heart and say where do you stand, my friend. The technique of the sequence is patchy yet passionately driven: it has quite unsurpassably good work, especially in the visionary first sett, ‘Housman’s Question’, which reads like a fusion of the Cantos, Piers Plowman, Hardy, Wordsworth, David Jones, Carlos Williams, H.D.. The writing has a pitch and nerve and range that makes one feel how much has been lost when such public poetry is so rare. It takes the shape of a close reading of Housman’s XXXII ‘From far, from eve and morning’, reading it as an amalgam of prehistoric migration and historically driven populations. A Poundian music (‘sucking the milk of gazelles, sleeping / curled under the fleece’) sits side by side with Audenesque lullabye (‘Little child, what shall we do / to keep this hour and arrival intact’), Objectivist modernist moves (‘Here / First memory of the call to distance, / the 27 arches of the viaduct’), the daring of Carlos Williams with his clear-sighted modernist/nativist challenge to the language (as with the triadic layout of the first three lines of ‘At its demise / all the love flew out / in bouquets of discord to found new / professions), the Eliot of ‘Journey of the Magi’, but collectivized, socialist, peopled (‘this caravanserai, lakeside inn on the edge of the world / where we learn the tables of time and change’), sequenced in with work only Peter Riley can write, utterly on his own yet generating companionship, somehow, with the gentle persistence of the plain style:
Tenant farmers above Halifax,
world of crafts and slopstone
and the rain singing in the yard.
Some of the later setts are weakened by the angry denunciations and bitterness of the voice – yet how can any public poet even wish to write well about the stench of defeat of so much, of so many collective solidarities so many generations old? As a collection, Due North takes its stand, makes its stand: this is the stuff of radical making, full-throated, singing, despairing, angry, but with an eloquence that strikes to the heart, of us all.
[Adam Piette is co-editor of Blackbox Manifold, teaches at the University of Sheffield, and is the author of Remembering and the Sound of Words, Imagination at War, and The Literary Cold War, 1945 to Vietnam]