Monday, June 14, 2021

Early thoughts on Peter Riley’s Excavations (2004)


Cover of the book by Peter Riley, Excavations.

The first hundred poems in Peter Riley's Excavations are meditations on prehistoric burials described by J.R. Mortimer in Forty Years’ Researches in British and Saxon Burial Mounds in East Yorkshire (1905); text in italics is mostly verbatim citation of Mortimer’s reports.

It’s impossible to read without wanting to contort one’s body into the positions of the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age deceased described within—preferably with a compass in hand, pointing one’s head north-northeast and facing south-southeast, toward imagined origins. Conceivable too the desire to dislocate one’s jaw to gorge on repasts prepared for eternity:

39.                                                                                                          40

Speech cancelled into music the lower jaw removed and placed, intact, on the chest, teeth down. A small pottery vessel was inserted in its place, touching the palate; its contents included the bones of a small animal. And Lockd me up with a golden Key Head to South facing upwards, legs flexed and turned to West young and slender left hand thrust into groin, right arm across chest two yellow quartz pebbles rounded with use just beyond the fingers of the right hand, beside the left ear | sun pitch, clay star, black blade fracture – speechless with horror. Bite my heart, three-personed sky, and I’ll earn a living, out in the streets and bars of earth. And spend into the whole astrology, at speech’s vigilant reprieve.

Of course the dead, famously, do not bury themselves, nor indeed do their interrers typically write about the process—“Distance joins us by the third person” (n. 6).

Each piece tends toward the opaque on its own; much like prehistoric tumuli themselves, and archaeological phenomena in general, it is in the aggregate that the mass of poems really begin to speak, with their repeated chalk pavements, their curated dismemberment, flint-blade prosthetics and lost eyes. Riley curates the bones of the past, defleshed and capaci—both capacious and capable of—creative reappropriation, laid out with grave goods (“food, rubbish, the usual suspects,” n. 11) in tableaux morts.

So far the first hundred, previously published as Distant Points in 1995, are better than the new set, which follow William Greenwell’s 1877 British Barrows.