EXCAVATIONS by Peter Riley, 216pp, 9.00, Reality Street Editions, 63 All Saints Street, Hastings, East Sussex TN34 3BN

There are, or were, something like 20,000 Bronze Age round barrows spread across Britain, in particular on chalk upland. Many have been destroyed, and others ruined by optimistic digging for buried treasure, but many too have been carefully excavated, for example by the Victorian archaeologists of the Yorkshire Wolds who supply Peter Riley's base material. The barrow contents are varied and puzzling, suggesting a complex cultural language. Bodies, body parts and other objects were disposed significantly, yet enigmatically, and have inspired numerous theories. The mounds themselves are (presumably) conclusions of a process, but modern terms that tend to arise, such as 'burial', 'ceremony', 'family', 'religion' are all questionably apposite. We don't know much about what was going on. Riley has some fertile ideas of his own, for example about two polarities (N-S and E-W), or about a funerary 'theatre' that waited for corpses. For example, of a huge mound of chalk raised over the body of a one-year-old child:

    the incomplete and fragmented utterance of this child's future. Who
    happened to die when this tumulus was needed. Or not. Sentry on the
    ridge-top, facing dawn. And another cold morning spread its grey
    distances into the thanking heart.
            [from 146]

You've seen that 'Or not' before, of course; it's been one of the standard moves (along with incomplete and fragmented utterance) by which modern poets have prevented their linguistic play from descending to definition. But here it conveys something more specific, namely a hypothesis: that when this tumulus was needed the child was killed for it.

My point in saying all this is that if you want to like poems in a modern idiom but you also like a book that seems to be about something, then you should seriously think about getting hold of this one. Excavations
is blatantly content-rich.

Most likely you already own some of Excavations, because Iain Sinclair's 1996 Conductors of Chaos
anthology contained a dozen or so early drafts of the final 181 prose poems. They were pretty astonishing, and some of us have been waiting for the whole book ever since. But in a way this selection made a misleading impression. For example, what looked like wildly fanciful section-numbering turns out to refer soberly to numbered tumuli. I suppose the question does arise whether a dozen of Excavations mightn't seem just about enough.

Peter Riley is the most Wordsworthian poet of his generation. He is very unlike Wordsworth, and perhaps I could write the obverse of this paragraph, but I'll write this one first. Like Wordsworth he is intensely serious; the extensive beauty of the writing is not lush, and it steers close to a plain, even prosaic, idiom – but it's the kind of beauty that keeps its quiet lustre. The fundamental concerns of life and society are never far off. Like Wordsworth his poetry often centres on the ordinary bereavements and tragedies of ordinary people. The adjective 'pastoral' occurs at various levels, but not what has been slightingly called 'conservative pastoral'. Like Wordsworth he is a poet who, you think, bloody-mindedly knows what he's doing and expects the world to fit in. No time for the Byrons: 'as if corrupt statecraft weren't the natural result of two centuries of artistic bohemianism' (105). He probably does mean that. Like Wordsworth, the poetry if not the poet is capable of prodigious feats of sobriety, and sometimes the pomposity-warning-light seems to be on the blink. But if Excavations starts to happen for you, you won't bother much about that.     

    Yearning for a pitch that wasn't/can't be, seeking a tenseless junction.
    Finding nothing | Writes in the dust an oval ditch, wider E-W than N-S,
    into solid chalk
a white ellipse on the otherwise yielding text. Promises
    are rarely actual. Striving to maintain social justice when law is the
    king's new clothes If ye love me
[keep my commandements] so where the
    |centre| at the (where the/ true, whole, entity →body, or statement,
    would be is a patch of earth very hard, as if puddled, to a foot's eight
is where we danced that night. And in that metope the promise born,
    and I (I) shall give you <<another comforter>> e'en the sprit of
    Truth and yearning cease). The moon in the branches of the small
pin e,for instance, or the dripping tap in the stone house. Unbroken
    ring,repeated: spirit of, lower case, home. Accept the offer at point
    of departure. Have it where it says the moment's extraordinary
    r each..Says death shall not die, and every jarring love is worded.

I'm quoting this mainly to give you an idea of what Excavations looks like. The poems resemble chunks of a conglomerate stone composed principally of three materials, but naturally with a few other traces as well. The text in standard font is what binds everything together, and is predominantly a modern voice, not too darn poetic, opinionated, emotional, groping for definition, perhaps jotting down swift entries in a writer's notebook. The italicized text normally comes straight out of the archaeological reports; solid, dry and factual. The emboldened text consists typically of fragments of generalized lamentation taken from sixteenth-century lyrics (e.g. for all the teares my eyes have ever wept
), but there are plenty of exceptions to this and, in the poem above, they come from St John's Gospel.

The poems run together like pages of a book, often explicitly so. They invite non-sequential reading, so sometimes I'm just seeing the reports, or just the embedded quotations; at other times I might blank them and try to make sense of what's left. These reading-games are possible, so it seems reasonable to try them out.

In the case of number 136 we might notice that the words from John 14 are concerned with how the disciples should behave when Jesus is dead. They are concerned with a coming bereavement, and the Holy Ghost is spoken of as a comforter. The desire for comfort, for an impossible negation of death in a 'tenseless junction', is also the subject of the first sentence of the poem. Jesus' promises are contingent on law-abiding behaviour ('keep my commandements') and it's plain that the bronze-age relics reflect a community bound and cheered by a system of laws (the dancing floor at the centre of the ditch). But a certain resistance to this vision of law-abiding acquiescence swirls through the poem. Promises aren't much. Politicians enjoy preaching to us about obeying the rule of law and getting solid employment, though they themselves seem to be above both. And then, Writes in the dust
refers to the woman taken in adultery (John 8), a cardinal instance of Jesus' highly ambiguous relationship to the rule of law. Riley secularizes the comforter into bourgeois instances of the melancholy beauty with which truth may sometimes ease the bereaved ('The moon in the branches of the small pine, for instance..') Well, that's something. The poem ends with the unsparing 'death shall not die' (a reversal of Donne's famous holy sonnet); this is made to sound positive, however, and perhaps the irreversibility of death is the only way of accommodating all our 'jarring loves'; we couldn't have our own lives, with their unique network of piercing affections, if the dead didm't make room for us. 'Have it where it says the moment's extraordinary reach' is a complex sentence. It suggests a highly time-bound way of living ('enjoy the moment' in adspeak terms) but it also hints that the moment of someone's life in fact has a 'reach' forward in time to where someone else may interact with it.

This is a very limited unpacking of a complicated poem, though it's the best I can manage at the moment. Even so, it's enough to make the poems around it begin to seem replete with joined meanings – the text begins to belly with life like a flysheet. The moon is moving behind a hill in 134 (it's always getting behind things). In 137, the offers and promises of 136 are once again called to account, and are said to 'do what surf does on the hand'. The puddled earth and the dance reappear in 145 (perhaps the underlining visually evokes the 'hardpan' floor). Of death as a necessary finality, we meet this formulation: 'Death's hand steadying the earth, take it without fear' (139). Bereavement is omnipresent in this part of Excavations, and pregnantly so in 142 and 144, which quote the verses from 2 Samuel 18-19 where David grieves wildly for his son Absalom – who did not keep his commandments. (Riley in the notes says 'Jonathan', but that's a slip; both the political and familial context of the quotations are vital.) 

I have so far avoided mentioning the obvious point that after Jesus speaks the words quoted in 136 he goes out to die, and to rise from the dead. In a hundred different ways the poems of Excavations keep coming up against the notion of life after death. You could say that it's built into the very structure of the poem, because poetry always tend to animate what it talks about, which in this case is mainly corpses. Even the excavator Canon Greenwell writing, for example, of 'the body of a young woman [ENE/SSE] her face in contact with the child's head
' (129) puts into our minds, not a bone, but a face; not location, but touch. And furthermore, the central images of the poem, both the barrows and their exhumations, are testaments to a belief in the ongoing significance of the dead.  

Peter Riley talks of reading each poem as a choric ode over exhumed remains, but that's something I haven't felt any inclination to do, though it sounds worthy. Wandering across the bowl barrows in my own neighbourhood, it isn't Peter Riley's words that come to mind, or anyone else's particularly. It's difficult to feel the communal submersion in another's words that Riley atavistically proposes. I feel rather alone and I'm content with that. It might help if he'd given his words a tune. Prose poetry doesn't seem the obvious way to deliver it. Surely we end up more in the analytical posture of the excavator than the participatory posture of celebrants? But perhaps this is starting to say more about the reviewer than the book.

All the pieces I've homed in on have been from the second part of Excavations, which seems to me critical. The poems of the first part are dryer, more airy, as if they are scratching about in a locale but haven't yet accepted an involvement. Picking it up from where we were, there's a large discernible shape to what follows, if you read quickly enough. At 150 Riley makes potent use of Gunnar Ekelof's extraordinary 1951 poem 'A Dream' in which the dreamer has an intimate, indescribably stale, experience of contact with the dead. The poems in this region attain maximal stress. From 162 onwards a calmer clarity is reached; it begins 

    Where the light returns to the eye like a tear running back in, the
    foramen ovale re-opens and the singing echoes back through hollows
    in the earth to the pain centre now stilled, funnelled to a point of nil
    gravity, an immense weight lifted ...massive exostosis on the shaft of
    the left tibia, agglutinating the lower third of the fibula
The sorrowes,
    which themsealvs for vs have wrought

The continuation of this quote asserts a more distanced perspective ('Sorrow was my revendge, and wo my hate'
), and the poems that end the sequence, curiously exalted, are also responsibly concerned with social matters mirroring in a surprising way the closing movement of Wordsworth's much under-estimated poem of grief, The Excursion. I've under-represented the range of tones in Excavations, so for a final extract (and to show that it's not all as formidably multi-threaded as what I've shown so far), here's an extract from 171:

    No home but the struggle but no struggle worth half a thought that isn't
    to spread home across the earth, wherever the light wind creeps and
    the broken leaf settles, to sit there in justice. A whole and singular
    thing, a self. That stays itself and stays sited as the world offers faster
    and faster transport to nowhere in particular. And the fast transport
    shakes the earth until the self and the roof and the steps of the
    Institute slide into nonentity in a smoke, a cleansing smoke a smoke
    for getting rid of people. That drifts across the town most natural
    seeming of a Sunday afternoon, raising a smile in the ethical couple,
    that their dependence is full of continuing labour and the planet well
    mined. The smoke comes from behind a wall where some self fell an
    inconvenience to the great hurry.

'Ethical' is plainly denigratory there, but the sequence is still restless, and in 174 the ethical comes up for consideration again, but this time in a more probing connexion; the poem is about Antigone. But there's a fancifulness in these last poems ('That strange habit of counting in sixes and twelves, always plus a unit to the hand measures') And perhaps rest arrives in the word 'core', from these final lines:

    And lie there, in more space than you need, your history forming an
    empty cavity offset behind your back like a rucksack as you religiously
    face SE and sneeze for luck. Fall no other way but back to the lapse,
    where nothing is surer, the core and sudden end of love. Through a
    thin stratum of dried blood, tomorrow turns over.
        [from 175]

In fact this isn't quite the end of Excavations, and I'm making the movement sound too orthodox. But perhaps the final six 'preludial flotations' can be left dark, to assure you of getting your money's worth without the irritating sensation that someone else has already had it. I did try, but I've barely scuffed the surface of an astonishingly sustained and purposeful operation.

              Michael Peverett 2004