Didn't He Ramble

The Glacial Stairway, Peter Riley (98pp, £9.95, Carcanet)

'To walk with thought in the very muscle': Riley's new collection is a master-class in writing about place and the self/selves moving through. The experience of reading it is both assisted and slowed by preamble and intra-text exposition, so be prepared for some effortful half-hours which mimic the arduousness of some of the journeys written about from such an inventive variety of angles. Through all of it Riley's subtle exactitude of language guides us through his spun-off connections and analyses in 'A landscape which is a state of mind/ but not always the same state of mind.'
So we find, in the title poem 'The Glacial Stairway', a chronicle of a walk in the Pyrenees replicated 48 years after its first undertaking, the younger self making brief, flickering appearances, the changes in the landscape and the self carefully observed - and above, as Riley encourages us to look:

     At night the stars occupy their river, blazed along the skystrip,
     stars pulsing like babies' mouths in the night like something calling
     and calling. What does it want? 

The end of the journey, in a contemporary concrete 'wilderness' is depressing, but not without hope of remedy:

     It concerns me. How could the world think without its soul? Always if
     you look for it there is something curative, the words held in the seeds
     scattered on the mountain slopes, far away, waiting patiently for winter.

Other approaches to place include 'Best at Night Alone', with the poet sitting by the window on a sequence of nights and being infiltrated by other voices; a mentally hectic walk from 'Kings Cross to SOAS'; the 59 paragraphs of 'Western States (1)' from which are excavated the 59 short poems of 'Western States (2)'. The last lines of the latter have a valedictory air, one hopes more appropriate to the end of a trip that to anything more existential:

     I'm going back where I come from
     good old dog, we never lost hope did we.

The fact that travel is a beguiling metaphor for the course of a life and the excursions of the mind has in recent times spawned a vogue for travel literature, in which the fusion of topography and autobiography has led (it seems increasingly) to some self-indulgently shallow results. No risk of that with Riley. The narratives of places and the getting to them, the piecing together of a world-view from a mosaic of reaction and interaction, projecting a self-portrait certainly but one done in the serendipitous materials of history, nature and politics - by such means does Riley take us into his landscapes and refresh our views of our own.

          © Alasdair Paterson 2011