Where does one piece end & another begin? With the exception of the three short series of aphorisms called How To, John Riley's Prose Pieces (Grosseteste Review Books, #14; 1974; Stafforshire, UK) are seamless. A piece begins; the poet (I wont call him anything else) proceeds, & when the writing's finished the text ends. (And this isnt quite self-evident!) It has nothing to do with plot or character, although characters, including the narrator, are easily elicited. It's simply (perhaps 'simply' isnt the right word --simple things are accounted for but it's hardly a simple mind informing the telling) the stop-start style of it, the natural run.
I've always imbued a comment Riley made in his prose work, Correspondences (pub., The Human Constitution, London, 1970), with something like a rationale : " 'Authorship will gradually cease. Future generations ought to set up offices in which every person, at a certain age, should hand in a truthful biography, which could provide material for a real science of human beings, if such were needed.' A certain pondering over that little remark of Strindberg's probably set me to planning this as yet roughly mapped-out series(...) If it were merely an autobiography, none of us would be interested. What engaged my attention is the attempt to make a series of truthful biographies, which, either singly or considered together, may not be without a certain significance. (....)"
I dont think he'd have taken kindly to anything compulsory! 'Offices' & 'at a certain age' --bah! Still, I imagine him embarking with good intentions, but soon enough the statement he was compiling would go skew-whiff --in the name of honesty --a semantic honesty at least & not evasion. Avoidance of narrative cliches would be deliberate.
Against criticism's usual (& often proper) caution that art's product isnt life, I actually hear & see the man in & behind the prose-pieces, if not transparently then lucidly. No stranger, our man, adherent to Russian Orthodoxy, to artefact's palpably divine perspective : why would John Riley abandon his writing, of all things, to materialist one-dimensionality?
Riley is a man by whose thinking he's supposed. His thinking aloud, that is --as though thinking aloud must jump around and thinking in silence be continuous (modern prose vs the Nineteenth Century's).
"If you could set yourself altogether to music, would you? Choose your instruments, your form; take your time, your rhythm." (p24)
Riley's style is unhurried even as he bobs in & out of stories, ideas, like the arch-agent of discontinuity (recall its modishness in the '60s & '70s).
"Deja vu and pre vu : I badly need a theory of time to put this in. Not a circle not an ellipse not an escalation of universes, not not not, but a complexity so precise that it leads by poetic right to that I know about." (p25)
Yorkshire is his rejoinder to anything high-minded. He resorts to Yorkshire to undercut capital 'l' literature and though poems occasionally rise out of the text, a line or two, a verse, his vernacular quips disperse abstraction even as the sound which is the poem speaking. Paradoxically, this is usually the freedom sought by the poet dissatisfied with the occasional --as though Doc Williams hankered after Wallace Stevens or Buk hell-bent on William Bronk!
Prose is where John Riley can be himself --poet keeping tabs on the literally adjacent. It's the frame afforded by ordinary vantage, principally, one feels, the pub. Perfect for hearsay; dictum : "If you could record all the stories round you, and only do it simply enough. Like the man who said to me : 'Ah but the sweetness of the first kiss.' And it was his story." (p23) Relish the hops'-drowze one might dream-write in --slide into pew, surreptitious pen at the ready, and drop into the middle of it.
But this isnt the style of Living In, which is a crafted piece of writing or sets out to be. The "Every holiday I go to my cottage" (p7) paragraphs contrast with those beginning "Every holiday I do not"(p8). The poet-philosopher sounds a little like Rilke or Kafka, whose reverie is located in the actual world from which the narrator is cocooned by desire & despair --desire for the divine or corporeal beloved; despair at his powerlessness &, except for writing, enervation. It contains the existential conundrum, "Who wants to die? Or more accurately, who does not want to die?" Compared to other, no less interesting, pieces it's a construction despite the ad-libs.
The Pig And Whistle Section begins, "And then what we start to do when we have realised all that." (p21) In my mother's Alexandrian family they'd say "and then?" --to induce conversation or to cap it. John Riley's "And then" points also to 'the literature of exhaustion', ca. 1970s, --that is, how to proceed the literary project when it's thought everything's been said --literature after the end of or death of literature.
"And then what we start to do" regales his life as well as his writing (the modern heart laid bare implying no story without bruised & bloodied testament).
Down By the River Side combines all the Riley traits & gambits. The high & the low --thoughts, turn of phrase --standard (even poetic) English & Yorkshire, esoteric & common subjects. As we've appreciated, Yorkshire will always be his stock-in-trade come-uppance.
After the philosophy of the first paragraph ("Always this atheistical 'chance'; which nevertheless alters nothing, salvation or damnation no nearer." (p37)), ships are introduced or, let's say, the sea is. Boats, sailors, flags... "Ships come in and out of the harbour, either under their own power, or towed in by the tug." His registry of ships as evocative as an index of flora, but not a simple list because of the way it commits &, similarly, escapes. Quintessential Riley :
"In Spring rain a seagull cruises with curved-down wing tips. And then the rain clears. The very familiarity of the scene.
Caleyo, Simon, Soviet Mariner, Pelikan, Navigare, Wakenitz, Aramil, Grada westers, Outokumpu, Wega, Tourmaline, Ocean Blue, Harald Bles, Nogat, Valle de Orozco, Madaleine, Jastarnia, Bleikvassli, Poolster. Hasewint, Noblesse, Sota, Emmalies Funk, Ivan Bolotnikov, vaterland, and, I suppose, Dynocontainer I, Dynocontainer II. And certainly the Gribbin head.
This stream is a river big enough to float 3,000 tons.
A forest path through the forest : analogous to setting out to read a history of the Byzantine State, a clean white page, an impetus to restoration." (p38)
Popped into the jump-cut of the narrative is schoolroom & pub slice-of-life.
"You want a good stingy cane and hit 'em across the ballocks. That'll do it. You can hit 'em round the head as much as you like, go all day, break your hand. Get the buggers round the ballocks." (p41)
Often wonder which is the counterpoint : aphoristic musing --"Freedom as a state is creation, which is timeless" --or the one about "a wanked out lad of a painter's mate who'd dropped his bottle of linseed oil"?
John Riley's self-definition isnt over & against nothing, as they say, though figures of nothing might spook him ("memory patterns of almost unsubtle tyranny : an exact repetition of the meaningless." (p40)). He's more gnostic than nihilist ("Our wreckage / is too obvious, the pause between performances too long. / Why else should we speak of that world there / and this one here as if there were a gulf there to be bridged / by senses or ideas? / There is no cure for similes, / or none I know of." (p40)). Good reason there must be for apparent misanthropy --"There are people who wear their bodies comfortably; to be there when needed. And very relaxing they are too for a time. At the other end madness, in various outbreaks or permanencies. There are those denials." (p33)
No disqualification in my mind that these words are from Mary's African Buttenhole Co., a parody, as I recall him impishly confiding, of writing published in a little magazine, (Richard Downing & Andy Wachtel's Sesheta?) possibly by Mary Ferrarri & other New Yorkers. Or for that matter, the nods elsewhere, positively, to Flann O'Brien, Basho, Stevens, Holderlin...
Perhaps all of the pieces turn around the relationship of language to the world's objects & events. Not much doubt attaches to his feelings though plenty to his sense of the living (language) enterprise.
Allow the full circle then : Riley's always the poet writing this prose --the prose, mind you, of thinking aloud, musing, amusing himself, letting himself go just a little off the taut leash. The taught leash? --steeped of course in the language --various languages --Russian, German, French --think only of Riley's unique Mandelshtam & Holderlin versions... How (or did he?) come to rest in English?
"Words are words, man. And a fat belly is a fat belly." (p33)
[7/11/10 to 10/12/10; cleaned up & typed, 27/01/2011]