Weekly Poem: Excerpt from “Proof …” by Peter Riley
The displaced person in a sleeping bag on a metal floor.
He wakes up to darkness and ponders.
Did he recall before departing to go visit?
the old holm oak up the fields, to hold
He held a leaf with spikes in his hand and listened.
Can you repeat what it stated? It urged to depart immediately.
I will accompany you and keep you informed.
While we are at sea.
The extensive and ominous past that follows the path.
The immense sorrow spread over the western region.
In 1454, Dufay composed a version to commemorate the fall of Constantinople.
still sung in Greek villages. And the local text,
for whomsoever is lost. Whomsoever is here,
Whoever is present, whoever is present.
everyone you ever cared about
concealed within the remnants of the world
Where is that currently located?
In opposition to authorized construction plans
A well-lit room with windows on three sides.
three sides looking out on the whole,
The entire valley. The valley underneath.
The neglected volumes that occupy our country.
every shelf in the household
warning of the pending war in which
The default state of Britain becomes fascist.
the trees at sunset
The sunset casting a glow through the trees in Upper Kentmere.
Glass panels gently brush against each other without making a sound.
to catch our breath
We are sitting, facing away from each other, attempting to regain our composure.
to explain why we decided not to follow the world.
Throughout the entire night, the ghosts gnashed their teeth and spoke in grating tones.
within the contents of neglected literature…
It is impossible to capture in any visual medium.
We are revealed as fragmented and quiet within the embrace of.
of the night wind that rears the sea against the stone
As the crimson military advances into the city.
Peter Riley’s collection of poems, “Proof …”, is made up of 27 interconnected pieces without titles or numbers. The first poem introduces the character of the Refugee, who serves as evidence of the world’s existence. The Refugee’s journey across Europe, hidden in the back of trucks with the sound of the engine and the changing landscape at night, is juxtaposed with the observations of the first-person narrator in their English countryside and industrial areas. These poems contain a strong sense of history, like musical waves, and are written in the original definition of sonnets – “a little sound”. The precision of the narrator’s description of a wren’s call is interrupted by the jarring “tell-tale machine-gun rattle”, which becomes the Refugee’s soundtrack as they begin their journey by handing over 500 euros at the edge of urban tension.
In the sixth section of the poem, the narrator focuses on the Refugee and their worries while lying on a steel floor in a sleeping bag. The Refugee questions whether they remembered to perform an important ritual before their journey – a mysterious and prophetic communication with a leaf from a Mediterranean tree, the old holm oak. This type of tree, also known as Quercus Ilex, is considered an invasive species in the UK and its mention could serve as a reminder of the language used in anti-immigration political discourse. However, the “spiked leaf” actually carries a kind message: “I’ll be with you, I’ll let you know when we’re on the sea.” But what if, in their anxiety, the traveller forgot to give the leaf its proper attention?
The seventh poem shifts its focus, transitioning from a reflection on a “vast dark history” to a contemplation of the “local text” and those who have been lost. Line three contains the birth date of Guillaume Dufay (d 1474), the composer of the Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae, a four-part motet that serves as a “great lamentation stretched across the western landmass” for the fall of Constantinople. The collective grief is intertwined with individual stories of those who were personally cared for, yet remain unaccounted for. The term “whomsoever” represents a double displacement, as they are both hidden and lost in the remnants of the world. Despite Dufay’s lamentation and the Greek village’s rendition of it, neither seem to fully capture the magnitude of their mourning, leaving a sense of inadequacy in terms of human “proof.”
Poem 23 starts with a rebellious tone (“Contrary to planning permission”) and then transforms into a feeling of joyful ownership. As the speaker opens each window in “a room full of light”, they are met with a beautiful view of “The valley below” and a nod to the Cornish folk song, The Sweet Nightingale. However, the structured format of the poem suggests contradictions, and the following verse disrupts the easy comfort with its mention of “the pending war in which / Britain becomes a fascist state by default”. The books in the room may have been pushed aside, either because they disturb the peaceful atmosphere or because the view outside demands full attention. Nevertheless, the speaker (represented by “we”, whether a couple or a nation) has turned away from the light and is consumed by the virtuous decision “not to follow the world”. The open windows reveal a conflicting sentiment: while in exile, one can indulge in pastoral pleasures, yet politics lurks in the shadows, slipping into fascism.
Upper Kentmere, previously vulnerable to Scottish invaders, is now a part of the Lake District National Park. There are places in the British Isles that have been transformed into idealized museums, catering to tourists and related businesses. While they may be aesthetically pleasing and provide comfort, they promote misleading notions of national identity through consumerism.
In the following poem, the spirits “clenching their voices” may be expressing anger or plotting to protect the “forgotten books.” However, the more popular visual media fail to reveal the truth about a divided and silenced population. The night breeze, the ocean, and the weathered stones serve as reminders of the dangerous journey of a refugee, the overwhelming power of history, and the lack of acceptance. In “Proof…”, Peter Riley often has his poems challenge each other, and the lowercase “red army” in poem 24 may foreshadow the “local Junior Brass Band” in poem 25. But the powerful and unsettling image remains: an army carrying the color of blood through the green valley and into town.