Peter Riley's most recent full-length poetry collection, A Map of Faring, is precisely the sort of project that is helping to distinguish the newly established Free Verse Editions, a joint venture between Free Verse and Parlor Press. With its commitment to featuring translations, combined with an international scope, Free Verse Editions has been consistently proving that the site of contemporary poetry consists not so much of place, but of places and their rich, adjacent terrains.
One of the many pleasures of Riley's A Map of Faring is the way in which it endorses that particular commitment. The “map of faring” is a re-mapping that seeks to more faithfully explore the borderlines between places, their histories, and their attendant subjectivities, while always, and perhaps more importantly, addressing what the human spirit can hope to purchase once located between these locations.
A Map of Faring consists of diverse settings that include a tour of Central Europe and a house in Southern France, but it begins with a 15 th century hermitage in the English countryside and a Romanian village, both depicted in a series of “Setts.” As Riley explains in his footnotes, a sett means a “suite,” or arrangement, typically of furniture or music. This tension between the earthly, or banal, and the spiritual, or abstract, animates the entire book as it seeks to illuminate their intersections:
distant points, where
shadows gather, where
the living trade, and sing
their lives into the earth. (6)
“Sett” also means the network of tunnels used as habitats by small animals, as well as a shaped piece of rock used to make surfaces for roads. Both of these call to mind some of the other concerns of the book, namely our various, distinct habitats, plus the routes, roads, or various commerce and conveyances between them. These spaces are vast and historic:
For equity, for spread of gain
raise the white stone, the red
light on the shore where
the merchant ship rounds the headland. (7)
And yet they are connected on a deeply personal level, as registered in the way Riley so often carefully torques his syntax: “Intimately, in the village, turn / the dance, the baby's head toward” (7). In other words, Riley's book seeks to locate the public “self” within a common history and contract, even while ghostlier, private subjectivities pause and stutter in the expanses between: “With my singing hand I rummage / echoes in the burnt archive, the dust…” (11).
From these interstitial beginnings, Riley's ambitious project moves to a presumably sturdier apex in the next section of the book, which is aptly entitled “Noon Province.” Where the poems in the “Stetts” are more gestural and private, these poems are more deliberately civic: “I would like to be always present. / Not helpful or obedient / but there, without question” (65). While unmistakably “British” in both tone and tenor, Riley shares the same poetic allegiances as Charles Tomlinson, Roy Fisher, Eric Mottram, and Andrew Crozier, all of whom are evoked either directly or indirectly in this volume, especially in their shared commitment to both British and internationalist traditions. For example, the culmination suggested by this section's title is not the fulfillment of any grand tradition, but instead a temporary interval that Riley likens with travelling across central Europe, as in the poem “The Night Train Arrives at Dawn:”
Valuable small acts. Arriving
from the other side of the country
to the standard breakfast,
a variety of travelers
neglecting in the first light
stature or office…
Take your turn, ask only
for the complete, the integral. (59)
These perpetual arrivals weld a wealth of distances and national interests, while opening our otherwise unyielding habitats to their richer, lyrical possibilities: “we are together we are lost / in dazzling light in the limestone” (80). But Riley's project is never simply idealist. The presumed apex of “Noon Province” is less a matter of grand architectural structure, and more of the “line of shadow marking the edge of arch” (92).
When our private subjectivities encounter their public counterparts, the result provide both clarity and confusion, lyricism and aggression, as the final poem in the collection addresses:
Work the burden and blind fear out of continuance by no moare than a noticed edge, a flicker of grass, a simple attendance…. The continuance held in the instant and helpless out of it, like a lost child. And that is to say, I know nothing of the table. On which is represented by curious skill, a pattern of welfare. A pattern of warfare. A map of faring. (93)
The promise and peril suggested here offers no easy conclusions, no final statements about our cultural or personal foundations, but it does provide a generous script in which our various occurrences have been faithfully and intelligently traced.