Peter Riley’s 18th poetry publication, Due North, is a poem of twelve chapters that builds a larger story with roots deeply imbued in movement. Whether it be a search for work or finding inner happiness, the poet is concerned with the restless nature of the human mind and the displacement of those who wander without a home. He also shines a light on the underprivileged in Britain with his large cast of characters, including that of returning soldiers, migrant workers, widowed mothers and young adolescents. Largely focusing on the working class, Riley opens a door to Northern England in the 19th century, caught in the midst of turbulence such as the desolation of manufacturing districts and disaster zones.
The first chapter in the collection, “House-Man’s Question”, opens with groups moving. Describing people in farmyard animalistic terms, “over the great grasslands with the herds/sucking the milk of gazelles”, Riley conveys a sense of, ironically, humans domesticating and being domesticated in mindless unity. He uses the term “Orphic stasis”, a reference to not looking back, that is more of a decree than an actual voluntary decision. These travellers are seeking a home but are jaded as they have gone through this cycle before, all too aware that their shelter is temporary. They will soon pack up and leave, seeking higher pastures, with the “beasts”. This movement constitutes a form of transhumance caused not by seasonality but one resulting from the stress of a collapsing economy. The poetry thus points towards a sense of division between social classes, with labourers entering the belly of the beast, which could be construed as middle-class corporations.
Riley’s poems are free-form, their stanzas spread across the page in a way that creates a dichotomy rather than uniformed cohesion, adding to the fractured expression of these people’s lives. Interestingly, and deepening the illusion that it could be prose or playscript, the poems are prefaced at the beginning of each chapter by their own miniature poem, setting the tone for what is to come. Poems, as it were, travel throughout the collection; the threads which finish seemingly in one chapter are not contained by it and may conclude elsewhere.
Due North also depicts the contemporary circumstances of soldiers and war, of those returning home to comfort grieving Mothers, and those reckoning with the futility in their sacrifices. “Coffins in the back of horse carts/All their names forgotten now/the wind on the river”. As well as hinting at a possible financial hardship being borne by the victims, these lines also observe that no one remembers the names of the returned, thus suggesting that working class lives in such a climate become expendable. The poem goes on to damn the gross disparity of incomes in war and bondage, highly critical that everything is governed by commerce. There is a strong image of the working classes fighting with their lives whilst those in power use them as a shield.
The reader must navigate all of the poems in order to gain a larger understanding of this book’s overall meaning, and this requires a significant level of engagement. Yet such endeavours may, at times, lack excitement. However, Due North is accomplished work in its endeavour to shine a light on areas often neglected in modern society, from the lack of compassion towards migrant workers to the plight of those in poverty that in a class-driven Britain are still liable to suffer ridicule in the media. This collection also creates a tapestry of beginnings and ends across the map of its chapters, allowing the reader to follow thematic and emotional heart-lines woven through its core, all enabled by the unique format that Riley has chosen for his collection. Due North, alas, may have more contemporary resonance than Peter Riley could ever have anticipated or wanted.
Read an excerpt from ‘VIII‘ from Due North.