November 1, 2022

Clearances: The Dialectics of Space & Place

Indigenous Art & Culture

Sohini Sen


Space is often perceived as places where events or incidents occur. In reading space as a passive vacuum, experiences and events are very often interpreted only in terms of a chronologically structured, temporally arranged narrative. However, invoking and investigating into the specific language in which the places are represented and constructed through memory, clearly reveal the dynamics of spatial negotiation and organization. This paper attempts to deconstruct such a simplistic understanding of places in Alan Riach’s poetry collection Clearances in order to examine the politics of spatiality and the spatial plotting of places.


Sohini Sen is currently teaching at Gobardanga Hindu College. She post-graduated from Jadavpur University and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Scottish Literature. Her other areas of interest include Women’s Writing, Partition Literature, Memory Studies, Victorian Studies, and Postcolonial Literature. Her recent publications include Jane Eyre: Anger & the Angel; Recollections: Role of Memory in Dayamoyeer Katha; The Heroic Victim: Constructing Domestic Identity In Felicia Hemans’s The Bride Of Greek Isle And The Indian Woman’s Death-Song; Tagore’s Supernatural: Reading Beyond the Bengali Renaissance etc. She is also interested in creative writing and has been published in The Statesman & other literary magazines.

Alan Riach, located in Scotland, is not only a poet but also an academician, who had been an expatriate to New Zealand where he taught at the University of Waikato for more than a decade, before coming back to settle in his homeland. Clearances are the next collection of poems to be published since First & Last Songs in 1995. It is a heterogenous collection, devoted to no single theme or issue. The poems are of diverse themes and multiple moods, but essentially about the poet’s perception of the world around him and his experiences of different places, spaces, and times. They explore people as much as places, as they build up and define each other through moments that are continuously dissolving and reshaping themselves. Memory thus plays an important part in the recreation and evocation of such places. These places are then invested in the politics of memorialization and the way such memories are created and produced. It is then through the process of appreciating, understanding, and negotiating such relationships that memory can be produced. In his phenomenological study, The Poetics of Space (1969), Bachelard argues that it is the individual’s experience of inhabiting a particular space and his emotional and imaginative response or reaction to these spaces that bring out the full value of the place. “Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor. It has been lived in, not in its positivity, but with all the partiality of the imagination” (p. xxxvi).

The first section in Clearances is interestingly titled “Capstan Bars” which are a kind of lever attached to a spindle or round, drum-like structure, used to rotate it in order to lift up weights with the help of cables wound around the spindle, or the drum. Thus, through this significant title, the speaker has delineated this literary section as one that depicts or contains the turning points, the major weights, and influences that regulate or order his chronicle of experience. These poems thus ground the experiences that he is yet to share, and shape the narrative that he will now unfold.

The first poem is titled “Drinan” and is dedicated to the famous Scottish music composer, musicologist, and music historian John Purser. Drinan is the place of residence of John Purser in Scotland. The poem opens with the image of this home: “New room, after new room” (l.1). These rooms are not only places of residence, but also spaces where music is created and music is discovered and studied. It is a space of multiple dimensions, where rhythms of life are paralleled and reciprocated through myriads of patterns:

“a hundred thousand patterns of

a history of tragedies, of laughter, and

of beauty in the places that the earth makes

here for us” (l. 4-7)

This is a kaleidoscope of being where past moments of creation exist, inspire, and lend to present and future moments of poetic and musical inspiration – that is in itself the essence of life.

The poem “Traces of Ain” merges the experience of the self and existence itself with a physical landscape in New Zealand. The “Firth of Thames” is a Bay in New Zealand known for its pristine beauty. The “Caribbean blue” and the “bright creole” are perhaps indicative of the mixed heritage of New Zealand. The bridge on the “Whalebone Stream”, en route to the Firth of Thames in the south is a picturesque location to come close to the sea and nature and refresh the soul. It is a place that can bring out the divine, and the beauteous in us, then, the “slanting light / that comes from a long spent star” (l.3-4).

The poem “Spar Cave, Isle of Skye” is a travel anecdote to the Spar Cave, located in Elgol, Scotland. This is one of the most dangerous yet stunning hiking destinations in the Scottish Highlands, only accessible in one hour on both sides of low tide. Yet the pool at the end of this cave and its icy cold air is a coveted tourist attraction for many:

“I wish it could be clear, as easily

as I lean down, push my hand down, through the sheets

of running water, grip the quilted limestone, see

the water up to my wrist, a bangle of ice” (l. 5-8)

Yet, this cave has a legend associated with it. It is said that a local princess fell in love with her father’s enemy’s son and despite all opposition, conceived a child with him and fearing his father’s wrath, hid in this cave to give birth. It is the eternal love story that mankind carries and hands over the generations. This cave is that primordial space of being where heritage and memory are eternally preserved and carried forward. These spaces are then spaces where life is lived at its extremes.

The poem “Wellington Harbour” is about being and living in Wellington. It is the everyday, homely life in this place that provides a place of belonging, happiness, and domestic felicity for the speaker:

“Outside, the streetlights glow,

the air comes gently southwards, through the open window,

the hillside houses, slanted roof. The pelmet slightly skewed,

the cluttered gardens, toys, and books: it hardly worries you.” (l. 1-4)

Falling asleep and the ambivalent zone in between dreams and wakefulness is that mysterious space where pre-held notions, established conventions, and beliefs are questioned and their boundaries and borders explored and often challenged. Thus:

“Meanings turn to fancies, Christmas to New

Year, and this December season’s residue.

Then a dream from faraway: a book you thought you knew,

opens on your own name, staring back at you.” (l. 6-9)

The images of the place are not presented topographically so a linear reconstruction becomes impossible. Rather the presentation is schematic and impressionistic, formulating and reproducing the “soft summer night” (l.12) that transforms the moment into a memory for the speaker.

The poem “The Studio: Air” takes us indoors to an unkempt studio room of an artist. This is an “unremarked inhabitation” (l.1), yet all the more noteworthy for the “most important things / are deemed the matter” (l.12-13) here. Once again, structurally the very short poem is arranged in terms of the vivid impressions that the room offers to the mind. It is not a mere depiction of the place but much rather, it is the mindscape of the artist himself that is now reflected through the space of the narrative. The room now reflects the interior microcosm of the artist’s world, a representation of the chaos from which order and art is born:

“an ambiance of oil and paint and canvas

frames and easels, brushes, that marble palette

table-top, the richest swirls of color

on it, the rags with which to clean:” (l. 3-6)

It is then the womb, the reproductive space that contains, conceives, and seeks to give expression to the vibrant ideas of the artist’s mind – a space of “bright potential”, the “warmth” of creation, and the “high adventure” of creating and nurturing art.

The second section of the book is titled “Storm Warnings” and interestingly begins with a piece titled “The Flood”. It is a vivid narratorial experience of flood in the neighborhood, as seen from the “upstairs bedroom window”, captured in a mere twenty lines. The poem however removes all references to any name of any particular place, generalizing the context and thus helping its readers to relate to the situation much more easily. It is a scene of destruction but without any horrifying details. The poem opens with a brief statement – “the rain came down past Saturation Point” (l.1) – a statement that tends to obscure the damage it is about to unleash. Yet the matter-of-fact tone that the speaker adopts, highlights and underscores the fact that this is a destruction of man-made space. Nature thrives on its own terms and any attempt to contain, modify or harness its forces is merely futile and unproductive. The construction of the cityscape and the physical arrangement of the land, which has perhaps taken years of effort and toil, has been razed completely in a matter of hours:

“spread clusters of tiled roofs, obliques,

the steeply angled roof and high straight spire of the church

rising like islands and causeways, over the teeming tide.” (l. 8-10)

The river is no longer distinguishable, as its banks have disappeared under the overflowing waves of water. All spaces, carefully structured and arranged in meticulous order, are plunged in wild disarray, as domestic and social life built around such spaces collapse and are destroyed:

“a surge of water volumes into weight, and joins the storming gale to tear up that old apple tree I climbed on as a boy; it rips it out and floats it helpless up towards the washing line’s flagpole, pushing it to lean, its timber creaks like a mast in a storm” (l. 14-17)

Not only are trees uprooted, but narratives of memory and recollection are erased as well, necessitating an impending violent reorganization of such spaces in the near future.

The slightly longer poem “The Wall” focuses on some of the same themes – the uncertainty and transience of human life and how it may transform at any given moment. The poem begins on a note of relaxation with the arrival at Munich and being tourists “for the day at the Bierfest” (l.2). However, there is a tone of dark foreboding running underneath the merriment and excitement: “but it looked as though they were thinking of something else” (l. 8). The readers are led into a false sense of comfort and relaxation as the speaker moves on to the next day and newer places to visit: “The next day we went to the galleries: Raphael and Rembrandt, / Kandinsky and Franz Marc” (l.17-18). However, it is this specific moment of feeling good, that much like a fate, the speaker dishes out the undesired: “That evening we were walking back when we heard the sirens” (l. 20). It is an act of violence, “a man had exploded a bomb / at the gateway to the Bierfest” (l.21-22) that has totally transformed the place from one of merriment to one of mourning. Yet it is the presentation of the incident, the reception, and processing of the event by the mind, that unfolds the major themes in the poem. The transposition of the images of the two binaries of enjoyment and grief in the same space serves to imbibe the place with a universality of being and the temporality of life:

“Savour the moment; it is all now

a new configuration. Yet still I have this sense

of something else that’s going on in other places, other than

the seen.” (l. 30-33)

All space is then a space of flux, of motion, as events and incidents impinge on each other and transform, modify and alter our knowledge and understanding of these spaces.

The poem “December” is less about a seasonal month and more of a poem of leave-taking. Homeland Scotland is left behind to “cold disappointments & snow/clouds boiling up in the drab rolling borders” (l. 2-3). With his back to London, yet “traveling south by train” from Scotland, the speaker’s journey reflects the fractured and ambivalent way Scotland’s relationship with the United Kingdom has shaped out. The outer landscape seen through the window maps a journey through coldness, desolation and winter:

“… hills

lost in the sperm-grey mist, rivers

half-frozen (their water would taste

of iron and sheep)” (l. 3-6)

The whole landscape wears the look of a ravaged and forsaken playground, with lifeless playthings littered about:

“yellowed as jaundice with distance in valleys

of dolls’

houses” (l.10-12)

Yet, this harmless, motionless landscape is suddenly cut through by a “thick black burst of crows” flying up into the horizon. Across all cultures, crows are traditionally taken to be ominous symbols and harbingers of bad luck. In Gaelic culture however, crows are said to be possessed of an uncanny ability to know and understand things due to their associations with the pagan gods and goddesses. Thus, there is no scope of any escape or relief from this space of chill and misfortunes and the poem ends on a note of claustrophobic stillness.

The next poem “The Place of Lost Roads” deals with the multivalent spaces of memory and nostalgia. The poem opens with a depiction of a physical space in the garden:

“Over the lawn in the garden, up on the slope where the

bushes are and the cabbage trees, there’s a square

translucent space.” (l. 4-8)

The physical terrain is well defined with the bushes and cabbage trees serving to frame it, transforming it into a topographically de-limited, displaced zone. Yet, the speaker does not indulge in any Keatsian flights of fancy or seek solace in this secluded romanticizable spot. Very prosaically he detaches himself from the allure of either and in a matter-of-fact tone explains it as it is:

“… looking through the sliding

glass doors of the living room, the blinds drawn up, that

it’s just the reflection of the rectangular kitchen window,

refracted through the living room doors, and now, from

where I sit, projected:” (l. 4-8)

Yet this detachment is simply superficial as the speaker soon clarifies: “It’s easy to explain it like that. / That isn’t what it is.” (l. 11-12). Thus, the description actually serves to conceal more than what it exposes and urges the readers to discover it as it appears to the speaker. The “translucent space” thus allows no easy access, only palpable in the inner recesses of the mind and memory, often obfuscating simple knowledge or understanding. It is more of an invitation, a temptation that will lead to it – “an open door that penetrates or / cuts through all the bushes, trees and plants that grow there” (l. 9-10) – and from there onto a journey of self-discovery and truth. This is, then, “the place of lost roads” – a space where it is impossible to direct or point out the path ahead, as it is cartographically unavailable and hence, unfathomable and impossible to penetrate.

The poem titled “The Burning Deck” evokes an interesting association with the poem “Casabianca” by the Victorian speaker Felicia Hemans with its vivid image of the young boy sailor standing in obedience on the burning deck of the ship. This poem juxtaposes the present moment of the speaker with recollections of his childhood days from memory. The window of the speaker’s bedroom overlooks a crowd of roofs spreading out to the banks of the London River. The variety of roofs with their varying shapes, sizes, and colors are cataloged in great detail, spread over two whole lines in the four-lined first stanza. This view from the window forms a basis of describing the way memory functions and its process of associating and recollecting through whatever impinges on the senses. As Tim Cresswell says in his essay on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, titled “Elizabeth Bishop: In and Out of Place”, “They are acts of description that allow objects their own life and do not subsume them into a symbol for something else. The description is one way of engaging with place through writing. Places are made up of things – they have a material presence – and vivid descriptions of these things start the process of allowing the reader to enter into the places being described. Places are syncretic.” (p 119)

The speaker now moves on to the memory of a burning ship that he saw in his childhood through his bedroom window and how the recollection is perhaps much more vivid and real than the way he perceives reality around him now. It is the absurdity of geometry and geography that strikes him: “You know how it is in a dream when the sky is vast / but intimate things are closer?” (l. 5-6) The act of crossing over to the dream-like memory of the past, achieving a kind of spatial transgression, is complete with an experience that involves and puts at work almost all the faculties of the human senses: “I could see / and smell and taste and feel on my ankles / and legs, the turbulent black water (diesel, oil, tar)” (l.6-8). The adult narrator has been to this space of memory with its lived experience and horror, to guide the readers through the maze of sensations yet, maintaining a distance. His position is then, one of unique attachment as well as detachment, of both feeling and providing a neutrally balanced commentary: “all from the floor of my bedroom, looking through / that window, as the waters broke” (l. 13-14). Thus, through this poem, the readers duplicate his act of spatial transgression, that of crossing over into the past at the moment when the child narrator not only witnesses but much rather experiences the tragedy and being there, at the exact place, at the exact time:

“bursting and failing and fading and bursting

and blazing and trailing, all through the frame

of my childhood’s bedroom window, my feet on the carpeted floor:

No dream tonight, no softness in the memory. This, the burning deck.”

The poem “Kilmartin Glen”, takes its name after the name of a place in Scotland. Located in Western Scotland, this is a very ancient landscape with a dense concentration of prehistoric, Neolithic and Bronze Age remains and monuments, bearing testimony to the primeval heritage of the place. The poem opens with a candid confession: “I never saw the intricate connections / with quite this sunny clarity before” (l. 1-2). This honesty is merely a façade as the readers now surrender to the speaker’s experience and vision of the place. The description initially portrays a landscape of vibrant, pristine and fresh significance: “the West and Islands open to the sea / And Ireland, always seemed to be / alive with colour: bright blue waters, / emeralds and snow” (l. 5-8). Yet, this place of brightness and light, is also the place of habitation where ancient people struggled against the elements and created a culture and heritage that have withstood the test of time and left its imprints on the present. The speaker traces the patterns of the geography of the place – “shapes and movement, / glacial striations, ox-bow lakes, tidal rivers, / hill-tops making patterns to each other” (l.8-10) – and finds them reciprocated in the art and lives of these ancient people. The candid, conversational tone highlights and emphasises the deeper connections that the speaker’s perception has unfolded. It is in connecting the spirit of the place to the spirit of their civilization and the lived lives of their everyday-s, that these people have endured the onslaught of time. It is this connection of the past to the present, between the antiquity and the contemporary that their identities still transgress temporality to reach us. Their haunting presence/absence continues to be the sheer source of attraction to this place. It is an existence that they have perpetuated through their surviving monuments, artifacts and other remains.

In “Edinburgh, High Street: Nocturne” the speaker focuses on the nature of cosmopolitanism of the cityscape of Edinburgh. The speaker here does not directly engage with the cityscape in general, but rather chooses to move on from the interior to the exterior, from the particular to the general, from the light and bright to the darkness and cold, highlighting a sense of dualism that permeates the city. This sense of dualism, fragmentation, and schism pervades the entire poem, in fact, and that is why the poem is abundant in images of the hidden, the underground, the obstructed and the incomplete: “double glazing” “subterranean ways”, “unmapped arteries” “guided walks”, “question marks that cannot be subtracted”. The poem begins with reference to the novel A Forest of a Hundred Thousand Daemons by D. O. Fagunwa, which is incidentally the first novel written in the African Yoruba language, and later translated into English by Wole Soyinka. The speaker alludes to his profession as an academician whose “present occupation is / to notice and to indicate” (l.3-4) the writer’s “African head held undergrowths / and tunnels” (l.2-3) of intellectual space. The speaker slowly moves the readers out from the finiteness of his home to the broader general setting of the city, by orienting us towards the bedroom window. Next the readers are provided with the image of the snow in a spatial relationship with the building, as the speaker takes us across: “I walked / from living room to hall to kitchen back to hall / to bedroom” (l.9-11). The images are vivid and detailed in their descriptions, but do not follow any spatial pattern in their arrangement, and seem randomly grouped, perhaps as the ideas emerge, portraying a sense of casual, detached engagement with the subject. However, this randomness of arrangement reflects the curious plurality pervading the night-time cityscape, from the tourists who “walk below and take the guided walks and know” (l.20) to the drunken soldier who “swore he’d found / a tunnel in the dungeons of the castle at the height, / which led him to a maze of unmapped arteries beneath, that he emerged at Holyrood” (l.23-26) to “the groan / of buses and cars, and taxis, sirens at midnight, 2 / and 3 am” (l. 27-29) to the “road-menders widening the pavements and / re-cobbling” (l. 29-30). This “sinking, / structured preserved configuration” (l.36-37) is then a “sloping world” (l.35) that has learned to hold itself in a delicate balance despite its pluralities and fractures.

“New Zealand Pastoral” is itself a commentary of both the poetic form of the pastoral as well as the modern world with its technological progress and developments. Through distinct and precise language, the poem records the flora and fauna and underscores the perfect beauty of nature:

“The sun has turned the tidal bay and hills beyond it silver,

all a single silver hue, the sand beyond the mussel beds

is streaked and slipping, silver strands of light.

The sparrows dipping, swooping from the saffron rice leftover

on the board, on the deck, down

then up-in-under

the branches of Pohutukawa trees,

                        give glints of

similar silver, sudden flecks.” (l. 1-9)

This beauty is confined to the “(o)utside” alone, as that is the space of the natural world, undisturbed and not infiltrated by mankind. Whatever mankind has brought to the world in the name of civilization and science is far from perfect, and hence, in remaining far-off and “occasional” does not in any way spoil or tamper with the untouched and bountiful nature. However, the gap between the spaces of the inside and outside is sharply bridged by man-made technology:

“the roast is here inside,

the four of us, lit up, the rising pile of Guinness cans, the

rugby football match, half-done on that TV.” (l. 24-26)

It is the last four lines in which the speaker introduces us to the “inside” of their space and at once highlights how the pastoral form is defeated in its very scope in the modern day and time. The poem ironically titled “Pastoral” is a kind of elegy on the poetic form itself and takes us away from nature towards an understanding of our fractured and alienated relationship with the natural world.

The next poem “Clearances” again takes the readers to a scene of flood, but this time the flood is no longer at a distance. Like the poem “The Flood”, the opening lines here too, trace the situation that created the flood – the clouds gathering, the darkening of the skies and the heavy, torrential rainfall. The vivid description recreates the space for the readers:

“The clouds go over

singly, or in fleets, trailing

raggedly back, against a sky

where looming vaults of rain

come over too. Then the sky lets loose:

the shades of grey become uncountable,

the rain comes down on everything, diagonal, banks:

the windows, roof, the wooden deck,

the trees around, the green slopes run

with mud, the fields below are soaked and fill:

the road becomes a grey and moving river.” (l. 1-11)

The description is much similar to the other poem – nothing escapes this natural devastation, and as the disaster happens, there is a simultaneous destruction, blurring and transgression of the established man-made boundaries that stood for order and structure in the social space. So this is where the space of nature and social structure intersect and collide, often resulting in loss for the latter. The baby is the worst sufferer – standing and staring at displacement, he himself is unaware of the grave danger that is yet to happen, yet feeling threatened at the perceived strangeness of the sound of rain falling on the iron roof. The metaphor of the baby is indeed an interesting one. On the one hand he represents the space of the future, the fate of mankind, and is the carrier of the inheritance or legacy of the community of his people. On the other, positioned at the threshold of being man, he is still uninitiated to the structural hierarchy of the social fabric and lacks the knowledge or the tools to navigate that space. Hence, he inhabits that grey zone between the promise of a future and the burden of the past. As the speaker invests him with the dialogic of the impending disaster, it becomes the key moment in the poem that now shifts the attention of the readers from an event of the nature to its consequence in mankind: “It must be time to leave. / The weather is an actual farewell.” (l.15-16). Displacement and loss, destruction of the old order and creation of a new and the search for roots in newer routes, has been recurring in the cycle of life since eternity, even for the primitive people, the “old Gaels of Ireland, / or then west of Scotland” (l. 22-25):

“But clearances are always strong in the mind,

the image recurrent, the rubble of the ruined homes,

the ghosts of children, animals, and men

and women helpless in the face of the event.” (l. 22-25)

Such clearances are not only the physical displacement and evacuation of a geographical terrain but more often, occur at all the other levels as well, social, emotional as well as temporal. All spaces carry in them traces of their past – “the rubble of ruined home” and “the ghosts of children, animals, and men” – even before they build anew. As Henri Lefebvre suggests in his study Production of Space, “’Our’ space thus remains qualified (and qualifying) beneath the sediments left behind by history, by accumulation, by quantification … Such qualities, each of which has its own particular genesis, its own particular date, repose upon specific spatial bases (site, church, temple, fortress, etc.) without which they would have disappeared. Their ultimate foundation, even where it is set aside, broken up, or localized, is nature” (pp230-231). Thus, all kinds of spaces are characterised by and essentialize departures, displacements and shifts as much as arrival and regeneration: “Farewells and birth, there are some things / no clues or forms of knowledge alter / in themselves” (l. 26-28). What is important then, is to remember and recognise the left behind and the left-over, for these are the traces that we inherit and, in our turn, pass on:

“It’s time to pack what we have and can carry.

It’s time to take what we can, and go. The boy

will not remember this, the landscape

of his parents, unless we do.” (l. 34-37)

The next poem is named “Kylesku” after the small remote fishing hamlet in Scotland. A comparatively simpler poem, it explores how places are conceived, perceived and transmitted. The landscape is yet again bright, sunny and idyllic. The speaker, with his beloved has probably arrived here for a short trip. This is not an active or adventurous tourist spot, but more of an attraction to those seeking refreshment, peace and quiet. The speaker and his partner also seamlessly blend into this spirit of the place, their affection for each other clearly verbalised and palpable, and of the intimate and familiar type: “I’m glad / you’re here, and know it’s that / the other way around, as well” (l. 13-15). There is a vivid evocation of the place all around and reflect the mood of quiet contentment that the speaker feels in this place:

“Outside the windows the jetty slips down to the loch,

and the boat pulls up past the seals,

heads bobbing, water lapping the boat, leaning towards moorings.” (l. 8-10)

The depiction includes not only what is seen, but the experience is captured through olfactory as well as sound imagery – “The air smells of peat” (l.13) and “The sea is hushed at dusk” (l.17) – and provide a sense of immediacy to the depiction. At the end of the day, the speaker and his partner go to the Post Office nearby to send picture-cards from the place to near and dear ones across the distance, telling them about the place and their sojourn. Such picture-cards pictorially depict the place from the best vantage points and always, through them the places are conceived of and produced as tourism spots, tempting and inviting in more prospective tourists who can and will advance the cause of the tourism industry. Hence, such cards more often than not fail to capture the true essence of the place – the dialectics of the lived reality that only the inhabitants know and understand. Even as advertisements for the tourism industry they hardly manage to re-produce or duplicate the experience that the tourists meet with, their appeal limited by and restricted to the exercise of only one specific sensory capacity – that of vision. Thus, as the speaker sums it up:

“I’ll strain to hear

nothing, clearly there, but welcome, quiet,

welcome, and keep moving, from

the landscape all around us.” (l.22-25)

The fourth and final section is titled “Long Reach” and the very first two poems deal with themes of loss, mourning and death and the nostalgia for the bygones. Both the poems are dedicated and inspired by the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo. The second poem titled “Trilce 61” borrows the title of one of Vallejo’s major works of modernism, a collection of seventy-seven shorter pieces. This poem borrows the theme of Number 61 of the Trilce poems – the locked doors of childhood to which return is now impossible. The poem opens at the front door of the house of the speaker from which he “set out at dawn”. But the door to that house is now closed and the “shuttered windows”, revealing that it is empty. This is the metaphorical space of childhood, to which one may look back with longing and nostalgia, having begun the journey of life there, but it is now impossible to come back to. The memory of that forsaken childhood is as vivid and episodic as the nostalgia of visiting a childhood home is:

“There’s the stone bench

where Nana bore my brother.

He saddled the horses I rode bareback

down avenues, by trellised garden walls,

a village boy” (l. 8-12)

His childhood was perhaps painful and tormented, yet the pain of having lost that space of belonging and being “soaks back and permeates / this page” (l. 15-16) and writing.

The speaker imagines the daily activities at the house and the different roles donned on by various members of his family – the father, the sisters. These roles are the spaces to which they have belonged together and now it has been lost. Thus, this loss is one of the easy familiarities, domesticity and togetherness: “We were a family not long ago / but nobody is watching any longer” (l.27-28). This space harbours the security and protection that watching over each other brings. Hence the lonely light burning at the window of the house symbolises this sense of protecting and watching over, transposing the house itself into a parent-like or guardian-like figure. But the family and the space that it provided is now lost, and hence the barred door and window imagery” “They’re all asleep, forever now.” (l.32) The only realization that is now afforded to the speaker is a necessity of resignation and coming to terms with the loss:

“… as if it were reflected in the rearview of a car

driving away in a dust-cloud,

nodding by the faces of my family, turning to look out once more

through the back window,

pale in the light of farewell” (l. 34-38)

The poem “Kissing in Cars” again uses the journey motif, but this is not a poem of mourning, but a short and simple poem celebrating love. The poem begins with an image of motion, a journey, down the roads of life: “A simple recognition of mistakes, / of roads we’d been on, never / should have taken, / maybe” (l. 1-4). This is then a space which is constructed out of innumerable articulations of and intersections and negotiations between multiple social and economic relationships. The use of the word “maybe” at the beginning of the fourth line mirrors, both thematically, as well as through the spatial structure of the poem, the unintentionality of such negotiations. Introduced into the poem as late as the beginning of the fourth line the word points towards a realisation that has been gradual in building up and temporally displaced from the events as they have taken place. But such continuously shifting and evolving social relationships have “took out a funny pattern or / a network of uncertainties, a strange / uncertain sequence of events, by roads” (l.5-7) which will perhaps be coherent only at a particular junction of space-time. It is in the irreconcilable distance from the past, that the present moment is legitimised – “leading us to this” – a kind of sanctification of the space that has now been created: “together in / a parked car in Nevada / your lips touching mine” (l. 8-10). 

Thus, the spaces in Alan Riach’s poetry are necessarily spaces that signify the cultural and personal values that the speaker attaches to the narrative. Space had long remained either synonymous to place, or signified some kind of empty container where the events or incidents are played out. However, in Riach, it is not merely so. For him the narrative space is an uncharted terrain where he lets his words play out the imaginative fancy of the readers. It is not a space of description that defines the limits but rather a space of creation and deciphering that tends to un-limit, de-territorialize the boundaries of the narrative. Even places lose their cartographic significance as they are entirely subsumed within the dialectics of the narratorial space.


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Tally, Robert T., Jr., (eds). The Routledge Handbook of Literature and Space. Routledge, 2017. Print.

Tally, Robert T., Jr., (eds). Literary Cartographies: Spatiality, Representation and Narrative. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Print