What’s it like to be a lonely feminist, both mother and father to your kids, a theorist of language, examining the dubiousness of words, but also a poet, keeping faith with a vocation? Denise Riley argues with her identities and ‘identity’ in general: she is unhappy with them, casts them off only to find them stuck on again in the morning. She is also our pre-eminent dialectician of vulnerability and scepticism, the first addressed in the lyric or song impulse, the second in wit and philosophical flights:
A clean historical wind has cut
the forest, torn it to streaming
ribbons. Now under its snapped
branches I’ll listen for silence.
No single word of this/is any more than decoration of an old self-magnifying wish/to throw the self away so violently and widely …/it can’t, because its motor runs on a conviction that if I understood/my own extent of blame then that would prove me agent; it doesn’t/want to face a likely truth of helplessness – that the inflated will to/gauge and skewer each wrong turn may blank out what’s far worse/to bear: impersonal hazard, the humiliating lack of much control –/I don’t get past this thought with any confidence.
(‘Seven Strangely Exciting Lies’)
Riley has written almost as many books on feminism, motherhood and linguistics as she has collections of verse. Her earliest poems grew out of her academic interests as well as her own life: her first book, Marxism for Infants – the title hints irreverently at Lenin’s ‘Left-Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder – was published in 1977. ‘A note on sex and “the reclaiming of language”’ states: ‘The work is/e.g. to write “she” and for that to be a statement/of fact only, and not a strong image/of everything which is not-you.’ In an untitled poem, ‘speech as a sexed thing.’ In another: ‘You have a family? … It is impermissible.’ The poems are abbreviated, notational and lightly punctuated, like the verse of others in the Cambridge school, with which Riley is loosely affiliated, and the period anti-style of the Language poets, though she wasn’t quite one of that crowd either.
Riley is a feminist who comes at the experience of womanhood from unusual angles: ‘She has ingested her wife/she has re-inhabited her own wrists … “She” is I.’ By the time Mop Mop Georgette was published in 1993, her poems had become passionate, sensuous and rhetorical: full-throated arias. And yet a tincture of doubt, vulnerability and irony keeps the work from tipping into self-regarding ‘empowerment’. In ‘Dark Looks’: ‘it’s not right to flare and quiver at some fictive “worldly boredom of the young”/through middle-aged hormonal pride of Madame, one must bleed, it’s necessary …/Mop mop georgette.’ God spare us the magnanimity of poets comfortable in their own skin:
The writer/properly should be the last person that the reader or the listener need think about/yet the poet with her signature stands up trembling, grateful, mortally embarrassed/and especially embarrassing to herself, patting her hair and twittering, ‘If, if only/I need not have a physical appearance! To be sheer air, and mousseline!’
Her long-lined, meditative poems, with their stream-of-conscious anacoluthons, are hard to excerpt. When I first read the poems in Mop Mop Georgette years ago, I thought them too chatty. Riley leaves in the awkwardness, the groping, that most poets would revise away. But this thinking aloud is her way of reaching out to the reader unpretentiously. It is a tone that, even when the subject matter seems difficult or private or bewildering, is always social – on the qui vive, even, for a sympathetic ear.
‘Language is impersonal,’ Riley wrote in the introduction to Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect, a book of essays published in 2005. ‘Its working through and across us is indifferent to us, yet in the same blow it constitutes the fibre of the personal.’ The essays investigate the physical power that words – which are just sounds, after all – have over the reader. ‘Malediction’ asks why verbal attacks, including racist speech, hurt; ‘Linguistic Inhibition as a Cause of Pregnancy’ speaks for itself. ‘All Mouth and No Trousers: Linguistic Embarrassments’ asks why vulgarity is so cringemaking – from the ‘matiness’ of bonking to the ‘too honeyed, even hypocritical’ making love, and perhaps worst of all the ‘obnoxious and joyless’ having sex (Elizabeth Bishop also despised that expression). ‘Your Name Which Isn’t Yours’ considers the effect of having a name capriciously bestowed on you at birth, something with which you can only fully reconcile yourself when you imagine it engraved on a stone. There’s also ‘The Right to Be Lonely’, in which Riley questions ‘the diction of belonging’: ‘[Do] we unequivocally want this social inclusion? Certainly we may want to speak for equality, but in doing so to steer clear of its now usual accompaniment of a treacly talk of belonging, spiritual recognition and community. Can it be avoided? Probably not.’ We fool ourselves if we think that inclusivity destroys hierarchies: it just reorders them. Riley would make a case for being ‘social within one’s solitariness’: ‘This solitude has no time for any plangency about its own “exclusion”.’
‘Curmudgeonly’, a poem in the new Selected, is characteristic of Riley’s toughness on questions of this sort, and a terrific invective against the word ‘partner’ (‘a partner is a social-democratic thing to have’):
Surely only a passionate attraction should glue people together; yet better speak it in a reserved/Diction of friendship, or of marriage, legal or no, but for every sex – not this twang of cowboys/Hunched over their baked bean cans, keeping out of the prairie wind, and mighty self-conscious:/‘Yup. It’s lonesome tonight, kinda cold out there. So, Howdy, partner.’ – What happened to/Unsettling love? …/I hear a bloodless future come/In which we’ll sidle as usual through attachments whose truthful varieties are beaten flat/Under one leaden word; in which, to nick a line from well-married W.H. Auden,/Thousands have lived without love. Not one without partners.
Riley would probably agree with Pound’s view that ‘poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.’ In addition to her digressive, often argumentative, long-lined verse there are shorter lyrics that telegraph feeling through vivid fragments of description and stolen lines of song. In ‘When it’s time to go’, she quotes ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’: ‘O great classic cadences of English poetry/We blush to hear thee lie/Above thy deep and dreamless.’ (Here the word ‘lie’ is given its double entendre.) One poem is called ‘A Misremembered Lyric’. There’s also ‘Marriage song with a remembered line’, a plain ‘Lyric’ and an unqualified ‘Song’: ‘Some very dark blue hyacinths on the table/A confession or two before dusk/flings open the fridge with loud relief/Listen honey I …’
A pair of longish poems from the middle of Riley’s career, ‘The Castalian Spring’ and ‘Affections of the Ear’, explicitly address the motif of song (‘affection’ in this sense meaning disease). The Castalian Spring near Delphi is associated with the Oracle and the Muses, and Riley imagines herself as a toad singing in its waters, ‘flexing my long damp thighs/Now as studded and ridged as the best dill pickles in Whitechapel’. She tries out different registers, different personae:
What should I sing out on this gratuitous new instrument?/Not much liking minimalism, I tried out some Messiaen,/Found I was a natural as a bassoon,/indeed the ondes martenot/Simply oozed out of me. Or should lyric well up less, be bonier?/So I fluted like H.D.’s muse in spiky girlish hellenics, slimmed/My voice down to twig-size, so shooting out stiffly it quivered/In firework bursts of sharp flowers. Or had I a responsibility to/Speak to society: though how could it hear me? It lay in its hotels.
The toad persists through a martial German phase, a Keatsian cemetery-haunting phase, a ‘song of my sociologised self’ (‘Long angry flounce, tuned to piping self-sorrow … Suddenly charmed by community’) until she abandons the experiment and moves on to Delphi, the seat of the Oracle – yet another woman possessed by impersonal language. In ‘Affections of the Ear’ – narcissus oil was a traditional remedy – Riley takes on the persona of a garrulous Echo and retells the Ovidian tale. ‘I should explain myself, I sound derivative? Because I am, I’m Echo, your reporter.’ Ovid makes Echo of us all, since poetry is nothing if not a derivation from the springhead of myth (Riley puns on the etymology of ‘derive’ – Narcissus ‘came to know himself to be loved water’). Echo is a hanger-on, a fangirl. Loving song, she courts it, and she courts it by serenading.
Reading the poems from Say Something Back (2016) we note the continuity: ‘A Part Song’, ‘Four blindfolded songs’, ‘An Awkward Lyric’, ‘A Gramophone on the Subject’. Her figures have remained the same, but the ground has shifted beneath them. These are the poems written after the sudden death of her son, Jacob, from cardiomyopathy. Now she is Orpheus-as-mother: ‘to/converse with shades, yourself become a shadow.’ She must ask herself the fundamental question: ‘You principle of song, what are you for now?’
‘A Part Song’, which first appeared in the LRB of 9 February 2012, broke a five-year silence. A part song is a type of unaccompanied choral music, and the poem, divided into twenty numbered sections, is a sounding board for different tonal registers: interrogative and beseeching, exasperated and affectionate, commanding and despairing. Metered and unmetered, rhymed and unrhymed, echoing Shakespeare and Milton, it is a bravura performance and simultaneously a record of defeat. Sinéad Morrissey has pointed out that ‘verbs and sometimes whole phrases are often left out of sentences, so that, within sections and across [the poem] as a whole, an impression is conveyed of the difficulty inherent in the act of speech itself.’
Such language, fractured under the unbearable weight of grief, sometimes gives ‘A Part Song’ an abstract tone: ‘Mince, slight pillar. And sleek down/Your furriness.’ In other places it’s brutal: ‘What is the first duty of a mother to a child?/At least to keep the wretched thing alive.’ Riley conjures a harrowing thought experiment: what if she took her own life, and she and Jacob ended up ‘trapped eternally’, ‘Oblivious to each other/One crying Where are you, my child/The other calling Mother.’
Hints of an Elizabethan register – the King James Bible, or King Lear – pervade the poems of Say Something Back. It’s there in the volume’s opening poem, ‘Maybe; maybe not’, a rewriting of St Paul: ‘When I was a child I spoke as a thrush, I/thought as a clod, I understood as a stone …’ Or, later: ‘How neat her gilded eye/Too spare for garlanded/Ornament’; ‘Let no air now be sung, let no kind = air – ’. The ennoblement language confers is Riley’s tribute to the dead, and it serves as a foil to the plain style through which grief is commonly communicated. The final long elegy in the book, ‘A Gramophone on the Subject’ (the phrase is from Arthur Conan Doyle), is written for the parents of dead soldiers, a commission from the Poetry Society for a volume commemorating the Great War. It ends with a comment on plain style:
So many gone that you can’t take it in.
Whatever I say is bound to sound flat.
I am a gramophone on the subject.
Each day’s same horizon to be faced.
You long to fade out into it, yourself.
I look doggedly after a missing figure.
What to do now is clear, and wordless:
You will bear what can not be borne.
Time Lived, without Its Flow is the prose counterpart to the poems in Say Something Back. First published in 2012, this revised edition is prefaced with an introduction by Max Porter, who sees it neither as a ‘sweet’ nor ‘easy’ book, but as ‘an essay about minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years’. The first section begins in the immediate aftermath of Jacob’s passing: ‘Two weeks after the death’, then ‘One month after the death’, ‘Five months after’ and so on, until the short final section, ‘Three years after’, concludes a period of great extremity. The last thirty pages are a ‘Postscript’ grappling with this long episode in which time seemed to have frozen (‘You’ve slipped into a state of a-chronicity’). In such a state, there are ‘no tenses anymore’, there is no narrative sequence, no future to speak of.
There is an analogy here with writing. The temporal markers – weeks, then months, then years, exactly as one measures an infant’s progress – stand in for narrative, which is otherwise absent. The text circles around its subject. There is an obvious reticence, even a repugnance, about writing itself: how can words flow if time does not? Riley invokes Hume on inference: we all assume the sun will rise tomorrow based on past experience. But her son, she notes, will not reappear. From now on life will be a jumble of discrete episodes with no causal relation.
Linguistic ironies abound: there is no word for the bereaved parent as there is for a bereaved child (‘orphan’) or spouse (‘widow’, ‘widower’). Nor is there a proper word for ‘adult child’. In social situations Riley is beset with absurdity, shame, a feeling of unseemly self-dramatisation. ‘Even the plainest “He died” is a strange sentence, since there’s no longer a human subject to sustain that “he”.’ (She’d prefer ‘French or … Italian where, without any affectation, you could call someone’s death “his disappearance”, or you might naturally say that “she has left us.”’ Further puns underscore the futility of language: ‘You conceived the child, but you can’t conceive of its death.’
That’s the crux of the matter: if you’re a poet, and also a philosopher of language who dotes on the real-world consequence of words, it comes as a shock that words have no bearing, finally, on death. ‘That you can’t edit.’ The great licentiousness of language lies in its counterfactuals: that is its source of invention, in play as well as villainy, but therein also lies Riley’s problem: she can be told her son is dead, she can say it to herself a hundred ways, but words are just that. It’s only with the continuation of his non-return that the fact sinks in.
This is hard reading. One can appreciate the need, even the necessity, of tonal restraint in Time Lived, without Its Flow, where Riley takes the philosophical view. The essay – prose – is rational for not being metered. ‘A Part Song’ – which is metered, measured, rationed – is closer to a naked cry. The saving grace is in the poem’s prosopopoeia: if Riley didn’t keep company with others through the part song, the loneliness would be overwhelming. In the essay, she tries to get at the visceral nature of maternal grief, for a body that spawned another might have thought it had put an end to its aloneness:
If you had once sensed the time of your child as quietly uncoiling inside your own, then when that child is cut away by its death, your doubled inner time is also ‘untimely ripped’ … That child you had, alone, when you were young yourself, a child you grew up with, nested like a Russian doll whose shorter years sat within yours, gave you a time that was always layered. Then you held times, in the plural.
When Riley recommences writing, she finds that the gap in her life which her son has left is analogous to the gaps in metrical or rhymed verse: ‘you stop, you repeat, you continue, you repeat but differently, you stop, you go ahead.’
It’s true to the nature of a return, including your own return from your proximity to another’s death, that it often won’t be an arrival at the same place. And you yourself won’t be the same. But something, nevertheless, remains: recognition as re-cognition; to know again, but because of the interval, to know a bit differently. Not through a replacement or a restoration of the lost object or word: any new rhyme must embody a slight shift yet preserve the trace of the original, holding an outline of a gap that, even after it has been ‘filled in’, remains in a listening ear.
I like to think that this epiphany is marked by one of Riley’s loveliest lyrics, ‘Death makes dead metaphor revive’:
Spirit as echo clowns around
In punning repartee
Since each word overhears itself
Laid bare, clairaudiently.
An orphic engine revs but floods
Choked on its ardent weight.
Disjointed anthems dip and bob
Down time’s defrosted spate.
This paradox – that the death of a beloved resurrects this ancient technology called verse – is a terrible truth for a poet. Terrible, and terrifying. Orphic.