In February 2012, the London Review of Books published “A Part Song,” a long poem by Denise Riley. A feminist philosopher at the University of East Anglia, Riley is also a poet published by Reality Street, associated with the experimental, leftist British Poetry Revival. When “A Part Song” won the Forward Prize for best single poem, The Guardian noted that it was Riley’s first publication in five years. The reason for the silence and the occasion for its breach were the same: the sudden death of her adult son Jacob, of (most probably) cardiomyopathy.
A parallel essay was also published in 2012 as a pamphlet by London’s Capsule Editions. “Time Lived, Without Its Flow” is a meditation on the unique, altered state of consciousness that follows a child’s death. “The experience that not only preoccupied me but occupied me was of living in suddenly arrested time,” Riley writes: “that acute sensation of being cut off from any temporal flow that can grip you after the sudden death of your child. And a child, it seems, of any age.” A poet’s medium is time as much as it is language. But the idea of recounting her experience “in a written form stayed, for me, both repugnant and implausible for well over two and a half years after the death. You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity.”
“A Part Song” has taken its place in a new volume of poems that echo the themes of “Time Lived, Without Its Flow.” Say Something Back opens with a version of 1 Corinthians 13:11:
When I was a child I spoke as a thrush, I
thought as a clod, I understood as a stone,
but when I became a man I put away
plain things for lustrous….
The next verse in St. Paul’s text concludes, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” It is along this vantage—knowing “in part”—that the book proceeds.
Born in 1948 in Carlisle, England, and a longtime professor of literature and philosophy, Riley has spent decades thinking and writing about language from the point of view of a woman, a mother, and a single mother (three distinct angles in the comedy of female life). Say Something Back answers to the kind of formal challenge a poet spends her whole life preparing for, while hoping never to have the opportunity to address. One small measure of the horror of a child’s death is the relative dearth of imaginative works addressing the subject. King Lear is perhaps the most memorable of them, and is frequently described as the most terrifying play ever written, or at least a vehicle for literature’s most terrifying lines: “Thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never”—spoken by Lear as he carries Cordelia’s corpse onto the stage. “Never” echoes the many “nothings” of the play: “Nothing, my lord,” “Nothing will come of nothing,” “Nothing almost sees miracles / But misery.” The inference is plain: A child’s death opens an existential abyss as nothing else does. Puns on “nothing” are inevitable, for a reason that Riley discusses in her “Time” essay: It is impossible to figure a void in language, because merely by mentioning a thing, one brings it into being. Ironically, rhetorical terms abound for attempts to circumvent this, among them apophasis, paralepsis, praeteritio, and antiphrasis.