A Part of Denise Riley’s Song

A Part of Denise Riley’s Song

The shadow of ballad meter haunts Riley’s poems, which can never not be a sign of vitality.


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.

Shakespeare is one frame through which the multivalent “A Part Song” coheres. Riley’s titular pun is on “apart”—partialness, partiality, and parts in a play. It is a poem in parts (20 of them), and at one point the famous “seven ages of man” monologue from As You Like It is shrunk for the man who doesn’t make it through all of them. Riley refigures the ages as self-cannibalized or self-entombing—discarded parts:

It was a man who died, and in him died
The large-eyed boy, then the teen peacock
In the unremarked ­placid self-­devouring
That makes up being alive.

In the poem, now one part speaks, now another. Now one is the impatient, displeased mum (“Come home I tell you”); now one is venting one’s wistfulness to a bee (or not to be!). Now one is the Rilkean Orphist who asks, “You principle of song, what are you for now,” and now one is the moral philosopher arguing herself out of suicide:

The flaws in suicide are clear
Apart from causing bother
To those alive who hold us dear
We could miss one another
We might be trapped eternally
Oblivious to each other
One crying Where are you, my child
The other calling Mother.

* * *

The shadow of ballad or hymn meter haunts Riley’s fragmented parts, as does the spirit of song itself, which for all its elegiac purposes can never not be a sign of vitality. In an interview with the Web publication The Shearsman Review, Riley remarked of her career: “The only constant is a commitment to the thing that is song. This is in some way linked to the persistence of hope. Then as I get older this whole business of ‘song’ only becomes still more mysterious. It is a plain bright mystery.” Song is in dialogue with the “say” of Say Something Back, enacted between loftier rhyming stanzas and colloquial blank verse. Rhymes and rhythms assert themselves, then falter. It’s stop and go, this resumption of life after death. It is, actually, like forcing the boulder from the mouth of the tomb. Form is finally achieved in the last part, spoken in the italicized voice of the dead and evoking The Tempest’s “Full fathom five”:

My sisters and my mother,

Weep dark tears for me

I drift as lightest ashes

Under a southern sea
O let me be, my mother

In no unquiet grave

My bone-dust is faint coral

Under the fretful wave

Song may be speech that revels in superfluity, frivolity; it is what skipping is to walking. “Percy’s Relique; on the Death of John Hall’s Peacock” is a pastiche of Wallace Stevens’s comic “Bantams in Pine-Woods”:

Earl Percy of Brook Mill, in gown
Of brown with azure trimmings, flown!
Grand and admired fowl, indenturing
John your janitor to toss you copious nuts,
Rare! Raoaark! Rare! You were adornment.
You were Brook Mill. Its ­visitors were yours.

The sense of fun or frivolity lasts only as long as you forget the “teen peacock” from “A Part Song.” Such echoes across the book—of Stevens, of Shakespeare, and of herself—recall Riley’s ars poetica, “Affections of the Ear,” a tour de force of her Selected Poems (2000). “Here’s the original Narcissus story,” it begins. But it is really a story about Echo. As Riley tells the story from Ovid, she interrupts the narrative: “I should explain myself, I sound derivative? Because I am, I’m Echo, your reporter.” Later, she continues:

A rhyme rears up before me to insist on how I should repeat a stanza’s
formal utterance—other
Than this I cannot do, unless my hearers find a way of speaking to me
so I don’t stay semi-dumb
Or pirouette, a languid Sugarplum. Echo’s a trope for lyric poetry’s
endemic barely hidden bother:
As I am made to parrot others’ words so I am forced to form ideas by
rhymes, the most humdrum.
All I may say is through constraint, dictation straight from sounds
doggedly at work in a strophe.

Then, contrasting herself with Narcissus, she adds a remark of Jacques Lacan’s: “To make yourself seen reflects back to you, but to make yourself heard goes out toward another.” Thus the title Say Something Back becomes more than an address to the dead; it’s an enjoinder to the poet never to stop the transmission of poetry. Even the phrase itself is lifted from the Scottish poet W.S. Graham (“flying translator, translating / English into English,” he called himself), who provides Riley’s epigraph.

* * *

Words are never our own; they are innately impersonal. Riley’s temperament isn’t given to the kind of confessional writing that some feminists have claimed as women’s unique contribution to literature, and she doesn’t trust the notion that we have mastery over our own narratives. Her collection of theoretical essays, Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect (2005), notices that from the point of view of the rational, it is paradoxical for language, though objectively impersonal, to have enormous power over our emotions. There are essays on why curses and insults actually hurt, why vulgarities make us wince, and speculations on the irksomeness of our arbitrary given names. Imagine, Riley says, the ultimate estrangement from language: stumbling upon a tombstone with your first and last names on it. “For to be recorded as dead is the end of your nominal ‘alienation,’ and is the one point at which you do unequivocally rejoin your given name, to become it inalienably. Having no further use for it, it is only now that you can fully take it back from its givers.” There’s a great deal of playfulness in Riley’s philosophical wonderings. Listen to the cheer in her tone as she all but announces to her reader that only in death is alienation overcome. The message: Relish the alienation while you can.

This is not to say that there isn’t a strong, identifiable vocal quality and a freely espoused “I” in Riley’s poems; simply put, it is difficult to tease out her autobiography. Those who want a memoir—even to find out exactly what year Jacob died, how old he was, and whether she has any sort of partner (a word she wrote an entertaining screed on in Selected Poems)—will be hard-pressed. Some facts emerge; others do not. But isn’t life like that? Riley reads her son’s autopsy report—translates the document from the Spanish with dictionaries—but she never actually sees the body. Even the cause of death—heart attack? enlarged heart? drowning in the running bath after fainting?—is full of indeterminacies. One essay in Impersonal Passion is titled “Linguistic Inhibition as a Cause of Pregnancy”—a serious and witty unpacking of the term “pregnant pause.” Out of the syncopes of her narrative, she engenders a greater fund of sympathetic imagination.

Say Something Back draws to a close with two poems that suggest the ways time resumed its flow for Riley. “Death makes dead metaphor revive” describes, in rhyming quatrains, how grief revealed the truth in devices that modernity tells us are arbitrary, ornamental, outmoded. Comparing a flood of tears to a spring spate is a simile that goes back to Homer, but Riley reworks it in her fashion—as our new Echo—to force the “orphic engine” out of its rusty silence:

Over its pools of greeny melt
The rearing ice will tilt.
To make rhyme chime again with time
I sound a curious lilt.

The second poem is “A gramophone on the subject,” which Riley wrote for the Poetry Society in 2014 to commemorate World War I. It is another “part song,” or should we say “counterpart” song. Drawing on the letters, diaries, and memoirs of soldiers and their families, it begins with an account of the harrowing “exhumation squads,” which parents of the dead would ambush to demand or cajole a relic of their lost sons. Seven sections later, the poem ends on a grave and unconsoling bass note.

Consolations, in these instances, are not readily come by. But by engaging the past in a transhistoric view of bereavement from a place of futurity that those parents—like Riley in her own grief—might have been unable to imagine, the poet helps us grasp the truth that in any era, “your own loss is the tiniest part of a global catastrophe.” And in this way we can also register the final, missing possibility of “a part song”: to be—after parting, apartness, playing a part, and partiality—a part of.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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