Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

"Say something back" by Denise Riley (Picador, 2016)

The back cover blurb begins with "Say Something Back will allow readers to see just why the name of Denise Riley has been held in such high regard by her fellow poets for so long" which is, I suppose, another way of saying she's a poet's poet. Over the years she's stuck to her guns, waiting for the audience to come to her, rather than vice versa. Recently she's gained wider attention. I've always found her rather difficult to read - in the way that a poker player is difficult to read. Is she hiding something or bluffing? Is the awkwardness a deliberate diversionary tactic or a tic? And when she suddenly bursts out with something straightforward - even clichéd - is it just an allusion that I haven't registered?

I find her difficult in standard textual ways too. I struggled with the first poem, "Maybe; maybe not", so I looked around for help. I found that 1 Corinthians 13:11 reads: ‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known’. Ah. Peter Riley adds that "The Blake and the Yeats are the most immediately apparent (Blake: “The Clod and the Pebble” in Songs of Experience; Yeats: “Down by the Salley Gardens”)", going on to write "IT IS NOT only by echoing that this piece proclaims its status as poetry, and thus requests a distinct mode of reading. It hovers throughout on the edge of a song-like condition, with the rhythmic evenness of lines 1-2, and a rather bumpy iambic couplet in lines 3-4. But in the rather strange figures of lines 5-6 it seems that a claimed attachment to song-poetry is followed by a claimed freedom from it. Those lines could be seen as attachments to a more modern poetical texture, marked by unexpected, and contracted figurations, here of hooves in mud, which is plain enough, but “squat under” is more or less impossible to envisage, and “for kindness” is very summary. This is where awkwardness intrudes itself into this song".

This is helpful. I had detected the awkwardness but hadn't got much further than that. Peter Riley develops his argument - "Lyric cannot at the same time be direct transmission of the author’s own “thoughts and sentiments”, and the highly impersonal work involved in close attention to the formalities, the metrical and phonetic events involved in fitting words to music or assuring a recognisably song-like writing. It seems more likely that lyric is not a kind of poetry at all, but a poetical technique. The purpose of the technique is to create an illusion of song. ... AND WHY SHOULD you want to do that? Song (actual, sung song) is collective. It is sent out into the world in search of auditors and to form or confirm a body of felt mutuality. It is this whether it is social song or art song or graveside lament or “Ta-ra-ra Boom-dee-ay” or whatever."

She employs techniques that the content critiques or disrupts. When she uses song and rhyme she wants us to know that she's knowingly, consciously using these tricks - one 5-liner is called "An awkward lyric". This is particularly evident in ‘Death makes dead metaphor revive’, which several people have commented upon.

  • Denise Riley says in an interview that it's "‘a curious piece in that it’s so consciously thought-saturated, its thought was willed and imposed by its writer, and it sets down these thoughts quite baldly. The thinking in it might have lived instead as prose; ... The speculation in ‘Death makes dead metaphor revive’ is, as you can see, about rhyme’s own relation to temporality, and how this links to that feeling of ‘time stopped’ that you might inhabit after someone’s unexpected death. Whereas rhyme, both anticipated and recurring, acts as a guarantor of continuing and perceived time, and of human listening, attuned to that faithfulness of sounding language. Also, I wrote it ... with an eye to the kind of affect that rises up from Isaac Watts’ boxy hymn quatrains. I was wondering about the ‘automated’ nature of the feeling that can shine through rhyme. I’m struck by rhyme’s capacity to lend its mechanical aspects to feeling. For it to exist as feeling. There’s an impersonality in rhyme that’s, in the same breath, deeply personal. ".
  • It was a Guardian poem of the month - Carol Rumens wrote that "The notion of echo is at first bitterly, hollowly comic (“I parrot”, “clowns around”, “punning repartee”) but later seems productive. It evolves into rhyme"
  • Ange Mlinko wrote that the poem "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"

Throughout the book there are many stanzas (e.g "Over bristling plains/ By six municipalities/ Eagerly I'll bounce/ Into a thronged arcade" - p.15) and whole poems ("Pythian" for example) I don't get. The long poem (or sequence) "A Part Song" has deservedly attracted attention. I like it, though I still stumble on details. One of my favourite parts is (xiii) where the persona is flat on a cliff, inching towards its edge. The sea is "chopped-up", not choppy. The poem ends with

Pressed round my fingertips are spikes
And papery calyx frills of fading thrift
That men call sea pinks - so I can take
A studied joy in natural separateness.
And I shan't fabricate some nodding:
'She's off again somewhere, a good sign.
By now, she must have got over it.'

As an end to a narrative poem this makes sense to me, though I have a few queries

  • Is the italicised text a quote? Is it gender-focused?
  • I've heard of "take pleasure in" but not "take joy in".
  • I don't get the "nodding" line - nodding off? (sleep); pretending to agree with?

From part (ii) David Coates quotes "... I make this note of dread, I register it./ Neither my note nor my critique of it/ Will save us one iota. I know it. And.", saying that it's "characteristic of Riley’s tone and attitude – bleak humour, self-correction, a capacity to confront the horrendous and render it (almost) mundane, to recognise one’s final powerlessness except in one’s continued survival. It documents the grieving mind (heart?) in action, and with heartbreaking economy lays out an entire dramatic arc in the poem’s last four words. I don’t remember anyone writing so little and saying so much."

Well, the show must go on ("I can't go on. I'll go on" - Beckett; "After great pain a formal feeling comes" - Dickinson). To over-simplify, a common theme in her work is that language is inadequate. This is followed up by a variation of "I know it. And."; e.g.

  • but it's all I've got
  • but actually, it works
  • but I'll pretend it works

Sometimes a particular instance of inadequacy is pointed out. Sometimes a success is highlighted. Sometimes the general term language is replaced by another term, introducing new themes -

  • rhyme is inadequate - themes: poetry and technique
  • song is inadequate - themes: beauty and communal behaviour
  • hymn is inadequate - themes: ritual and the sacred (the hollower the words, the more the echoes)

There's a realisation that there must be some utility in these techniques otherwise they wouldn't have survived this long.

In essays, there would be quotes to support the assertions. In these poems there are quotes and allusions. The poem itself can serve as an example, along the lines of "language is inadequate - see?". To increase the distance between the intent and the execution, one option is to strengthen the intent (e.g. talk about life and love rather than some aesthetic nuance) and formalize the execution - make it sound more hollow or clichéd.

Doubt can be expressed about a term by putting quote-marks around it. Alternatively, quote-marks can be put around others' words. If one can't feel proud to say I love you right out loud, at least one can feel pride in showing how words lied. However, I wonder sometimes why we need to be reminded so often about the inadequacy of language. Sometimes I feel a mite offended that the poet thinks I'm naive enough to trust the word love, or beauty, or being. Or poem come to that.

In "The Dark Horse" Gerry Cambridge wrote "As I have got older, my taste both in reading poems and in what I aspire to write myself has tended away from the ludic towards a poetry stripped bare, even when written in persona, of affectation: a simplified writing of plain statement, but a simplicity achieved having passed through complexity, not halting before it" (p.131). I think that there's always a place for the ludic even if one regains a trust in simplicity, but even so, it needn't be used all the time. Surely we're sufficiently post-lyrical by now that we needn't apologise for, or undercut, each rhyme or lyric we write.

That said, I think she more frequently than before wields poetic phrases ("days tighten round each/ other as the hours weaken" - p.31), though there are puzzles, especially with endings -

  • A short poem ends with "Hymns ancient/ & modern, buoy us up/ though I am faithless" (p.26). Note the effect of the comma, and the punning "buoy" but even so, it's not a punchline that justifies the poem.

  • "All hindsight shakes itself out vigorously like a wet dog" - is that adverb worth it?
  • "The souls of the dead are the spirit of language:/ you hear them alight inside that spoken thought" (p.32). I think the spoken thought is 'They died', but it sounds like a lame ending to me
  • A poem's entitled A man 'was stood' there - what are those quote-marks about?
  • A reader's response to "Cardiomyopathy" may well depend on how much they know about the sudden death of Riley's son. It could be viewed as a standard flesh vs spirit piece taken to an extreme - "Unlovely meaty thing ... But it can be a pump that cells itself ... I'm sounding too forensic? - but you'll go on with your dead, go as far as you can; that's why my imagination wouldn't wait outside the morgue, but burst in ... his too-big heart got flopped down on a metal tray ... I can't quite leave the autopsy room for good. ... There is heart failure, and however well we mean, the failure's mutual; the worse loss is yours.". Given the immensity of a mother's loss, it may be hard to imagine a greater loss. That final phrase points out that there is, but I'm not convinced.

'A Gramophone on the Subject' was a commissioned piece written about the 1914-1918 war. The subject fits with with earlier pieces - "I never could grasp human absence./ It always escaped me, the real name// of this unfathomable simplest thing./ It's his hands I remember the most" (p.70). It has 2 pages of notes, some of them more than factual - e.g. "A notes on post war aesthetic isolation, as if by some 'modernist' writer" (note those quote-marks again). The other poems could have done with more notes. I noticed that something like "She do the bereaved in different voices" (p.14) was said by Eliot who got it from someone else, but I've missed a lot elsewhere.

Other reviews

  • Kate Kellaway
  • Dave Coates (A great many poems in the new book seem to originate as critical or creative responses to other poets and artists; ... Outside of its opening sequence, Say Something Back is a series of short lyrics about loss, with a few commissions/occasional pieces – to my reading ‘The patient who had no insides’ is one of the weaker sections ... I’m personally drawn to moments where Riley allows herself to be boldly declarative, gothically dramatic, or more openly parabolic ... I’m fairly confident that two different readers could pick their favourite half-dozen without their choices overlapping)
  • Stephen Burt (Throughout the book the dead-level, understated, broken-hearted and demotic make their peace with the counter-intuitive and nearly abstruse: it is as if Riley had worked all the way through the storm of poststructuralist critique of voice and lyric and so on and discovered them, after the rain, still standing. ... [these poems] find force by seeking accuracy, and never minding whether they’re awkward: they are like rigorous twelve-tone compositions that, somehow, also work as pop songs you can hum)
  • Peter Riley (I am particularly nagged by a number of short poems in the book which I am unable to get my head round, and cannot recognise their subjects or the degrees of figuration or the final message of the various factors)
  • Ange Mlinko (Riley’s titular pun is on “apart” - partialness, partiality, and parts in a play. ...  Form is finally achieved in the last part, spoken in the italicized voice of the dead and evoking The Tempest’s “Full fathom five” ...  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.” )
  • Alice Troy-Donovan

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