Say Something Back, by Denise Riley: A Review

Say Something Back, by Denise Riley, Picador, 2016, ISBN: 978144727037, £9.99

[This review was first published in Issue 2 of Eborakon]

When a poet asks ‘what is X for’, they are really asking how can a suitable shape of words be found in which to frame the question. In Say Something Back, Denise Riley ponders the question ‘what is absence for’ and solves the problem of framing the question in song as few others have ever managed. The central absence in question is that of a dead son, and the inquiry is framed in a balanced construction which Riley achieves by (almost) opening and closing the book with two long poems, ‘A Part Song’, on the death of her son, and ‘A gramophone on the subject’, on the death of countless sons in WWI.

I say almost opening, as ‘A Part Song’ is preceded by a short poem called ‘Maybe; maybe not’, a rewrite of 1 Corinthians 13:11 (‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’) which identifies the singer/poet with natural process. Inevitably, the reader is directed to the next Biblical verse, ‘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.’ This verse speaks to one of the core questions that runs through the book; after such absence, what next? The idea of meeting the absent one again after death is examined, hoped for and, ultimately, set to one side.

A Part Song opens with a section that is somewhat modelled on Pound’s ‘Envoi’ to the first part of ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ (itself an echo of a 17th century song by Waller), which immediately addresses Riley’s core problem ‘You principle of song, what are you for now’. Now is, of course, the time after bereavement, but also can be read as referring to contemporary literary culture. Pound instructs his poem to endure; Riley has no such ambition, it seems:

But little song, don’t so instruct yourself
For none are hanging around to hear you.
They have gone bustling or stumbling well away.

And yet. In an interview with Kelvin Corcoran in The Shearsman Review, Riley says that in her career ‘[t]he only constant is a commitment to the thing that is song. This is in some way linked to the persistence of hope.’ This sense of hope relates to the collection’s title, which comes from some lines by W.S. Graham that serve as epigraph to the book. The idea of ‘saying something back’ implies a conversation; the poem says something back to the absence, but the absent one also says something back to the poem. This something is made concrete in the final section of ‘A Part Song’ when the poet gives voice to her dead son:

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

In the same interview, Riley talks about rhyme acting as a ‘guarantor of continuing and perceived time, and of human listening, attuned to that faithfulness of sounding language’. She was specifically referring to the poem ‘Death makes dead metaphor revive’:

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

But the observation relates equally to a number of other poems in the book that use rhyme as an organising force. In ‘A gramophone’, rhyme echoes the contemporary poetry of war, where hope hangs in the balance and where the initial question hangs in the air:

What is it for some name to ‘live’?
It’s lifeless. Set in stone.
Its bearer proved too slight for it.
He’d always been ‘Unknown’.

Throughout the collection, the formal restraints of song, with or without rhyme, provide a sense of emotional restraint, a pattern of emotion expressed, and then drawn back, an exploration of the language to enact this pattern in, that is deeply moving.

Still looking for lost people – look unrelentingly.
‘They died’ is not an utterance in the syntax of life
where they belonged, no belong – reanimate them
not minding if the still living turn away, casually.

(Listening for lost people)

The close presence of absence acts, inevitably, as a memento mori, with references to the frailty of the poet/singer woven through the fabric of the book. One particularly telling instance is the poem ‘Tree seen from bed’, which opens as a close observation of the movement of the crown of a tree in sun and wind. This leads to a realisation of the unavoidable fall of autumn, before turning in on the invalid observer:

Tree watched from my sickbed, read to me.
Read from the hymnal of frank life – of how
to be old, yet never rehearse that factor cosily.

One starting point for this poem would appear to be Paul Verlaine’s ‘Le ciel est par-dessus le toit’, and like the Verlaine, the poem is both a premonition of death and a lament for the poet’s lost youth, in both available senses. But still the song carries hope with it; if we can learn to be old we can learn to reconcile ourselves to the consequences. And in the end, the shape words can make of the question is the tentative curve of hope:

Hope is an inconsistent joy
Yet blazes to renew
Its lambent resurrections of
Those gone ahead of you.

Denise Riley is among the most consistently interesting British poets of our time, and Say Something Back is a major achievement. These quiet, insistent, singing poems engage with one of the most fundamental questions of human existence in a way that neither simplifies nor obscures its complexity. Neither do they offer simple solutions where none exist. They do, however, offer the possibility of hope, the hope that the absence may just say something back.