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.


Lucy Spring-Rice: Irish Woman Poet

Lucy Spring Rice (1854 – 1884) published two volumes of poems, Sonnets and Other Poems (1872) and Pictures from a Life and other Poems (1884), both under her married name of Knox. ‘Song’ is taken from the former.

O WHITE rose-bud, my rose, my rose!

What is my life to me?

Far off I watched thy sweetness blow;

Longed I not then for thee?

Yet twilight and the reddening dawn,

I would not hasten these,

Nor dry the dew-drops on thy heart

To give mine own more ease.

Thy leaves, too tender for my touch,

He plucked with careless praise;

I saw thee in his breast, and then

Flung loose on dusty ways.

O rose-bud that shall never bloom,

At last, when hope has fled,

I lay thee in the heart that waits

To break till thou art dead

SoundEye 21

Reading at the last ever SoundEye this weekend.

SoundEye Festival of the Arts of the Word

7-9 July 2017
The Guesthouse and Firkin Crane, Shandon, Cork City

SoundEye are pleased to announce the line-up for the final SoundEye festival which will take place in July. It marks the twentieth anniversary of the first festival which took place in 1997 —organised by Catriona Ryan, Matthew Geden and Trevor Joyce—and the 50th anniversary of the founding of New Writers’ Press founded by Trevor and Michael Smith in 1967 (more on the history of the festival here)

All events are free and everyone is welcome.

Friday 7 July

2pm: Guesthouse
Ellen Dillon
Trevor Joyce
Randolph Healy

5pm: Musgrave Theatre, Firkin Crane
Fergal Gaynor
Mark Weiss
Camilla Nelson

7pm: Musgrave Theatre, Firkin Crane
Nat Raha
Maggie O’Sullivan
Peter Gizzi

9.30pm: Venue tbc

Saturday 8 July

12.30pm: Guest House
Dalkey Archive Press Launch
Billy Mills
Sarah Hayden
Nisha Ramayya

5pm: Musgrave Theatre, Firkin Crane
Walt Warriner Cummins and…

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Michael Begnal’s Review of The City Itself

Mike Begnal has posted an excellent, intelligent review of The City Itself on his ever-bm_tci_frontcoverinteresting blog. A few extracts:

an attentive reading quickly reveals that certain overarching themes wend their way throughout: access to housing, humanity’s role(s) in the continuum of the environment, the ephemerality of existence, and language as a material (if imperfect) medium for knowing the world, among others.
Mills as an eco-poet is interested in understanding the ways in which people interact with, think about, and live within the environment.
It is a subtly absorbing reading experience, and as a collection it exemplifies some of the author’s familiar poetic strategies (if indeed you are familiar with his work), while perhaps looking forward to even further “synergies” and “mixtures.”

Ellen Mary Clerke: Irish Woman Poet

Ellen Mary Clerkeplaque (1840-1906) was born in Skibbereen and died in London. Her sister Agnes Mary was a leading astronomer and non-fiction author, and Ellen Mary was a polymath herself, writing popular science titles, poetry, translations from the Italian, and articles in German and Arabic. A devout Catholic, ‘THE BUILDING AND PINNACLE OF THE TEMPLE’ was published in 1902 in Carmina Mariana; an English anthology in verse in honour of or in relation to the Blessed Virgin Mary edited by Orby Shipley.

Not made with hands, its walls began to climb

From roots in Life’s foundations deeply set,

Far down amid primeval forms, where yet

Creation’s Finger seemed to grope in slime.
Yet not in vain passed those first-born of Time,

Since each some presage gave of structure met

In higher types, lest these the bond forget

That links Earth’s latest to the fore-world’s prime.

And living stone on living stone was laid,

In scale ascending ever, grade on grade,

To that which in its Maker’s eyes seemed good —

The Human Form : and in that shrine of thought,

By the long travail of the ages wrought,

The Temple of the Incarnation stood.
Through all the ages since the primal ray,

Herald of life, first smote the abysmal night

Of elemental Chaos, and the might

Of the Creative Spark informed the clay,
From worm to brute, from brute to man — its way

The Shaping Thought took upward, flight on flight.

By stages which Earth’s loftiest unite

Unto her least, made kin to such as they.

As living link, or prophecy, or type

Of purpose for fulfilment yet unripe,

Each has its niche in the supreme design ;

Converging to one Pinnacle, whereat

Sole stands Creation’s Masterpiece — and that

Which was through her — the Human made Divine.