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Denise Riley and the force of bereavement.

By Peter Riley.

IN FEBRUARY THIS year the London Review of Books published a set of 20 short poems by Denise Riley called ‘A Part Song’.1 This occasioned some excitement among the cognoscenti, since she had not published a new poem since about 2000 and was thought to have abandoned the activity. Her following has been specially strong among adherents of radical politics and ‘linguistically innovative’ poetry, encouraged by her writings on language and philosophy, though she has been far from an easily categorisable writer. She has been a feminist who criticised feminists for tunnel vision, and a poet who rejected the poetry scenes for their careerism and cultural hysteria. The new sequence is concerned with the death of her adult son in 2008 and maintains this focus in quite normative terms and in a poised and even formal manner, and does not yield readily to expectations either of ideological fodder or literary experiment. At the same time an essay deriving from the same occasion, Time Lived, Without Its Flow, which is clearly a companion piece to the poetry, appeared as a small book.2

The prose book is a careful and circumspect description of a state of ‘arrested time’, a separation from the normal temporal flow, which occupied her experience of bereavement for three years, and which is analysed as a maternal response to the loss of a child, of whatever age. Partly in the form of a diary, it largely avoids technical language and faces the ‘impossible’ task of making this experience known mainly through a discourse of simile – again and again it is ‘as if…’ It is a paradoxical condition, experienced within disbelief, for it is a separation from the normal flow of time while that flow is witnessed busily continuing all around. It is a redoubled solitude, a suspended disbelief, a felt separation from all time-bound processes including language itself, and writing, the very structures of which press forward towards a future which is excluded from the bereaved mother’s comprehension. She avoids any psychological or biochemical discourse of trauma, and makes no attempt to represent the condition in reduced or suspended language (such as sounding like Gertrude Stein) but, being determined to ‘keep it simple’, remains strictly bound to her personal experience as something sharable and explainable.

WHAT IS OFFERED to the reader is the recognition of states of experience which, though not rare, seem not to have been written about,3  but are ‘common enough, and capable of being discussed’. Indeed, although there is no political aspect to her account, such states are perhaps increasingly common in current conditions of widespread technological danger, not to mention the apparently increasing popularity of governance by massacre, which she doesn’t refer to at all. ‘We might reconsider,’ she says, ‘the possibility of a literature of consolation.’

So we have in this small book a complete picture of a human condition brought about by (but perhaps not unique to) a form of bereavement, elegantly and appealingly written, leaving us in no doubt as to its reality and terms of manifestation — you’d think that were enough. But it isn’t, because there is also the poetry, ‘A Part Song’. There are many links across the two works, and the prose is sometimes a useful clarifier, but what I find most engaging about the poetry is its demonstration of its own necessity beyond what prose can perform. Reading the two texts together it becomes obvious that poetry is an extra, a thing not demanded by any rational sense of completion, or any desire for a satisfying depiction or representation of the world or any part of it. Poetry moves the whole thing to somewhere different, a kind of theatre, in which the condition becomes dramatic and fictive, and, whatever its subject, has a duty to be attractive or even entertaining. Instead of calm, connected discussion there are wild monologues, invocations, one-sided dialogues, imaginings and imagings, and there are songs. In poems of four to fourteen lines, some of them sonnet-like, the poet rails against the death imposed upon her, addresses the dead son, remembers, forgets, contemplates suicide, demands that he return home. All this is focused on the one condition of loss but in a range of poetical voices rich in self-detachment, irony and mock elegy, including subsumed quotations from well-known texts (‘She do the bereaved in different voices’) as easily as from sentimental bereavement poems unknown to all but the bereaved. But the intensity also opens into calm realisations reaching beyond the occasion. Number 4:

Each child gets cannibalised by its years.
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. But all at once
Those natural overlaps got cut, then shuffled
Tight in a block, their layers patted square.

Contrariwise, there are passages of address to the dead in a rough-spoken staged language which also recognises the poet’s duty to furnish some kind of entertainment, sitting in fact on the edge of comedy, wobbling to left and right. This from number 7:

O my dead son you daft bugger
This is one glum mum. Come home I tell you
And end this tasteless melodrama – quit
Playing dead at all, by now it’s well beyond
A joke, but your humour never got cruel
Like this. Give over, you indifferent lad,
Take pity on your two bruised sisters….

Always there is a certain detachment, sometimes self-mocking, which operates as a refusal of all the given, easy and evasive modes of lamentation4 and an admission of the absurdity of these attempts to cancel the irrevocable fact. The poetical line normally has a classical feel to it, which will occasionally break out into pentameters, and in one sardonic poem rhyming octosyllabic couplets, just as there is a delving into the literary past for images of after-life and survival which are not believed-in but, as it were, entertained provisionally from within this cocoon of suspended time which also suspends modernity – Penelope and Hades, Orpheus returning from the underworld (explicated fully in Time Lived…), or simply notions of survival and resurrection which are entertained only in the fiction of the poem, or are tried in case they offer comfort.

AND IN THE sequence of pieces all these stylistic and fictive elements gather into a narrative, which is a quest for song, for a song which will unite the two voices, hers and her dead son’s, and release the singers back to reality. A part song is a song for voices as well as a song of apartness or part of a song. Each small poem is an attempt at this song (or, at first, a dismissal of the possibility). The goal is sighted strongly in the very short poem 18 as a song which if achieved will cancel death and at the same time restore modernity:

It’s all a resurrection song.
Would it ever be got right
The dead could rush home
Keen to press their chinos.

But this is clearly too apocalyptic to end the sequence. The introduction of sea imagery over halfway through (we know from Time Lived… that her son’s ashes were poured into the sea) leads through modes of demand and renunciation to the song itself, which finally emerges as poem 20, the final Shakespearean underwater song in which the voice is passed back, and the dead boy sings the answer to all this suspension and yearning:

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.

There is no mysticism here, and neither is there any messing around with the pseudo-sciences of ‘poetics’, neither antiquarianism nor psychologising. It is the poetical sublime enunciating pure fact.


Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former co-editor of The English Intelligencer, the former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Cambridge.

· More ‘Poetry Notes‘ in The Fortnightly Review.


  1. London Review of Books, Vol. 34 no. 4, 9 February 2012, currently only viewable to subscribers, but the author can be heard reading the work on the LRB website.
  2. Capsule Editions, London 2012. 78pp paperback.
  3. Towards the end of Time Lived…, as a factor of emerging from isolation, she seeks and locates her subject in only a handful of poems, by Henry King, Emily Dickinson, Wordsworth and Fanny Howe, plus short excerpts from Don DeLillo and Merleau-Ponty.
  4. Denise Riley (who is, by the way, not related to me) insists that neither the state of mind she describes nor any of the writing about it is ‘mourning’ and neither is it elegy nor lament. I’m inclined to think that it is a form of lament, if only because I recognise formulations with which I’m familiar through my acquaintance with traditional funeral laments in the Balkan regions, where direct address to the dead is common or even obligatory, and will readily involve accusations of unkindness to the family in the act of dying.
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