Say Something Back, Denise Riley, Picador, May 2016, pp. 96, £9.99 (Paperback)
Commotion of the Birds, John Ashberry, Carcanet, November 2016, pp. 128, £9.99 (Paperback)
As many reviewers have pointed out, Say Something Back revolves around the death of Denise Riley’s adult son, and the long elegy ‘A Part Song’, included here, has been justifiably celebrated since its first publication in 2014. But although her book is certainly a work of mourning, Riley’s poems, by turn tender, astringent, quizzical and mysterious, range much more widely than that. Bereavement is central, but catalyses reflection on nature, hope and language itself. A good example is the short first poem, ‘Maybe; Maybe Not’:
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, yet to this day squat tender under hooves for kindness where fetlocks stream with mud - shall I never get it clear, down in the soily waters.
Here Riley explores the relation between the human and inhuman worlds in a way that goes beyond the personal, indeed attempt to escape it. This might seem an odd thing for a lyric poem to do, and these are for the most part unashamedly lyrical poems. Yet Riley takes the English lyric’s values of brevity, musicality and intimacy and filters them through a bracing scepticism about selfhood and identity to produce a powerful blend of the contemporary and the traditional.
In ‘Maybe: Maybe Not’ the urge to both assert and abandon the lyric self is evident in the search for ‘kindness’, a term that the poem makes work pretty hard. There is of course the regular sense of an appeal for care and affection. But there is also the search for kindness in the sense of likeness, of identity: a desire to actually become the kind of thing that a bird, a clod, a stone is, as the speaker was able to do as a child. To put away childish things, as the Bible exhorts us to, in favour of the lustrous, is to forgo the world, transforming its objects into the sheen or gloss of mere images. Riley wants more than that.
At times this accommodation with the world’s sheer, sensual presence seems to offset or counter the absence of the beloved: ‘things in themselves/ do hold - a pot, a jug, a jar ... things that sit there with you’ as ‘Lines starting with La Rochefoucauld’ has it. The poem ends ‘Your will to hope quickens in their muteness’. A similar appeal to the stillness, silence and serenity of the object-world emerges in ‘I Admit the Briar’ with the claim that ‘The fuller world’s not cruel to me/ more like indifferent// I am that world.’
At other times the self seems invaded by the inorganic. In a recent essay Riley explored the effects of bereavement on temporality, describing the way in which time is experienced during mourning as arrested or frozen. The book returns to such affects constantly, especially through images of ice and stone. There seems to be an affinity between such subtractions from time’s flow and the ability to commune with, find succour in, the abiding, silent, physical presence of everyday things. In other words death and mourning seem to both open the speaker of these poems to the world of things, and threaten to mortify her, to turn her into a thing. The two tendencies seem inextricable in the book.
Yet ultimately the experience of bereavement enables a rejuvenated relationship with language and its strange, playful powers. The last line of ‘Listening for Lost People’ reads ‘The souls of the dead are the spirit of language/ you hear them alight inside that spoken thought’. The same idea is picked up again in one of the book’s most intriguing and memorable poems, one strongly reminsicent of Emily Dickinson in its form, ‘Death
makes Dead Metaphor Revive’. In this poem, very late in the collection, the absence of the dead grants access to language’s Orphic powers, and as a result time that had been ‘felt as stopped’ starts up again. It does so however in the back and forth, the echoing responsiveness of rhyme, rather than in any conventionally linear sense.
‘What shall I do with this absurdity— O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature, Decrepit age that has been tied to me As to a dog’s tail?’ So writes Yeats in The Tower, seeing age as a nasty, bitter, stupid joke that reduces man to the status of an animal, one that is being mocked and tortured. In Commotion of the Birds John Ashbery, 90 years old, also compares himself to a dog: ‘Very tired, dog-tired’, the speaker complains. It’s a common grumble throughout: in two separate poems we hear that ‘I am sick and tired’, and in another that the speaker is ‘getting old again’. Finally in the excellent ‘Understandably’ we have the question ‘What do you want, John?’ to which the answer comes, as if off-the-record: ‘Informally, a new body’.
And yet despite this curmudgeonly undercurrent what is remarkable about all the poems is the variety, urgency, levity and generosity that they also display. Every moment that anger or resentment flashes across the surface is countered tenfold by abundance and invention. More than that, on closer examination it becomes clear that the exuberance and the anger are inseparable:
Bear with me, bears. The radar committee (woman in bathrobe, man in bad mood) backed down. The chosen honorees arose or are you going up? I don’t sit with smaller operations. The ant farm, tossed on frozen seas - didn’t they have an old pinup of yours? The hairnet (stay away) protects my great big head.
This, again from ‘Understandably’, is typical: the plea to the reader that we ‘bear with’ the poem acknowledges difficulty, but the line is exemplary too
in the way that it allies childrens’ literature ( The Three Bears, The Teddy Bears’ Picnic etc) with the language of finance (the latter is a key discourse throughout the book). This combination of the whimsical and the topical animates the whole passage. Hence while the lines above are full of play - the repeated riffing on two syllable noun doublings (bathrobe, ant farm, pinup, hairnet) for example, or the Cat-in-the-Hat sonics of ‘The chosen honorees arose’, there is also a sustained depiction of a social environment characterised by paranoia, exclusivity, bureaucracy, gender normativity and egotism. In this way throughout the book the content belies the form, Ashbery’s seemingly aimless linguistic play carrying a freight of anger not only at aging, but also at the age in which we live.