Conor Carville

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Se­ri­ous Play

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.

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