(Picador, 2016); pbk £9.99
After the success of Denise Riley’s prizewinning elegiac sequence A Part Song, it was with great anticipation that I opened her new collection Say Something Back. As well as being highly regarded as a poet, Riley has also published various academic works of language and Feminist theory. Say Something Back is her first collection since her Selected Poetry in 2000.
“A Part Song” is one of the longer sequences included here and despite appearing early in the collection, it easily becomes its focal point. Broken into 20 sections, “A Part Song” delves into the poet’s personal grief after the death of her adult son in 2008. By allowing the reader to enter her shattered world after this tragedy, the poetic voice within the sequence is strikingly different from the poet’s usual depersonalised “I”. Yet it does not feel overly confessional. Perhaps because of the inevitable nature of death, I felt Riley’s voice encouraged me to take part in her mourning.
Her changing registers and tone speak clearly of the mixture of the everyday and perhaps more heightened emotions that death leaves in its wake. The words: “Oh my dead son you daft bugger” both contrast and complement:
Dead keep me company
That sears like titanium
Compacted in the pale
Blaze of living alone.
Riley’s poetry stands out in her ability to dissect clichés and make them ring true. For instance, the stanza:
It’s not like hearing you live was.
It is what you’re saying in me
Of what is left, gaily affirming.
from section xi of “A Part Song”, communicates that nigh-universal feeling that our departed ones continuing to live within us. Yet it has transformed the potentially clichéd sentiment into a beautiful image of talking and listening, of language and poetry. “A Part Song” is a sequence that should be read many times, especially since so much of it alludes to other great poets and their own works of grieving. Yet these echoes only add strength to Riley’s own unique voice.
The only problem I can find with Say Something Back, should be becoming clear to the reader by this point. I have not yet written about any of the collection’s 43 other poems. I must stress that this is not because the other poems are undeserving of attention, but merely because “A Part Song” is so powerful that it overshadows everything else. I also believe that this same sequence seeps into the rest of the collection; I found myself reading each poem that followed it with “A Part Song” in mind. Certainly there are various other poems focussing on death, such as “Still” and “Listening”, and also not forgetting the final sequence “A gramophone on the subject”, which moves away from the personal and explores loss on a grander scale in the First World War. Yet sandwiched between “A Part Song” and this final sequence are many wonderful lines which deserve to be read without the long shadows. The short poem ‘”I told it not”’:
Tap, in this bland October
that cedar’s ripening cones
piped pinkish green along
its lower branches, tap until
their pollen spills to writhe
in bright lime powder coils.
This frankly panto jealousy
Makes it such a lurid tree.
can be appreciated for its playful tempo and intriguing combination of words – a worthy example of Riley’s fascination with the texture of language…nonetheless, I paid it scant attention on my first reading.
Say Something Back contains many great poems, all of which deserve contemplation. Unfortunately the collection’s main thrust, launched so early in the sequence overpowers and imposes its weighty theme over all else. Arguably “A Part Song” should not have been placed in the collection’s midst as it seems that a sequence of its calibre is a collection in its own right.