Full Disclosure: Saw Riley read at the Scottish Poetry Library in May this year.
“The only constant is a commitment to the thing that is song. This is in some way linked to the persistence of hope. Then as I get older this whole business of ‘song’ only becomes still more mysterious. It is a plain bright mystery.” – Riley, interview in Shearsman (2014).
Review: Say Something Back is Riley’s first poetry publication since her Selected in 2000; since then she has been more regularly published as a scholar of language and feminist theory. A great many poems in the new book seem to originate as critical or creative responses to other poets and artists; a cursory glance turns up Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Heinrich Heine, Michelangelo Antonioni, Wallace Stevens, the singers Little Eva and Johnny Nash, the writer of the biblical Proverbs, Yeats, Shelley, Neruda, Wordsworth, Blake. It’s perhaps remarkable that Riley has produced a book of such emotional immediacy and intimacy among the shadows and echoes of other highly revered artists; the overriding presence of so many major works of grieving or solitude may be artistically enabling for Riley, their commitment to song (or something like song) a last redoubt against silence. Perhaps they are part of the book’s ability to literally ‘say something back’. The book’s title and epigram, for example, is from WS Graham’s Implements in their Places’, another site of complicated exchanges of impression/expression:
‘Do not think you have to say
Anything back. But you do
Say something back which I
Hear by the way I speak to you.’
Graham supposes that he understands his companion by the modulations in his own responding voice. The exchange is fulfilled only by its continuation: he speaks to ‘you’, who does not have to say anything back, but does, which he hears in his own speech; in four lines Graham has made a little perpetual motion machine, expression that creates expression, understanding that creates understanding.
1 Corinthians 13:11 reads:
‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.’
It’s a complex little passage, not least in the English translation’s rendering of time; it’s not immediately apparent in verse 12 which is the action of the child, and which the adult, and the latter line about knowing and being known seems a continuation of Graham’s thinking. Here’s how Riley renders those lines in Say Something Back’s 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 under hooves for kindness where
fetlocks stream with mud – shall I never
get it clear, down in the soily waters.’
For a kickoff, this is a wee bit marvellous. It rejects Saint Paul’s neat moral system, literally muddying the waters between innocence and maturity. After reading the rest of the collection, the image of the poet under a horse’s feet, searching for understanding mostly in vain in horse-water feels emblematic of the book’s repeatedly failed attempts at finding solace; the lament or frustration of ‘shall I never / get it clear’ is beautifully ambiguous. Emphasis is as much on ‘repeatedly’ as ‘failed’, however: like Beckett’s Didi and Gogo, part of the book’s emotional power (and Say Something Back made my heart sore like few others have) comes from Riley’s capacity to face one disaster after another and stay standing, stay saying.
A cynic, of course, might read this as a bit of an echo chamber – surely what is said is at least as important as its being said at all. This tension between comprehension-by-expression and outright futility is, I think, at the heart of Riley’s sequence ‘A Part Song’, an elegy for her son. Much has been written on the sequence already, not least in Steph Burt’s excellent piece for Poetry Review; Burt describes how these poems ‘find force by seeking accuracy, and never minding whether they’re awkward: they are like rigorous twelve-tone compositions that, somehow, also work as pop songs you can hum’. It’s an apt comparison: ‘A Part Song’ functions in part by tiny, subtle shifts in tone that simultaneously make it stranger and truer, discordant and real. Riley’s control over these shifts allows her tableaux to run from profound understanding of aging and dying:
‘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.’ (part (iv))
to a tiny, haiku-ish sigh of a thing:
‘Dun blur of this evening’s lurch to
Eventual navy night. Yet another
Night, day, night, over and over.
I so want to join you.’ (part (xiv))
What each of the registers in ‘A Part Song’ have in common is a complete economy of vocabulary. Even when words or phrases are jarring and awkward, they still fit, they do their allotted work. In most poems ‘Dun blur’ and ‘navy night’ would sound overwritten or lacking weight, but here they are part of a broader network of meaning, and in the realm of this section of the poem, counterbalance the blunt force of that last line. Here’s part (ii):
‘What is the first duty of a mother to a child?
At least to keep the wretched thing alive – Band
Of fierce cicadas, stop this shrilling.
My daughter lightly leaves our house.
The thought rears up: fix in your mind this
Maybe final glimpse of her. Yes, lightning could.
I make this note of dread, I register it.
Neither my note nor my critique of it
Will save us one iota. I know it. And.’
This section is characteristic of Riley’s tone and attitude – bleak humour, self-correction, a capacity to confront the horrendous and render it (almost) mundane, to recognise one’s final powerlessness except in one’s continued survival. It documents the grieving mind (heart?) in action, and with heartbreaking economy lays out an entire dramatic arc in the poem’s last four words. I don’t remember anyone writing so little and saying so much. In part (v) the stakes are matter-of-factly life-and-death:
‘A fat-lot-of-good mother with a pointless alibi: ‘I didn’t
Know.’ Yet might there still be some part for me
To play upon this lovely earth? Say. Or
Say No, earth at my inner ear.’
That ‘inner ear’ speaks as much to me of balance as of the imaginary-audible (note the ‘lovely earth’ on one hand and the funereal/burial earth on the other), and the turn between pity and the refusal of pity, solace and the refusal of solace, still makes my stomach drop on third, fourth, fifth reading. These lines read like a private rumination, with all the cruelty and clear-eyedness we reserve only for our own low ebbs, finding our own weak points and pushing down hard.
This reading alone, however, overlooks Riley’s wit and humour, which is no less precisely deployed, and no less legitimate as proof of the genius at work here. The first lines of part (vii), for example: ‘Oh my dead son you daft bugger / This is one glum mum.’ This line-and-a-half feels like a pressure valve being released, a sheaf of drafts being torn, the poet throwing up her hands and summarising her project as glibly and reductively as possible. There’s a kind of delight behind their dull thump. The book is full of these moments, as the poet unweaves literary mystique and renders her own writing/grieving as ‘idiocy – this banging on and on / Against such shiny crimson unresponse’, ‘my prancing and writhing in a dozen / Mawkish modes of reedy piping’, ‘where next could this call turn, massing and purpling as low thunder, though just / whiny to stopped ears’. It reminds me of Sophie Mayer’s ‘Silence, Singing’, a lyric essay connecting patriarchal attitudes to prayer, grieving and women’s voices, particularly how ‘stopped ears’ respond to the latter. Mayer connects Mary Sidney’s ‘De Profundis Clamavi’, her ‘ernest, vehment, cryeng, prayeng,’ to the cultural devaluing of women’s voices Anne Carson discusses in ‘The Gender of Sound’. In Mayer’s words:
‘no-one likes to hear a woman’s ‘vehment, cryeng’ – which is too often how women’s writing is apprehended. Confessional, over-emotional, nonsensical, hysterical. But Mary Sidney insists that ‘cryeng’ is also ‘prayeng,’ a protestation of the individual relationship with God – or, in a secular sense, the right to speak and be heard.’
Riley seems absolutely in conflict with this cultural impulse to be silent, and her willingness to express the barbs of an internalised critic but lament publicly anyway is a deeply heartening protest. In ‘A Part Song’, Riley does what few male poets ever do in their elegies; not just addressing the form’s prosaic inefficacy at reviving the dead, but questioning her own capacity to honestly turn private mourning into public art with a straight face. By poking holes in her own enterprise she seems to push away from the grand works of mourning of the canon (one poem is titled ‘Oh go away for now’), and hold fast to her own sense of proportion and perspective. However self-mocking or self-negating are Muldoon’s elegiac epics, they remain epics, not least in scale; they retain the ambition of grabbing a reader by the lapels and pointing at how seriously they take their solemn playfulness. Riley’s ‘one glum mum’ is content to wager her ostensible literary skill, to bank on us reading her duff notes as strategically duff. In other words, Riley puts into action the right to cry vehemently and be heard.
Outside of its opening sequence, Say Something Back is a series of short lyrics about loss, with a few commissions/occasional pieces – to my reading ‘The patient who had no insides’ is one of the weaker sections, for example, but maybe does important work in providing breathing space among the denser lyrics. The book doesn’t exactly follow a narrative, and I’m fairly confident that two different readers could pick their favourite half-dozen without their choices overlapping. They are, happily, exceedingly quotable:
‘The souls of the dead are the spirit of language:
you hear them alight inside that spoken thought’ (‘Listening for lost people’)
‘Next you’ll expect me to take you around
introducing some starry goners. So mother
do me proud and hold your white head high.
On earth you tried, try once again in Hades.’ (‘Orphic’)
‘It sits with itself in its arms. Out of
the depth of its shame it starts singing
a hymn of pure shame, surging in the throat.
To hold a true note could be everything.
Getting the hang of itself would undo it.’ (‘An awkward lyric’)
These selections, of course, distort the lines’ meaning by taking them out of their full context. I’m personally drawn to moments where Riley allows herself to be boldly declarative, gothically dramatic, or more openly parabolic; these moments are so powerful, however, because of the sheer struggle to give them voice, and quoting them in part kinda misses the point. I think this might be at the core of the book, the reason why critical opinion (thus far) seems so unreservedly positive; yes, this is a book of mourning, of near-hopelessness, but it’s also a book of survival, of unexpected beauty. Here’s ‘Percy’s Relique; on the Death of John Hall’s Peacock’:
‘Rare! Raoaark! Rare! You were adornment.
You were Brook Mill. Its visitors were yours.
You Shelley to us duller poets, Percy. Flare!
The sudden full-hearted goofiness of celebration is breathtaking. I’m more than aware of my optimistic tendencies, so I’m willing to conceive that this might be a selective reading, but I take the final words of the book as its last word on grief:
‘What to do now is clear, and wordless.
You will bear what can not be borne.’
The poem holds in balance what can and cannot be survived, perhaps lending equal weight to both meanings. Say Something Back bears the unbearable with wit, humour, moments of blazing intellectual strength; whether it was written with this effect in mind is, I suppose, ultimately academic: this is one of the most thoughtful, generous, authentic accounts of grief and its survival I have ever read.
Tl;dr: Say Something Back is extraordinary, a book of real significance that I can’t recommend enough.
Further Reading: Interview with Riley in Shearsman
Review by Steph Burt in Poetry Review
‘Silence, Singing’ by Sophie Mayer in The Wolf
PDF of Anne Carson’s essay ‘The Gender of Sound’