Denise Riley, Say Something Back, Picador, £9.99, ISBN 9781447270379
Patrick Mackie, The Further Adventures of the Lives of the Saints, CB editions, £8.99, ISBN 9781909585140
Reviewed by Stephen Burt
Back in the 1990s, Denise Riley was a household name for a very select set of households: feminist theorists and historians (the fields in which Riley began) and readers of very challenging contemporary poetry, the kind that kept sense and reference in constant motion, like a pinball, without letting them go down the drain. Riley explained the laws behind that motion in her masterful work of literary theory, The Words of Selves (2000). The same year saw a terrific Selected Poems. Then she seemed to stop publishing verse; when she returned, with ‘A Part Song’ in 2012, many readers were impressed, but none rejoiced, because all twenty parts of that pellucid, scarily insightful work addressed the death of her grown son.
Say Something Back is a kind of sequel to ‘A Part Song’ (which it also includes): when it’s not about losing her son, it takes up other occasions for dejection, bodily pain, or grief – a hospital stay, for example, or the First World War dead. “I can’t quite leave the autopsy room for good”, she complains, with characteristic bleak humour: “I am a gramophone on the subject”. The book offers, not unrelenting, but unrelieved mourning, and like real life, it is not something you should pass up, even when it’s something you’ll have to work to enjoy.
Now as before, few poets seem more reflective. Yet few are now more quotable, pithier, as when she muses that her son, before he died, had already lost (as we all do) his own earlier selves, “The large-eyed boy, then the teen peacock” gone “In the unremarked placid self-devouring / That makes up being alive” (‘A Part Song’). Say Something Back is obviously intellective but also aggressively traditional: there is an ubi sunt lyric (“Where did they get to?”), a frazzled rewrite of Shakespeare’s sonnet 71 (“no welling up after my death in the mouths of the living, / those very few concerned”), eight lines in response to ‘Matty Groves’, nine on ‘Eternal Father, strong to save’: “Hymns ancient / & modern, buoy us up / though I am faithless”. Throughout the book the dead-level, understated, broken-hearted and demotic make their peace with the counter-intuitive and nearly abstruse: it is as if Riley had worked all the way through the storm of poststructuralist critique of voice and lyric and so on and discovered them, after the rain, still standing.
Riley’s new clarity is a late style, the work of a poet who writes for herself, not for us, and who addresses – even wonders whether she belongs among – the dead: “They can wait for you to join them / as soon you will” (‘Oh go away for now’). The same lines trace Riley’s persistent suspicion that poetry, or human language generally, cannot really console or redeem. “Does sifting through damage ease, or enshrine it?” (‘And another thing’); “nothing ever gets learnt. / Some slaps and yet another / Bright blind sunshiny day” (‘They saw you coming’).
Description might not help either, at a deep level, but it does give her something to do. Riley’s powers of thought can lead admirers to overlook her powers of observation, bolstered by an exceptional resistance to cliché: “The fuller leaves are ridged, the newer red. / Sunshine is pooled over them, like lacquer” – thus opens ‘Tree Seen from Bed’. (Can she get out of bed?) “Winds ruck up its skin so the sea tilts from red-blue / to blue-red: into the puckering water go his ashes / who was steadier than these elements” (‘Listening for lost people’). It is as if the minor genres, the minor tasks of depiction, brought her out of what would otherwise resemble catatonia: she tells herself, as she tells a tombstone, “Rocky mute, life’s too serious for this not speaking” (‘Silent did depart’).
When Riley moves away from mourning her son, she describes her illness – in ‘The patient who had no insides’: “There were insides inside me – now they’ve gone all wrong”. In this unsettled mood, “pregnancy” (remembered in herself, observed in others) seems like “watching some unborn other’s heels / Nudging and butting like carp snouts under the navel”. As for herself, today, “That piece of ambient meat I am eats meaty me all up”. Such lines 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, and – considered as made objects, rather than songs – they shine “like titanium / Compacted in the pale / Blaze of living on alone” (‘A Part Song’).
Patrick Mackie also adopts untraditional cadences – in his case, usually ultra-long lines – in a way that might disguise (though not for long) old goals. He is a landscape poet, a poet of the built environment, an aphorist, a localist, a star-gazer, a follower of Edward Thomas in boots refurbished by Fredric Jameson: “Gloucestershire is a wolf or it is a wolf to itself […] Inside itself it would finally tell the hollow truth about Gloucestershire” (‘A Holiday in the Same Place’). Mackie’s long lines feel almost like broken-up prose from elaborate, earnest literary novels. In ‘A Brief and Helpless Treatise on the Subject of the Heart’,
A few stars were nailing some thin clouds to the pale grey sky,
the weak teeth of the ivy whirred in the greyness,
and spoke. But they spoke in a foreign language. We are so
accustomed to so much failure when we attempt
to look into the minds of others that it is
all the more startling and frightening when we
If you love those lines (and I do) you’ll like most of what Mackie does. When he does not take his unities from scenes, he gets them by reacting to older, often European writers: “Mandelstam translated some of my best things into Russian a century or so ago, / and of course this was quite an honour for me” (‘Early Mandelstam’); “Our warmest greetings also to the ghost / of Yannis Ritsos” (‘A Little Statue of Krishna’).
Nobody will mistake Mackie (who published his only other book in 2001) for a Gen Y hipster like Sam Riviere, but there is a latecomer’s insouciance to Mackie’s version of literary tradition. Why not (the poems imply) try on these luminous inheritances, these bright old things, and see whether they fit? The ungainly results can make me wonder whether CB editions laid everything out right: “The people who live on the sun are watching us through telescopes made of flames, / of course, since there is nothing there that is not made of / flames” (‘The People Who Live on the Sun’). Should that second “flames” really be its own one-word line, while the first is an overhang? Maybe: such are the perils of a style so talky, so determinedly and casually contemporary.
“Traffic never seems to know what it is doing”, Mackie quips, “but the truth is that you are part of it” (‘Athena’). We prefer to like things, and to feel that we are part of them, even if we have to do it ironically; we prefer to feel addressed, even obliquely, rather than face one more round of late high modernist attempts to force the reader to participate in the destruction of meaning, and Mackie (like Riviere) has made his peace with that preference, in long takes on landscape and in the masterful faux-naïf full rhymes that comprise four pages of ‘Slide’: “We cried. / Twilight walked up to the city like a vast and sulky bride”; “We cried. / It was hard to tell what was a perfume and what an oddly fragrant spermicide.”
Conceits like this help distinguish Mackie’s poems from one another. The second half of Further Adventures seems to me inferior to the first, because it will not permit such distinctions. It consists of aphorisms (twenty-two pages, collectively called ‘Anthropology’) followed by the title poem (thirteen pages), whose actual saints (Anthony, Kevin and so on), all out of place in modern urban England, are not sufficiently differentiated, though they give encouraging, comic advice: “Throw all your losses in piles at the ground like wet leaves, / drink the day even if it tastes like medicine”; “you may think that you know how repetitive they are going to / be, but they stubbornly find ways of being more so”.
Both these poets reflect on the experience they are having while they are having it; both encourage self-scrutiny. But Mackie speaks to the young and the middle-aged about experience that we have probably had, where Riley speaks from experience that, if we are lucky, we will never have. A poet in Riley’s position perhaps cannot help repeating herself: we may find the repetition instructive, or scary. But a poet who tries, like Mackie, to write amicably about what we have in common cannot give up – and at his best does not give up – on the effort to make each page, each line, do something new.