Essay: Listen Everybody – Maria Johnston on Denise Riley

To hold a true note could be everything
    (‘An Awkward Lyric’)

“It is a book about listening closely (to oneself and others)”, Emily Berry discerns of Time Lived, Without Its Flow (Picador, 2019) on the flyleaf of this new edition of Denise Riley’s riveting essay on maternal loss and arrested time. First published in 2012 by Capsule Press, the essay, written in the aftermath of the sudden death of Riley’s adult son Jacob in 2008, is composed of notes painstakingly etched at intervals (two weeks, one month, five months, and so on) after the event, all of which, as Riley states in a short prefatory section, “can walk around only the rim of this experience”. These are followed by a longer ‘Postscript’ written at a further distance of three years from the time of death that loops back to consider, and communicate in a more studied way, what the poet has “had to learn about living in arrested time”. “I’ll not be writing about death, but about an altered condition of life”, the essay opens as Riley – poet, philosopher, teacher – sets out to harness in language “this curious sense of being pulled right outside of time, as if beached in a clear light”.

“But how could such a striking condition ever be voiced?” Riley enquires. The answer seemed to necessitate two different forms: the direct, prose response that is Time Lived, Without its Flow and what might be termed its oblique, indirect counterpart in poetry, ‘A Part Song’, published first in the London Review of Books in 2012 (accompanied by a podcast of Riley reading the poem) and then as the restive focal-point of Riley’s 2016 collection Say Something Back. Nominated as that collection was for various high-profile poetry prizes, accounts of Riley’s career to date focus on this moment as a defining one which took her from relative obscurity into the light of the poetry mainstream. Her influence on and importance to the brightest poets and critics writing today – one thinks of Frances Leviston, Sarah Howe, Ailbhe Darcy, Leontia Flynn and Berry herself – is increasingly audible and this new edition of Time Lived, Without Its Flow comes to us along with a new and heftier Selected Poems (which presents Say Something Back in its entirety and offers generous selections from Riley’s earlier work). The essay is prefaced with an introduction by Max Porter, author of the acclaimed Grief is the Thing with Feathers (Faber, 2015), who has also taken part in a public conversation with Riley and Emily Berry at the London Review Bookshop.

Another recent interview with Berry for The Poetry Society had Riley remark on how the “tension between exposure and the wish not to be seen at all” is “held especially sharply” by the lyric poem. Reading this new edition of Time Lived, Without its Flow, and tuning in to the publicity and promo-work that goes with its high-profile republication, one might begin to feel that one is getting to know the ‘real’ Denise Riley in an intimate way. As Porter himself notes in his introduction: “her asking is so deftly personal, and so clear, it reminds me […] of my mum”. How then does the private lyric poet take on her own grief in such a public way without coming up against charges of egotism? ‘Let no air now be sung’ is the title of a poem from Riley’s Say Something Back which seems to echo the voice of ‘Music’ in Monteverdi’s Orfeo, and how can one sing one’s own suffering, especially when, as Riley the theorist and philosopher knows, there can be an “ostentatious aspect to self-portrayal”? How can she achieve in poetry the “fragile balance”, as she put it in a 1995 interview, that is: “to use the stuff of your life while refusing to shine as the guiding light of it”?

In order to set the poems of Friedrich Rückert to music to compose his song cycle ‘Kindertotenlieder’ (‘Songs on the Death of Children’) Gustav Mahler explained: “I put myself in the position as though a child of mine had died; when I actually lost my daughter, I could no longer have written the songs.” Riley is a poet who has always been able to inhabit imaginatively conditions of being and of feeling that are not her own and to make her ‘I’ merge with another’s, through keen, empathetic attentiveness. Listening to her perform her revelatory collage poem ‘Letters from Palmer’ (from 1993’s Mop Mop Georgette) recently, I marvelled anew at the way she distills the poem out of letters written by the artist and engraver Samuel Palmer, working isolate phrases in lapidary fashion through a visual and musical technique that sets them at angles to each other, making them catch the light to communicate their truths in a symphonic way. This time round, however, reading it as part of this new Selected Poems, I was brought up short by the phrase “Writhing for the death of my son” – and struck by how we cannot now read or hear these lines – and in particular that italicised word “Writhing”, so close to the word and act of ‘writing’ – without thinking of the death of Riley’s own son and her writing of and through that loss. The original expression in Palmer’s letter is wordier: “What should I do without resources, writhing, as I have been now for three years, in agony for the death of my son, full of promise, and just going to Oxford?” Riley’s edit, cutting away the padding on either side, makes the wrenching admission more forceful and astonishing.

Such a technique chimes with the ways in which Riley’s recent work comprises a rebuke against the kind of ‘Death Lit’ that ends with an exhortation to ‘move on’ (narratives that Riley, speaking at the London Review Bookshop, has deemed “radically misconceived and cruel”). As readers of Palmer’s Life and Letters will know, the artist’s refusal to conform his grief in the years after this son’s death prompted his surviving son, editing his work posthumously, to offer an “explanation” to readers over fears about what would be perceived as his grieving father’s “apparent want of self-control”. Riley’s orchestration of phrases from Palmer’s letters not only releases the latent poetry in his sensitive, tactile and alert observations of the world around him (and his own visionary art has clearly influenced her own), but comprises a necessary humane intervention to become a searing poetic synthesis of what it is to make art in the face of loss and go on attending to the intricacies of light, sub-light and colour that survive intractable difficulty and colourless petrification: “O the playful heave and tumble of lines in the hills here. / We are first green and then grey and then nothing in this world” (‘Letters from Palmer’).

“She’s someone who touches on quite extreme and almost unpalatable emotion, and she is also very good on time, on this strange temporality of emotional states – or on shock, or the fall of the light, or a gesture, it’s often some vivid arrested quality that her writing enacts”, Riley described Emily Dickinson in a 2015 interview, and Kenneth Koch’s description of Dickinson’s poetry as “high explosives hidden in small, neat boxes” could be applied to many of Riley’s poems also. “Vocabularies have been invented to describe her style of thinking”, Helen Vendler has written of Dickinson and the tumults of the mind as well as of the heart are what Riley as poet-philosopher dramatises in her work. Indeed, far from being diminished by death, one feels more than anything in the ‘Postscript’ section of Time Lived, Without its Flow, the life of a mind, probing and muscular, at work. With that forensic alertness that is uniquely hers, Riley contemplates the workings of sound in poetry and the relation between time and language. “For the radical stasis of time, one decisive note is Emily Dickinson’s in about 1864”, Riley elucidates Dickinson’s poem ‘I felt a Cleaving in my Mind –’ attending closely to the word “Sound” (“But Sequence ravelled out of Sound – / Like Balls – upon a Floor –”) and how its “intense resonances” work: “sound is sustained on the ear by its repetition, and by the expectation that another sound will follow on […] if sequence were truly to fall apart from sound, then the hearer could no longer expect any future unrolling, or could [no longer] discern any principle of successive sounding”. For Vendler, Dickinson’s image suggests: “the notes of a musical score which are disarticulating themselves and forming a dissonant heap”. “Words move, music moves / Only in time”, T.S. Eliot intoned, but what happens when time has become suspended for the poet? Unlike narrative prose, “a poem may be carried by oscillation, a to-and-fro, rather than by some forward-leaning chronological drive”, Riley eloquently surmises thereby opening up poetry to “an experience of time that is not linear” and that may perhaps be analogous to the art of song.

In ‘Following Heine’ from Say Something Back Riley reworks Heinrich Heine’s poem ‘Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet’ (‘I cried in a dream’) into an unsparing new form, doing away with the three regular four-line stanzas of the original and compressing it into a shape that, refusing any breath between the lines, makes for a single, unalleviated vocalisation that forbids progress through the repetition of its key motifs (crying, dreaming, waking), and has an immensity of silence pressing in on and around it:

I cried in my sleep as I thought
you were in your grave, I woke but
went on weeping. I dreamt you’d
abandoned me, I woke to cry bitterly.
I slept. In my sleep, I wept as I
dreamt you were still good to me.
I awoke in unrelenting tears.

Of course this poem in Heine’s German (along with others from his ‘Lyrisches Intermezzo’) really began its life when composer Robert Schumann set it to music for his song cycle ‘Dichterliebe’ (‘A Poet’s Love’) in 1840. Universally regarded as the most emotionally intense of the songs with its unusually exposed vocal line, minor sonority and unsettling, dissonant duality between voice and piano, ‘Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet’ is striking for the way that it articulates stasis and silence while also dissolving any clear-cut distinction between dream, memory and reality. Commenting on what it is like to perform Schumann’s ‘Dichterliebe’ the tenor James Gilchrist singles this song out for its gaps and silences: “The score is so full of empty space. It’s really arresting and quite unnerving”. As Charles Rosen has interpreted it: “Future and present are almost unreal: only the past within the present has any force. Illusion and memory act with a power that makes them indistinguishable from reality. The illusion explodes however: the singer cannot finish the song. […] This is perhaps the first piece of music in which empty silence plays a role as great or even greater than that of the notes”. From this account alone one can see how Riley would be drawn to such a cast of mind-out-of-time; as an articulation of the arrested and otherworldly atemporality of grief that eludes narrative rendering, it comes close to perfect.

“I suppose I’ve got an obstinate attachment to musicality (and ‘musicality’ is a vague word, as is ‘cadence’). If I entitle things ‘Lyric’ it’s because the main property that I’ve aimed at in those poems is some musical brightness”, Riley revealed in a 1995 interview with Ramona Huk. However, Riley’s is not empty euphony or a decorative music. Schumann believed music to be the “highest potential of poetry” and Riley’s compelling musicality – stemming from her lifelong interest in hymns and the “harsh musicality” of the border ballad tradition – is what any reader entering her poetry (both its small chamber works and the more expansive concert-hall pieces) will feel most strongly. Indeed, as one reads Selected Poems, one builds an extensive playlist of all of the vocal music that hums within the pages. “And you’re not listening to a word I say”, is the final rebuke (taken from the pop song ‘It’s in His Kiss’) of the gloriously synaesthetic tapestry ‘Lure 1963’ (in Mop Mop Georgette). Crowded with voices, ‘A Misremembered Lyric’ implicates misquoted fragments from ‘Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart’, ‘Rhythm of the Rain’ and the Two Gilberts’ music hall number ‘Do Shrimps Make Good Mothers?’ into its shifting, disconsolate intertextual weave. In ‘Shantung’ we have not only Marvin Gaye asking ‘Can I get a witness’ (his “Listen everybody” misquoted here as “Come on everybody”) but the EastEnders theme song (‘Anyone Can Fall in Love’) as sung by Anita Dobson in her role as the tragic Angie. The track list is endless, making for a dizzying soundscape of voices in performance and haunting layers of clashing intertextual echoes. As Riley has written in an essay on her “unresolved” poem, ‘The Castalian Spring’: “I append my signature sheepishly because I know I am a sounding chamber in poetry, even more so than in prose, since more than the content of the poem is derived”. Like the figure of Echo, lyric poetry is, as Riley has identified, “driven by rhyme, condemned to repetition of the cadences and sound associations of others’ utterances”.

Are all of these misremembered lyrics and dismembered lyrics an attempt at a unique, personal voice or are they a strategy for occluding any autobiographical utterances that might be sourced to the poet herself? What’s interesting is how Riley so often chooses song lyrics from songs that have been recorded over time by many artists, the ‘cover version’ supplementing the original, making these songs the property of many singers or, ultimately, of none. There is no ‘original’ voice left as a range of interpretations co-exist. For instance, ‘Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart’ has been covered by artists including Nick Cave, another innovator of the (murder) ballad tradition, and Robson and Jerome, while ‘The Unquiet Grave’ of the quivering coda of her multivoiced elegy ‘A Part Song’ exists in versions by Joan Baez and Luke Kelly among others. In this endlessly sounding (there is no full stop) extended cadence in which the dead boy, undergoing apotheosis, upholds his own condition of being, I also hear on the “fretful wave” Ralph Vaughan Williams’ part-song ‘Full Fathom Five’ from his ‘Three Shakespeare Songs’. Riley’s use of song is complex and far-reaching. By incorporating song lyrics into her work and passing these human voices in their all-too-human performances through the distortions and amplifications of the poetic process, Riley is adding another layer to the recording history of these songs, composing them into something rich, strange and infinitely variable, but the ghosts of all of these performers, these voices we believe in – whose words and feeling we take to be true at particular points in our lives – linger on there too. Her poetry therefore becomes a vibrant and vibrating texture of voices shimmering through various tricks of tonal and timbral manipulation.

The way that music is used in film must also be of interest to Riley. In the poem ‘Little Eva’ from Say Something Back, lyrics taken from Eva Boyd’s hit song ‘The Loco-Motion’ (as Riley establishes in a note to the poem) appear in animated italics:

Time took your love – now time will take its time.
‘Move on’, you hear, but to what howling emptiness?
The kinder place is closest to your dead
where you lounge in confident no-motion, no thought
of budging. Constant in analytic sorrow, you abide.
It even makes you happy when you’re feeling blue.
Jump up, jump back. Flail on the spot.
I can disprove this ‘moving on’ nostrum.
Do the loco-motion in my living room.

The poem opens with a deadlocked, incontrovertible statement about “time”, that repeats the word (three times) to deadening effect (that mid-line Dickinsonian dash effectively stopping time) like a spell of petrification that calls out to be sung as incantation. That, along with the exhortation to “move on” (already mentioned in relation to Riley’s resistance to simplified narratives of grief as a tabulated process) might bring us back to Eliot’s formulation, but poetic tradition and the moribund poetic dead are soon drowned out by other voices. Although it’s not referenced, there may also be a snatch of the song ‘Girl of Constant Sorrow’ in that line about being “constant in analytic sorrow” as well as a faint echo of the hymn ‘Abide with Me’ as Merleau-Ponty cites Heidegger from Time Lived, Without its Flow: “I am myself time, a time which ‘abides’ and does not flow or change”. Like Schumann with his blue flower, Riley’s synaesthetic imagination is charged by the colour blue – so many of the songs she broadcasts in her own lyrics mention blue as a colour or feeling – and here it is the song and dance ‘The Loco-Motion’ (a 1962 hit for Boyd, since when it has been covered by Kylie Minogue and Atomic Kitten among others) that blasts from the past into the poem’s boxy space with its irresistible call to get up and move like a locomotive.

However, what might seem like nostalgic or ironic reference to a boppy innocuous pop song takes on a deeply unsettling glow when we remember that song and its choreography in the terrifying context of a scene in David Lynch’s 2006 film Inland Empire in which a group of Valley girls do ‘The Loco-Motion’ in the living room of the main character Nikki Grace / Susan Blue (played by Laura Dern) only to then vanish completely, leaving the room howlingly empty as the music cuts and the sequence breaks. The effect is shocking in the extreme as the welcome comfort of a recognisable song and dance number is abruptly pulled away. Described by Roger Ebert as a film that “continually readjusts perceptions of time”, Inland Empire foregrounds discontinuity and the experience of existing out of time not merely through the plot (which defies any realistic narrative logic), but the filming technique itself. Interviewed after the film’s release, Laura Dern constantly employed the phrase “in the moment” to describe the experience of shooting Inland Empire; because of the deliberate absence of a script, such a lack of foreknowledge left her free to be whatever self was in that moment with no sense of futurity. The fact that the film was shot by a single handheld camera intensified the experience and all of this to me resonates with a passage from Time Lived, Without Its Flow in which Riley, noting how “any attempt at descriptive writing soon reaches an impasse […] A life of no time cannot be recounted”, turns to cinema instead for an analogy: “Maybe only the cinema could show it. Not by means of any cinematic plot, certainly, but through the camerawork itself”.

The disorienting, non-linear quality of Lynch’s films seems to me helpful in entering and inhabiting the similarly disconcerting spaces of Riley’s poems, insofar as they allow themselves to be inhabited, but so too is Lynch’s designed use of music in his work and, specifically, his exploitation of the relation between performance and illusion. Who can forget the impact of the scene in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive in which Rebekah Del Rio sings a version of Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’ in Spanish (‘Llorando’) at the Silencio Club in a performance so emotive that it moves the two central characters to tears and to reach out to each other for consolation. The singer’s performance is pure make-believe: that Del Rio is lip-syncing becomes obvious as, just as the song reaches climax, she falls to the floor even as the song keeps playing. This, as it turns out, is a pre-recorded track and only the presence of her body may be taken as ‘real’. But does this make the emotion felt or the experience itself any less real? It means that illusion and artifice are part of art, but it also means, and this is key to Riley’s work, that the relation between singer and song is not at all a matter of straightforward, unmediated autobiography, of personal emotion or experience being expressed in words. Song, in Riley’s poetic manipulations, creates the distance between the ‘I’ of the poem and its audience even as it draws the reader-as-listener in to share in the emotive moment. For a poet whose work so often refers to masks, mascara, make-up and forms of concealment, nothing can be taken at face value, it all happens at the level of the heart and its “atrocious beat”.

“My proffered self is always something of a dislocated ‘I’ – recalling the protagonist of Beckett’s monologue who speaks in stage blackness, her face reduced to a mouthing pair of shrouded lips, her name simply ‘Mouth’”, Riley disclosed in The Words of Selves (2000). Even with the fact of her grief as laid out in Time Lived, Without its Flow, we know that, in Say Something Back as elsewhere we cannot expect any straightforward relation between the ‘I’ of these poems and the ‘I’ of Denise Riley. “She do the bereaved in different voices”, the performer of the staggering elegy ‘A Part Song’ riffs on Eliot at one point, more in tune with Jessye Norman singing all four roles of Schubert’s ‘Der Erlkönig’ than with the ordinary, bereaved mother who sits before an audience in London speaking about loss. The poet is more than one thing, and plays many parts, just as we ourselves are. Truth, varnished, comes to us through shades and silences, through echo and indirection: the composed artifice of poetic form with its endless reverberations, recapitulations, cover versions and versions of recovery, is finally the only frame that we can trust.

Perhaps that, in the end, is why these two books need to exist alongside each other: the prose describes and pinpoints, confident of a readership, of its own futurity, of its potential to console, while the poetry sends us spinning, burns holes in the fabric, hauls the reader in to attend to strophe and catastrophe, doubt and dissonance, as a range of alternating voices sound their own persistent erasure across time and space. “I work to earth my heart” is the ambiguous line from Time Lived, Without its Flow that adorns the back cover of the new edition and, much like Dickinson’s “ravel” and “cleave”, that verb “to earth” can mean a variety of things at once: to bury, to hide or conceal, but also “to connect to reality, to ground in authentic experience”. Ultimately, the disquieting tension between lyre and liar is at the heart of Riley’s flickering vocal arrangements across lines that, though only “made of words” (to quote W.S. Graham), catch us along even as they keep us at bay: that insist on empathy, on the communality of art and on the force of make-believe, that know, as Riley herself has remarked, that “we are human and nothing human is strange to us” and yet that we are strangers to ourselves, here one minute, gone the next. “What we want from a poem is not ultimately a message, a story, a graspable or paraphraseable content of some kind but rather an invitation to listen, and to listen again”, Angela Leighton has opined. With the publication of these two indispensable volumes by Denise Riley – both of which, crucially, also exist in audiobook form – we get to do just that.

Maria Johnston is a poetry critic, lecturer and editor; she is co-editing a collection of essays on Irish women poets for 2020 publication. This review was first published in The Poetry Review, 109:4, Winter 2019. © The Poetry Review and the author.