Katharine Towers on ‘Another Agony in the Garden’ by Denise Riley

Moth-103-yercaud-salem-IndiaCan suffering be(come) humdrum? This is the thought that somehow hovers inside the title of Denise Riley’s poem – “just another” barely concealed beneath its surface. And look across to the left-hand page. The previous poem has a title that’s a question disguised as a statement (or vice versa). ‘How does anyone get over these things’ we are asked or told. It seems possible that “these things” and “another agony” are two sides of the same coin; same old, same old…

I can never read Denise Riley without thinking of the Bible. Or rather, without feeling that I might actually be in it. It’s the poems’ sober measuring of cost and pain – their refusal to be fazed by what they find they have to say – that makes them so unarguable and urgent. If someone reads aloud from the Bible you’re not inclined to demur.

Riley’s diction in this poem, as elsewhere, is both elevated (“twin comics of divine fortitude”, “powdery solitude”) and demotic (“snap verdict”, “proper gratitude”). Sometimes it’s just plain ordinary. But when we come to “broad daylight” we don’t feel as if we’ve ever heard those two words together before.

Look at ‘Another Agony’ on the page and you’ll see a set of longish, double-spaced sentences. Double-spacing is definitely curious. Why would a text be laid out like this? A report might be, to make it easier to digest. And this poem takes some digesting. Or a piece of schoolwork might be, so a teacher can make handwritten corrections. Is there space for a correcting/countering voice between the lines? There’s certainly (self-)admonishment a-plenty in the poem. Or perhaps the spaces are to leave room for an echo.

The poem looks squarish, somewhat adamantine. It could so easily be in tercets (there are 21 lines) but dignifying this subject with elegance is not what Riley is after. Shoot down one line and up rises the next. There’s no respite, no shirking.

An a,b,c, rhyme runs all the way through – plenty of full rhymes and some that are barely halves (gratitude/wood). She can do it with ease but sometimes she chooses not to. These rhymes carry us onward but also make us feel stuck, even slightly queasy.

In the first three lines it is “harshness” that is the subject of all the verbs, harshness that’s doing the adoring, glorying, patrolling and guarding. As if the lunatic has taken over the asylum. The opening line is difficult; it carries echoes of things I understand – “close to the bone”, a face “softening” into a smile. If something is close to the bone, it’s painful because it’s uncomfortably true. So this face might be harsh because it doesn’t disguise what lies beneath its flesh – the bony underpinning that is impassive and ruthless.

As the poem moves forward we come upon a series of indefinite nouns: a human face, a fox that strolls, a child who knows, an ear that’s cocked – until we get to the friends and the blundering moth who keep company with the “I” at the end. These indefinite figures seem remote and a bit random. They are the subject of bald and often painful statements. W.S. Graham might have made them symbols, but they don’t seem to be that here. They are real but also exemplary. We feel as if the speaker might actually know them.

The cocked ear brings us to another conundrum in being:

[…] attuned to His rasping egrets, twin comics of divine fortitude.

The two egrets seem to belong to God because of the capital letter, as if the poem is referring to some ancient symbol. It’s assumed we understand but it’s also likely that this is another of the poem’s disguises.

Later (and I think this is what I mean about being in the Bible) there are more lines that startle:

The moth that trembles in the night blunders around to find her clone.

Her tiny shuddering engagements will chafe away to powdery solitude.

There is something statuesque in these lines – all the more so for coming hot on the heels of the segue into the everyday with the chatty jaggedness of the friends’ teasing. “You knew how to pick ’em alright”. This jibe allows in an “I” who refutes. Then there’s another of those questions-as-statements:

Am I, thanks to that feeling, a source of a darkness my best efforts prolong.

This could be called the poem’s most excruciating moment – one that takes us back to the gnawing fox. As before, the cliché of “best efforts” feels as good as new. If there isn’t an answer it’s because there isn’t a question – which is what leaves the idea to sit, insidious and blunt.

Under such conditions it seems almost churlish to ask what the poem is about – in the way that one wouldn’t normally wonder about the subject of a symphony. Perhaps we should be thinking more in terms of a state of mind or of being (the black bile of melancholy perhaps) or a state of the heart.

We’re glad that the poem ends as ruggedly and knottily as it began:

Discarded persons pummel their exasperating ‘shame/blame’ singsong.

There’s again something strange about the verb/subject relationship. For a start, the choice of verb is so odd – how can a singsong/refrain be “pummelled”? It would be easier to understand if the singsong were doing the pummelling: we might infer that it is unbearably insistent. And who are the “discarded persons” (if not the aforementioned teasing friends?)

But all this is surely one of the many fine achievements of the poem – not to clarify but to abide in painful uncertainty and unknowing. There isn’t any resolution; “these things” won’t let up or go away or explain themselves. They sit on the page as baldly and painfully as they sit in the mind, like an animal that has been run over and left on the road.

Denise Riley’s poem ‘Another Agony in the Garden‘, first published in the Spring 2019 issue of The Poetry Review, Vol. 109, No. 1, can also be read online.