In Riley’s hands, paradox is less the stuff of showy metaphysical conundrums than akin to a Penelope weaving and unravelling the fabric of her thought. Riley’s work contains, as Andrea Brady has noted, many passages that ‘oscillate dramatically between assertion and retraction’, a self-negating dynamic visible in her very definition of lyric:
Stammering it fights to get held and to never get held
as whatever motors it swells to hammer itself out on me (‘Lyric’)
This ‘[s]tammering’ lyric impulse surges and retreats, at once desperate for the tactile intimacy of embrace and shying from its grasp. However, the romantic lyric voice here is not the index of a longing subjectivity, but is more like an automatic product of pulse and cadence, as ‘whatever motors it swells’ underlines. Riley’s invocation of this motorized thrum recalls ‘When It’s Time to Go’, a poem that similarly disclaims lyric inwardness: ‘No this isn’t me, it’s just my motor running’. What strikes me latterly about the opening lines of ‘Lyric’ is Riley’s use of the auxiliary verb ‘get’, its brunt revelling in the demotic: ‘No, nothing ever gets learnt’ (‘They saw you coming’). In Riley’s poems this auxiliary ‘get’ serves almost to negotiate a middle way between the active and passive voices, strenuous even as it capitulates. In the essay ‘“A Voice Without a Mouth”: Inner Speech’ (2004), Riley considered the phenomenon of the inner voice in terms highly suggestive for approaching the shifting voices embedded in her poems:
For inner speech is no limpid stream of consciousness, crystalline from its uncontaminated source in Mind, but a sludgy thing, thickened with reiterated quotation, choked with the rubble of the overheard, […] the embarrassing detritus of advertising, archaic injunctions from hymns, and the pastel snatches of old song lyrics.
Indeed, some of the poems are explicitly attributed to this mouthless inner voice. ‘Affections of the Ear’ is a monologue ‘spoken’ by Ovid’s Echo. The divinely authored speech impediment that left her capable only of ironic iteration means the poem is transposed into a mental key: ‘My inward ears will jam wide open to internal words that overlying verbiage can’t smother’. In a similar vein, ‘Wherever You Are, Be Somewhere Else’ figures its Echo-like speaker as ‘a million surfaces without a tongue and I have never wanted / “a voice” anyway, nor got it’. Riley’s concept of ‘inner speech’ as a sort of linguistic unconscious troubles the boundary between self and other, individual and collective, making it ‘conceivable that the unconscious is better imagined not as a deep pouch of self, but as something outside of it, and hanging between people.’
It is often noted that Riley’s poems are insistently multivocal, one voice bleeding into another in a way that suggests both music and abstract painting: ‘pastel snatches of old song lyrics’, as her essay puts it. ‘Lure, 1963’ interweaves two varieties of ekphrasis, splicing 1960s song lyrics into its description of a painting by Gillian Ayres:
Navy near-black cut in with lemon, fruity bright lime green.
I roam around around around around acidic yellows, globe
oranges burning, slashed cream, huge scarlet flowing
anemones, barbaric pink singing, radiant weeping When
will I be loved?
A trace of the artist’s guiding hand, or palette knife, remains at ‘cut in’. This painterly ‘cut’ picks up an idea running throughout Mop Mop Georgette (1993), that artistic creation might simultaneously take the form of an iconoclastic cutting. ‘[I]t’s a torn and tattered naturalism,’ Riley explained in an interview with Romana Huk of 1995, ‘It describes a sense of perforation or disintegration […] And it’s a speaker which understands itself to be penetrable and torn, like a sheet of fabric which can be ripped through’ (‘In Conversation with Denise Riley’). That such cutting also has a psychic dimension is suggested by ‘A Misremembered Lyric’:
‘Something’s gotta hold of my heart
tearing my’ soul and my conscience apart
‘A Shortened Set’ opens with the act of surgically cutting into a gendered body, evoking a hazy event Riley has elsewhere identified as a botched abortion:
All the connectives of right recall
have gone askew: I know
a child could have lived, that
my body was cut. This cut…
The ‘connectives’ skewed by this traumatic recall are at once physical tissues in the body and the mental linkages of consecutive thinking. The tears and tatters built into the texture of Riley’s lyric remind me of Georges Didi-Huberman’s attempt, in Devant L’Image (1990), to write a history of a type of painting that incorporates into itself the failure of representation, for which his evocative term is the déchirure, or rend. One of his most powerful examples is the way Gothic painters sometimes portrayed the wound in Christ’s side not by applying threads of red paint, but by using an instrument to cut or scrape at the panel’s gilded surface, revealing its crimson underpainting. This form of representation, which is ‘rent, breached, ruined’ at its centre, opens up internal spaces ‘from which it draws its power, […] the power of the negative’. Pictures made and marred.
Back to ‘Lure, 1963’: its ventriloquized song lyrics further interrupt, cut into, the painting’s surface. In line two, ‘I roam around around around around’ co-opts the refrain of ‘The Wanderer’, the song of the early ’60s by Ernest Maresca. For Zoe Skoulding, the line enacts ‘the wandering of the lyric “I”, dislodged here from an anchoring selfhood.’ The ekphrasis’s neat alternation between visual and sonic begins to break down at ‘barbaric pink singing, radiant weeping’ with its synesthetic blur. Abstract colour takes on an auditory dimension, before jolting once again into what the poem calls ‘Obsessive song’: ‘When / will I be loved?’ The full lyric by the Everly Brothers runs, ‘I’ve been made blue. I’ve been lied to. / When will I be loved?’, revealing Riley’s impishly submerged pun on ‘blue’ as colour and emotional state. As Riley writes in The Words of Selves: Identification, Solidarity, Irony (2000), ‘Perhaps emotionality, too, has its own external quality. It can arrive from the outside’. After a session reading Mop Mop Georgette, I often find myself plagued by earworms that surface, sometimes hours later, to mindlessly circuit my inner ear. On the one hand, Riley’s snatches of popsong feel like the banal and commodified clichés of mass culture. On the other, it’s hard to resist the temptation to hear them as emotive self-revelations, which might lift a veil onto the poem’s ‘true’ and vulnerable speaker. This sense of lyric revelation is of course illusory, being a matter of the listener’s private projections – that is Riley’s point.
Let us return now to the philosophical provocation of Riley’s with which I began, resituating it this time in the surge and ebb of its poem’s uneasy music:
It is called feeling but is its real name thought?
Moons in their spheres are not so bland as these.
A round O says I feel and all agree. (‘A Shortened Set’)
The two following lines complicate the question asked in the first, going so far as to recast it as ‘bland’ cliché. The third line settles into regular pentameter, its rhythm tugged at only by the tidal dilation of ‘O’. The swell of sound and feeling represented by the lyric ‘O’ is always ironic in Riley. Another of her poems breaks into over-egged apostrophe, ‘O great classic cadences of English poetry / We blush to hear thee lie’ (‘When It’s Time to Go’), with its subversive misremembering of ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’. The Christmas carol ‘revs the lyric ‘motors’ rather too insistently. To follow the currents of Riley’s thinking, we need to feel her poems’ variable pulse, the rhythmical underpinnings to their ironical give-and-take.
I want to end with ‘Sorrow alone reveals its constant pulse’, published in the Summer 2014 issue of Poetry London. It is one of only a handful of poems by Riley
to have appeared since 2012’s ‘A Part Song’, her devastating lament for the death of her adult son. This recent poem shows Riley continuing to test the metrical and other musical effects honed in the twenty short lyrics comprising ‘A Part Song’:
A trusted oak deceives a pliant back
coiled into it like a fern shoot aping
an archbishop’s crook, held high as
an emblem of truth paraded through
hazy woods in its veil, to get snapped
off by a beautiful soul’s wild anxiety
pacing around its homemade jail of
catastrophic thought, quit by a slash
clean down to the dear bone. It wills
to twitch its hem aside then motor on.
Let no air now be sung, let no kind air.
‘Sorrow alone reveals its constant pulse’ unfolds in a supple blank verse whose formal music, along with an archaic strain in its diction and word order, casts back to the seventeenth century: ‘Let no air now be sung, let no kind air.’ The sinuous tactility of ‘pliant back’ and ‘fern shoot aping’ recall the flexible ‘hope’ held out by ‘A Part Song’: ‘You principle of song, what are you for now […] Slim as a whippy wire / Shall be your hope, and ultraflexible.’ The poem’s elastic negotiations with the ‘constant pulse’ of abstract metre both reflect on and challenge Donne’s contention that ‘Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce, / For he tames it, that fetters it in verse.’ Combining philosophical and musical enquiry, this is work that shares a kinship with Stevens’ ‘metaphysician in the dark, twanging / An instrument’. Riley’s lyric thinking struggles, as she puts it, to keep its ‘balance on a thin and fragile layer of cadence’ (‘In Conversation’). Such is her embodied principle of song.
Sarah Howe’s first collection, A Loop of Jade (Chatto), is reviewed elsewhere in this issue.
The Connections between Poetry and Science
1189 WordsFeb 16th, 20185 Pages
These key elements can be expressed in many ways just as there are many ways to interpret poetry. While the poet can have a decisive meaning for the poem, the reader can interpret in many different ways that can be and usually are different from what the poet originally meant. In some cases, time can have an impact on what the poem means or how it is read. I know that I get a different meaning and feel from poems I wrote over a year ago than what I remember feeling about them at the time they were written. It is all frames of mind and the emotions behind the poems. For me, as a chemistry major, I make connections between poetry and science. While there are fundamental differences between the two there are many ways that they relate back to each other. My experiences with the language of science and chemistry influence the way I write poetry and the way that I interpret other poetry. As well as the fact that poetry is influencing my science writing and the way that I think about both topics. I have a different frame of reference when I play with language than other people and I think that shows in my poetry. Science, on a molecular level, can be very poetic. Molecules interact with each other to form reactions. And we think about how and in what matter this happens when we design reactions or trying to determine what is taking place in a particular system. The interactions between molecules are very…