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Where do I put myself, if public life’s destroyed? On reading Denise Riley

How do you read someone who doesn’t always want to be read? This is a question I used to ask myself when I was reading the poetry and prose of Denise Riley. Immediately, I want to rewrite that sentence, and I have done many times while composing this difficult essay. One of the problems of writing about Riley, a thinker so intensely committed to interrogating and destabilising the relationship between language and identity, is that you immediately feel yourself to be misrepresenting her if you try and say something plainly, if you try and deal in absolutes. Born in Carlisle in 1948, Riley — currently A.D. White Professor-at-large at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY — has been a prolific poet, philosopher, essayist and teacher since the 1970s (her first collection MARXISM FOR INFANTS came out in 1977). But until recently it’s fair to say that, for the most part, her poetry had a small, committed following, and her theoretical and philosophical writing was recognised mostly within the academy. Indeed, after her SELECTED POEMS came out with Reality Street in 2000, it seemed that Riley intended to stop publishing poetry altogether.

 

Over the past eight years, however, things have changed. In 2012, she published a new poem, ‘A Part Song’, in the London Review of Books, which went on to win the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. A collection, SAY SOMETHING BACK, was published by Picador, the literary imprint of publishing giant Pan Macmillan, in 2016, and was duly shortlisted for Best Collection, a prize that traditionally favours large publishing houses. Correspondingly, her prominence in the broader literary establishment has increased: at the end of last year there was a petition circulating that decried her ageist exclusion from contesting the recent election for the prestigious Oxford Professor of Poetry position. Recently, Picador has produced a new SELECTED POEMS and an updated edition of the essay TIME LIVED, WITHOUT ITS FLOW, which was first published by Edmund Hardy and James Wilkes’s Capsule Editions in 2012.

 

It is strange to see Riley advertised in bookshop windows, gushed over on literary Twitter: not because her work isn’t deserving of praise, but because it existed for so long on the outskirts of these mechanisms of industry. A crucial aspect of this existence at the limits of the market is the fact that Riley’s work — both in its composition and its publication — has long been embedded in radical socialist-feminist politics and organisation. Although the growth in circulation and accessibility of Riley’s work can certainly be celebrated as a way of increasing its political valence, it’s wise to stay alert to the softening effect large institutions — literary and otherwise — can have on the sharp edges of the text. When a writer like Riley emerges into a new public prominence, particularly if that prominence includes a new Selected Poems, their back catalogue gets read in a new context — or, rather, without its context. I want to think, here, about the continuities between Riley’s older and newer writing. In keeping a place for the explicitly political context of her poetry, we can better understand the work her newly public language is seeking to accomplish.

 

In one crucial sense, the increased visibility of Riley’s work feels like a contextual shift. Grief, the subject of TIME LIVED and of many of Riley’s poems since 2012, has its own urgent accessibility, a way of making otherwise difficult or intimidating work seem easy in comparison to the task of simply going on for another day. TIME LIVED, WITHOUT ITS FLOW is a text that documents the aftermath of the sudden death of her son, Jacob: it is a reluctant autobiographical account, ‘set down at the time at infrequent intervals, in the order that I lived it’. Riley’s longstanding theoretical interest in the difficulty of truly saying what you mean — in the impossibility of articulation — is pushed in this essay to a new limit of intimacy, as this loss simultaneously absorbs everything else into its new reality and stubbornly refuses any understanding: ‘More limp puns abound. You conceived the child, but you can’t conceive of its death’. In 2012, the essay was published more or less simultaneously with ‘A Part Song’, an elegiac sequence of twelve poems of varying length whose speaker oscillates between addressing their lost child, the reader, and themselves. Both texts are attempts to express linguistically the experience of being a grieving mother — something for which, Riley points out, there is no specific term, unlike ‘orphan’ or ‘widow’ — and the ethical questions that complicate this need for expression. On the one hand, Riley understands the urgency of her personal need to write, and of the help such work can provide for those seeking consolation: ‘Wherever is this literature — for it must exist, it’s needed?’ Yet on the other hand, there is a sense within Riley’s work that to create, to produce anything from such enormous loss becomes a kind of ethical transgression, an act of desecration, or the appropriation of a dead voice: ‘You principle of song, what are you for now?’

 

The title, TIME LIVED, WITHOUT ITS FLOW, refers to the ‘a-temporality’ of bereavement: a state of ‘arrested time’, in which grief — and the specific reversal of the expected chronology that comes with the death of a child in the West, experienced by a parent — removes you from what you have previously understood as time. The essay seeks to manoeuvre its way out of this impasse: ‘You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity.’ Riley confronts death as a kind of paradox of knowledge: ‘dead’, she writes, is the wrong word, preferring instead to say that he ‘vanished’ or ‘disappeared’. Accepting the finality of death, she implies, would be tantamount to abandoning him. There’s a tension here between the refusal to accept that the loved person has gone and the way the unbearable finality of grief curtails the life of the surviving: ‘The plainest simplest horror from which the mind flinches away: never to see that person again. The purely cognitive violence of it’. Yet cognition itself can’t be relied upon, as time once again refuses to conform to expectations: ‘Apparently almost half a year has gone by since J disappeared, and it could be five minutes or half a century, I don’t know which […] Knowing and also not knowing that he’s dead. Or I “know” it, but privately I can’t feel it to be so’.

 

The essay and the poem encircle and address each other, like all Riley’s verse and prose: read together — read chronologically — the works feel like a move towards a way of embracing the subjectivity of knowledge — the difficulty of language — as something that can create a space for genuine communality: a way of sharing experience that cannot be shared. Grief reveals knowledge to be an unstable concept, a state of subjective fluctuation rooted in overwhelming pain:

 

This knowing and not knowing is useful, for it allows the truthful richness of all those shades of knowledge and dissenting. Half-realizing while half-doubting, assenting while demurring, conceding while finding it ludicrously implausible — so many distinctions, all of them nicely in play. To characterize such accurate nuances as my ‘denial of his death’ would be off the mark. Yet who is policing my ‘acceptance’ of it?

 

Unsurprisingly, given the current popularity of first-person prose, Riley’s reissued poetry has been somewhat critically neglected in favour of TIME LIVED. In the Guardian, John Self sums up forty years of verse as ‘taut and concise, often enigmatic, but rich enough to give us snow in six words’. Indeed, Self continues to employ an economic metaphor that suggests that all the poems in the volume are in some way related to the death of Riley’s son: ‘The carefully weighted words in these two books are the hard-won results of “a forensic labour”; a small win set against the loss Riley has sustained, but a win all the same.’ This screechingly uncomfortable phrasing is — unknowingly, perhaps — appropriate to much of the conversation that surrounds elegiac writing as a form: poets and theorists alike have long described elegy as the outcome of an uneasy compromise between loss (the grief described) and profit (the production of the text itself). Riley’s text is keenly alive to this paradox: the work, or labour, of the poet becomes the work of delivery and the ‘labour’ of childbirth, inextricable from ‘female biology’ and ‘maternal temporality’. In ‘Nine months after’, Riley writes:

 

Now it’s thirty-nine weeks, the duration of a pregnancy, since he vanished. As if a pregnancy had by now been wound backwards past the point of conception and away into its pre-existence.

 

Is there such a thing as a collective maternal elegiac voice? SAY SOMETHING BACK ends with ‘A gramophone on the subject’, a commissioned sequence that uses extracts from historical records — letters, diaries, memoirs — that record the death toll of WW1. The final section, ‘“He lies somewhere in France”. Somewhere.’ borrows from a diary entry made by Alda, Lady Hoare, during her son’s last leave before he was killed. It begins with a shattering line that feels like an echo of many in TIME LIVED: ‘What can it mean, that someone walks / out of your house then they won’t come / back ever.’ In an event at the London Review Bookshop that marked the launch of TIME LIVED, Riley explained that a primary motivation in reissuing the essay was the possibility of renewed connection with others: in the seven years since the Capsule edition of the text sold out, many people have contacted Riley to ask her for a copy. For Riley, as she put it, the Picador republication may work as a means of combatting the isolation that a sudden death can bring: ‘Family members,’ she said at the event, ‘can be profoundly isolated in their experiences from each other, and that makes it even more important to have a means, if you can, of making common cause with other people.’

 

Common cause with other people, of course, is not an apolitical notion. An interesting aspect of the recent mainstream visibility of Riley’s writing has been seeing such a body of work absorbed, to a certain extent, into a literary culture that — for both commendable ideological and less commendable market-focused reasons — has a vested interest in championing ‘overlooked’ work by women. Inevitably, some of the recent discourse around Riley’s work has applied to it the popular terminology of affect that characterises some strands of contemporary feminist writing as reliant solely upon ‘tenderness’. I’m wary of these cultural mechanisms by which complicated experiences — like grief — become flattened by an apparently collective social vocabulary that reinscribes and aestheticizes everything as ‘tender’: the work is heralded as radical, but only in relation to its softness. Riley’s relationship to the politicised aspects of women’s writing is complex; ‘radical’ means something more significant to her early work than just a generalised gendered umbrella. In February 2019, the poet and academic Samuel Solomon published LYRIC PEDAGOGY AND MARXIST-FEMINISM: SOCIAL REPRODUCTION AND THE INSTITUTIONS OF POETRY. The book reads the contradictions of ‘academically trained leftist and feminist poets’ of the 1970s — Riley, Wendy Mulford, Veronica Forrest-Thomson and J.H. Prynne, all ‘Cambridge’ poets who ‘transgressed or skirted institutional boundaries and revolutionary socialist-feminist organizations’ — in the context of contemporary austerity, particularly cuts to higher education, to illuminate the connections between ‘literary education and the Marxist-feminist critique of reproduction’, as well as the processes by which ‘poetry has been institutionalized and rendered a (nationalist and colonialist) good’. The timing is coincidental — academic publishing is famously sluggish — and interesting: Solomon’s book offers a way into Riley’s work that complicates the careful neutrality of a marketing campaign. Reading her poetry alongside and through her prose — including the political writing she published during the Women’s Liberation Movement — Solomon argues for the importance of social reproduction to the understanding of Riley’s work: the concept, key to Marxist-feminism, connects the processes by which human life is perpetuated to the social relations of patriarchal capitalism. Although she was active in the 1970s in reproductive justice and childcare campaigns in the Women’s Liberation Movement, and in Marxist-Leninist action, Riley ‘does not fit neatly into any of the categories or schools of socialist-feminist thought that surrounded her […] but, all the same, did believe in the necessity of organizations making coordinated and concrete demands upon the state in the hopes of transforming society’. Her activism and political writing were directly related to the circumstances of her own life at this time: her experience of bad housing, cuts to nursery provision and the ‘loneliness of bourgeois familialism’, as a single mother living some of the time in a squat.

 

The family was — and remains — a complex site for Riley, and one where she diverges from traditional Marxist approaches, as Solomon notes:

 

In a 1982 article taking on various “Left Critiques of the Family,” Riley maintains that “when one adds Engels’ famous pronouncement on women’s liberation [i.e. that it could only follow from the participation of women in public, large-scale industry] to his supposition that love and economics stand in a roughly superstructure-to- base relationship, then the limits and strengths of his position are clear.”

 

This phrase, ‘love and economics’, is present in ‘Affections must not’, a poem that Riley published in her collaboration with Wendy Mulford, NO FEE: A LINE OR TWO FOR FREE, which came out in 1979. The poem is extremely moving in its evocation of the specifically domestic aspects of social reproduction: beginning with the words ‘This is an old fiction of reliability’, the poems detail the ‘mothers who never were’ and the ‘mothers who were always a set of equipment & a fragile balance’. Imagery of cotton, kitchens, and milk combines with the ‘not-me against sociology’ before the fragmented refrain ‘support, support’ and the eventual completion of the title:

 

the houses are murmuring with many small pockets of emotion

on which spongy ground adults’ lives are being erected & paid

for daily

while their feet and their children’s feet are tangled around

like those of fen larks

in the fine steely wires which run to & fro between love &

economics

affections must not support the rent

I. neglect. the. house

 

Maternal work is, of course, often not recognised as such. The psychosociologist Lisa Baraitser, in her essay ‘Mothers Who Make Things Public’, describes this work as something that has historically ‘been understood as a form of emotional labour traditionally associated with the private sphere’: the discomfort and sidelining that maternity is often met with in public life is, she argues, a result of the way mothers ‘make public’ the fundamental dependency at the heart of human life. Riley’s constant recourse to the ‘work’ of grief and the ‘work’ of motherhood in her recent publications is connected — by a fine, steely wire — to her earlier conceptions of the domestic, the personal and the social: the cataclysmic power of her mourning texts is rooted entirely, still, in the foundations of an earlier dwelling. In 2016, after the original publication of TIME LIVED, Baraitser interviewed Riley for the journal Studies in the Maternal. During their conversation, Baraitser linked the experience of ‘stilled time’ to the non-productive time carved out both by motherhood and by the process of psychoanalysis: as opposed to capitalism, which devours and absorbs such ‘maintenance work’, care becomes a kind of cyclical endurance work. Riley described her surprise that a state outside of normal temporal — or narrative — flow was still a state in which thinking and feeling were possible.

 

In MARXISM FOR INFANTS, love and economics are made manifest in the interplay between the material conditions of domestic life and the radical instability of the self. Time here, although not yet stopped, doesn’t behave normatively either. The collection, which Riley describes as individual poems but which I can’t train myself out of reading as one long text, begins with ‘a note on sex and the reclaiming of language’, which is often read as the mission statement for the whole work: ‘e.g. to write “she” and for that to be a statement / of fact only and not a strong image / of everything which is not-you, which sees you’. But I’m more interested in the periods of fractured quietness that follow; in the ‘grandiose domestic visions truly’ of water freezing in launderettes and vacuum cleaners stammering ‘into uncarpeted silence’; in the ‘warm room’ in which time ‘goes in little bursts’ for the mother and child; in the irradiated landscape that ends the collection with ‘the past weight, and the future’. In the poem that begins ‘says   I’m into cooking now’, Riley makes a list with no clear tense:

 

mothers    hospitals

sex    class    housing

anchored    flying

 

before asking ‘is it enough like this as I am / is the human visible through above & / completely in the material determinants?’ Riley partially answers her own question, quoting from the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty: ‘I cannot understand the function of the living body except by enacting it myself, and except in so far as I am a body which rises toward the world.’ Riley’s communality exists at the level of what is experienced daily.

 

But who is it that is doing all this experiencing? It’s dangerous to read Riley’s first-person pronouns as markers of her own speaking self, and it is important to remember that even when the speaker of Riley’s poems appears to be articulating their own experiences of maternity, identification is not simple. The new SELECTED POEMS contains an expanded selection from MARXISM FOR INFANTS and DRY AIR, which was first published by Virago in 1985. In these slippery, wounded texts, Riley’s virtuosic lyric paradoxes look askance at the confessional mode. ‘The ambition to advise speaks’ finishes with a warning that feels antithetical to much of the first-person autofictional mould that some writing about her latest work feels perilously close to pushing her into:

 

put yourself in the margins but don’t be endlessly naming them

be taken with yourself if you are but keep quiet about it

choose yourself a gender but prepare to be flexible here

 

An acceptance of the fractured nature of identity is not the same as an anti-communal poetic mode. In ‘Got to get back’, which appears towards the end of DRY AIR, Riley stages a familiar ironic dialogue that subverts the stability of identity, calling the poem’s addressee — the reader or the speaker? — a ‘liar’:

 

‘the air was so thick with gender

you could have cut it with a knife’

ouch in a melancholy dream of truth

 

Immediately after this, however, the surface of the poem starts to splinter:

 

Is this love

changes?   Birds

circle.    Miaow, miaow.

 

The addressee, no longer accused, seems to merge with the weather as the ‘white fields’ of Georgia appear. The ‘you’ is not ‘like’ a snowstorm but either is one or is making one — ‘You rising a snowstorm and falling / and settling in the hollows of everything’ — before, in the final lines, the inward gaze is disrupted, perhaps even joyfully, by alterity: ‘You are just stunned / by others who they are’.

 

Riley’s theoretical writing — combining linguistics, the philosophy of language and cultural studies — centres, largely, around such questions of language and knowledge, as well as around the conceptual frameworks we apply to our physical and emotional realities. In IMPERSONAL PASSION: LANGUAGE AS AFFECT (2005), Riley posits an alternative to psychoanalytic theories of the unconscious, arguing that the structures of everyday speech bear an equal responsibility of influence on our unconscious. This is a continuation of the project of THE WORDS OF SELVES: IDENTIFICATION, SOLIDARITY, IRONY (2000), which asks ‘what am I up to, when I depict myself?’ and asserts that

 

We talk and listen at a time of identificatory rage and of confessional directives, even if this gratifies no one for very long. What may cause this will to be to falter, if it overhears itself enough? […] Rehearsed enough, any identification may come to sound increasingly bizarre and strangely thing-like, much in the way that any common word printed too many times on one page will leap out, absurd, its sense suddenly drained out of it.

 

The answer to the absurdity of the first person — which cannot be separated from the horror of being ‘identified’, categorised or named by someone else — is, for the Riley writing at the turn of the millennium at least, a ‘politics of irony’ against a secure self: she asks her readers to ‘tolerate some fluctuations of the I’. Language, Riley wants us to believe — and particularly poetic language — is fundamentally impersonal: it is always already abstracted from the individual writer or speaker. In her earlier poetry in particular, commonality is present primarily in its own thwarting, and in a profound ambivalence towards first-person experience even as the text relies upon it. As she writes in ‘Dark Looks’: ‘Who anyone is or I am is nothing to the work’. But for many, this argument doesn’t stand up. Language that twists away from absolutes, that allows for ambivalence and tries to deflect attention from its speaker’s needs even as it begs for them to be met, is language at its most painfully personal. What does this mean in the context of TIME LIVED, WITHOUT ITS FLOW, and indeed of SAY SOMETHING BACK? If common cause with other people, accessed through language, is a central aspect of Riley’s work, her more recent writing feels in some senses like an inversion of the ironic impersonality she professed in the twentieth century. While SAY SOMETHING BACK, which takes its title and its epigraph from W. S. Graham’s ‘Implements in their Places’, is deeply concerned with the inherent contradictions of lyric speech — the ‘I’, in a lyric poem, could signify the voice of the writer, the voice of the reader, or the voice of another figure entirely — the sense of a spiky relish of isolation has softened, changed:

 

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

 

*

 

LYRIC PEDAGOGY AND MARXIST-FEMINISM ends with a moving passage — half plea, half rallying cry — that positions the current state of poetry and higher education in the UK as one locus for the ongoing struggle against the neoliberal forces that close down institutional and collective ways in which we can meet social need:

 

If literary education is a luxury and not a right, if nothing is demanded of poetry by society, then we would be fools, or worse, to expect salvation from it. But we might see poetry newly as a site for the collective project of articulating social needs at the limits of ascribed social categories.

 

Poetry is impossible to divorce from our experience of social life — of being a subject in and at the mercy of the world — and yet it is never purely representative personal expression. Constantly, in both her verse and in her prose, Riley applies pressure to the notion of identifying sociological categories, of being ‘named’: for her, language does not simply precede or follow political life, but instead can help us to articulate interpersonal needs. In her notes to MARXISM FOR INFANTS, Riley attributes the title to George Orwell’s THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER, where it features as a disingenuous book written by a bourgeois socialist, Comrade X, who hates the working class. Solomon clarifies this slightly unlikely connection by pointing to a reading Riley gave at the 1977 Cambridge Poetry Festival:

 

I wanted to retrieve that and use it, I suppose to say that if Marxism does not have to do with infants and vice versa then there’s not much hope for either infants or for Marxism.

 

It feels unlikely that we’d hear the same argument made for the relationship between poetry, Marxism and care by the mainstream advocates for Riley’s work now, or that they would argue that the emotional power of her work’s tough and tightly-coiled kindnesses relies upon its difficult and — to many — controversial political allegiance.

 

But perhaps I just can’t get beyond my own subject position. As I write this, I am a casualised member of staff at several universities, where I mostly teach contemporary poetry, and where the Conservative government’s anti-trade union legislation has ensured that I am legally unable to strike against my own exploitative working conditions. At last year’s Forward Prizes, Amber Rudd, the former Conservative Home Secretary and Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who was found responsible for the unlawful detention and deportation of asylum seekers before her resignation, was in attendance. If I’m honest, there’s a part of me that feels personal discomfort at the celebration of Riley’s work by institutions I feel my own experience of her writing to be at odds with; with the role her work played in facilitating a political and literary awakening that quite literally changed my life. But what does it mean, the intense and fundamental ambivalence I feel toward it? When I first read Denise Riley, in my final year of university, I had written my undergraduate dissertation about Ted Hughes and salmon fishing (I know): after I encountered TIME LIVED in its original form, it led me to MARXISM FOR INFANTS and MOP, MOP, GEORGETTE. I went on to write a Masters thesis about Riley, to write my own poetry, to find my own Marxist-feminist politics. But it is in returning, however begrudgingly, to my own history — ‘the poet with her signature stands up trembling, grateful, mortally embarrassed / and especially embarrassing to herself’ — that I find a serious argument for the political good of republication. I encountered Riley through institutional privilege and chance, having initially been too anxiously suburban to join in with what I felt were male-dominated avant-garde poetry circles at university. I was in the last cohort of students to go to university before tuition fees were tripled and maintenance grants were cut; despite the ravages of neoliberalism that characterise the New Labour years, I grew up in a single-parent family reliant upon aspects of the welfare state that are no longer available. Had I been born ten years later than I was, my entire education would have taken place in the wake of the 2008 financial crash and the resulting programme of austerity: I can’t deny that the more widely accessible a poet’s work is, the more likely it is that people without the privileges of the wealthy can find it. At the same time, I do not believe that the capitalist machine of literary publishing is the answer. But perhaps there’s no need to clarify this ambivalence. What am I up to, when I depict myself? Riley’s work itself, after all, urges us to pay attention to how and why things happen, to the mechanisms of speech and amplification, and its corresponding silences.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

's writing can be found in The White Review, the Guardian, Poetry Review, the Stinging Fly, the Baffler, frieze, and elsewhere. Her poetry pamphlets Daddy Poem (SPAM) and Worry work (Earthbound Press) came out in 2019 and 2020 respectively, and her next, In the Pleasure Dairy, is forthcoming from Sad PressShe finished her PhD, on maternity and capitalism in nineteenth-century fiction, in 2019, and teaches at the University of Cambridge and Camberwell College of Arts. Based in Glasgow, she is currently Commissioning Editor at MAP magazine.

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