In their most cliched form, attempts to describe the experience of bereavement tend to settle into a series of unanswerable questions: ‘why?’ being the principle, but also ‘what if?’, and the more general need ‘for an answer’. The intensity and depth of the mourner’s anguish demands an equally forceful explanation from the other side. We tend to resign ourselves to the rhetorical nature of these questions, just as elegy recognises the impossibility of its utmost desire (the return of the dead), even as it calls out to them in the darkness. The title of Denise Riley’s latest poetry collection, Say Something Back, both shares this characteristic wanhope and defiantly resists it; the collection calls for a response, but is also a call-and-response itself, taking on the responsibility to reply when the dead appear unable to do so.
The collection’s longest poem — A Part Song, written after the death of Riley’s adult son — enacts this polyphony. A part song has three or more voice parts, and the poem has at least as many. ‘She do the bereaved in different voices’ is how Riley describes it in section xix, which repositions the lyrical responsibility back on the single poet, who must ‘do’ the different voice parts of the song. That section confesses that the purpose of the poem thus far has been ‘to prod / And shepherd you back within range / Of my strained ears’, and Riley paints herself the ‘prancing and writhing’ elegist, spurting mawkish ‘reedy piping’ to a coldly unresponsive son. The poem goes further in extorting an answer than conventional elegy, however: ‘Still no? Then let me rest, my dear’. We are constantly surprised by her inability to let questions stay rhetorical:
Yet might there still be some part for me
To play upon this lovely earth? Say. Or
Say No, earth at my inner ear.
The poet’s response to no-response is to refill the gap — absences are reified, turned into physical sensations or objects of interest. As she writes in ‘Hiding in plain sight’: ‘I sensed your not-there in its burning life’. The loss of a person becomes not only poetic material in her elegies, then, but in some way a physical experience too: in A Part Song, her son’s life is not given over to evanescence, but recycled ‘Tight in a block’, its ‘layers patted square’. Conveniently, physical objects are not only in general unresponsive entities, but reflective of Riley’s experience of post-bereavement time: static, stubbornly continuous, resistant to narrative. Time experienced ‘Without Its Flow’ (from the title to her work on the subject) is like that ‘Tight […] block’, a concentration of temporal layers which should have been laid out sequentially.
Fragmentation of expression or thought is perhaps more common to elegy than this uncompromising physicality. If words fail for Riley too, there is at least a call for an end to watery elegy, the Lycidas breed of the genre. From ‘Still’:
Rather turn stolid, go blocky, be granite, not
whirr and not flare but lodge stock-still, a slab.
Not become fish, or a sea, nothing fluid, no darting,
no welling up after my death in the mouths of the living
The two most significant voices in A Part Song finally call for elegy, like the dead, to be put to rest. ‘Then let me rest, my dear’ is Riley’s paradoxical exhortation to the already silent dead, evidently half-addressing the poem or herself. The poem does eventually answer back (her son’s imagined voice, in italics), calling for an end to the song (‘O let me be’) and declaring a cyclical return to elegy as a medium of floating: ‘My bone-dust is faint coral / Under the fretful wave‘.
The collection’s relationship to death, grief, elegy is complex, but not unrewarding to unpick. Frequently, knotty thoughts and a kind of honestly rendered confusion is cut through by something ‘bodied forth / Straightforwardly’, like the gently playful end to ‘Cardiomyopathy’:
My heart, though old, seems tough enough and so
I would have gladly had it changed, for yours.
By Alice Troy-Donovan
Say Something Back, Denise Riley, Picador, 2016, £9.99