“A literary event!” — every middlebrow doorstop of a novel gets saddled with that cliché. You’d think aesthetic significance could be determined by weight. Or that literature had no other time frame than that of the publishers’ seasonal catalogue, destined to wait a bit longer to be trashed than the daily paper, but not by much.
Nonetheless, something I’m prepared to call a literary event did take place earlier this year, when in its issue of February 9 the London Review of Books published a twenty-part poem or sequence by Denise Riley, “A Part Song.” This was the first new publication of Riley’s poetry in a long time, probably since the appearance of her Selected Poems (Reality Street Editions) in 2000 — though she has published some works of literary theory since. (The poem can be found online; the text there can only be read by subscribers to the magazine but there is a podcast of Riley’s reading of it that anyone can hear.)
Riley’s name is not very familiar in the United States, but it should be. She is one of the finest writers of the English language; along with the late Anna Mendelssohn (like Riley, born in 1948) she may be the most important British poet of the cohort following that of the remarkable generation born in the later 1930s, of whom Lee Harwood, J.H. Prynne and Tom Raworth may be the most salient names.
“A Part Song” begins in a way that seems natural for a poet who has for a considerable time either stopped writing or anyway stopped publishing her work — by questioning the very use or existence of poetry, or of the lyricism that distinguishes it from prose: “You principle of song, what are you for now”? But no, it turns out, this is not a poetry suspicious of itself on general principles; unlike von Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos, Riley doesn’t entirely doubt the power of language. The poet is questing herself and her art on account of a specific loss. “A Part Song,” one soon realizes, is an elegy, and the death that occasioned this poetry of the questioning of poetry is that of the poet’s son — an adult son, for
Each child gets cannibalized by its years.
It was a man who died, and in him died
The large-eyed boy, then the teen peacock
In the unremarked placid self-devouring
That makes up being alive.
In classical elegy — think of Milton’s “Lycidas,” in which the poet bids even the “Daffadillies fill their cups with tears” — all of nature joins in the poet’s act of mourning and thereby assuages it. For Riley, poetry shows itself useless in concerting nature to her lament:
Ardent bee, still you go blundering
With downy saddlebags stuffed tight
All over the fuchsia’s drop earrings.
I’ll cry ‘Oh bee!’ to you, instead—
Since my own dead, apostrophized,
Keep mute as this clear garnet glaze
You’re bumping into. Blind diligence,
Bee, or idiocy—this banging on and on
Against such shiny crimson unresponse.
Far from offering comfort, nature itself — the nature of nature, so to speak — seems transformed by this death: It is caught in a freeze-frame. Something’s gone haywire with time:
Suspended in unsparing light
The sloping gull arrests its curl
The glassy sea is hardened waves
Its waters lean through shining air
Yet never crash but hold their arc
Hung rigidly in glaucous ropes
Muscled and gleaming. All that
Should flow is sealed, is poised
In implacable stillness. Joined in
Non-time and halted in free fall.
More recently, Riley has published a sort of prose companion to this poem. Time Lived, Without Its Flow is a very small book — deceptively small, because so large in resonance — of prose ruminations on this “altered condition of life” that consists in “living in suddenly arrested time: that acute sensation of being cut off from any temporal flow that can grip you after the sudden death of your child.” As she repeatedly emphasizes, it is a physical condition she is trying to speak more than a mental one, one in which “your old sense of your innerness drops into pure exteriority.”
The task Riley’s set herself is a hard one. Spoken language is unremittingly linear, one word following another in time as each disappears in turn into the air. Writing, to the extent that it is modeled on speech, is a linear flow as well, not quite as “unsparing,” to borrow Riley’s word, since one can still see the words one has just read as one goes on to the next — yet to the extent that one does read the text, rather than simply seeing it as a visual field (as in concrete poetry), one reads it precisely in its “temporal flow.” What a poetic image — Pound’s passengers waiting for the Metro, Riley’s “hardened waves” of sea water — can offer of “arrested time” is an evocation or illusion, but only that: The time of the text keeps flowing though we freeze it in memory, just as social and biological time keeps moving even as the bereaved is faced with her subtraction from this flow.
The very structure of Time Lived is a kind of tribute to the flow it claims to deny. Following an introduction, it consists of a sequence of diary-like entries, keyed not to specific dates but to degrees of distance in time: Two weeks after the death, One month after the death, Five months after, and so on, through the heading Three years after, which is followed by no entry, but rather the stipulation that “what follows is a postscript” — again, the very words bespeaks temporal succession — “about what I’ve had to learn about living in suspended time.”
So the very experience that Riley wants to describe is contradicted by the nature of the only language she has to communicate it. Her implicit awareness of this is what commands the intensity of effort she has invested in this book. Her refusal to avail herself of any lyrical device or anything of the imagism that might come naturally to a poetry of the freeze frame is what gives it the pained sobriety that requires a slow, careful, word-by-word reading — comparable to that demanded by the prose of writers whose work otherwise bears no resemblance to this, such as Laura (Riding) Jackson’s in The Telling or Samuel Beckett’s in his late work. “No tenses any more,” Riley charges herself at one point, and of course that one brief sentence does follow the rule it sets out, but it’s practically the only one to do so. The English language proceeds in indifference to the death that suspends the flow of time, that locks the survivor in her stasis.
One thinks, inevitably, too, of Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary, that brief posthumously published set of notes set down after the death of its author’s mother — a death, one can discern, that he did not want to survive. Riley insists that what she is writing “has nothing whatever to do with thinking sad thoughts or with ‘mourning,’” but of course this “refusal to mourn” (I take the phrase from Dylan Thomas, of course) is just what one means by mourning, an insistence on carrying the beloved with one always, a determination not to let go and even that letting go is an impossibility. “If there is ever to be any movement again,” Riley writes, “that moving will not be ‘on’. It will be ‘with’. With the carried-again child.” I take “carried-again” to mean that this state of surviving, of being out of time, is a kind of second pregnancy. To mother the lost in the womb of memory: this is the true project of mourning, which is only given that name by others.
To some extent the self-contradictory nature of what Riley is trying to do is mitigated by the realization that within her text two temporalities are overlaid, or rather, temporality is laid over the non-temporality that is her subject. In the book’s last section, what Riley calls a postscript, though it is a far more substantial part of the text than that implies. She explains, parenthetically, “It was only when a familiar intuition of sequence eventually and spontaneously restored itself, having ‘taken its time’ over the passage of a few years, that I could begin to sort out my fragmented notes and start on these paragraphs.” So even when Riley appeared to be speaking from within the condition of non-temporality, she was speaking from both within and outside it, in the dual condition of inscriber and redactor of her own words, and we must somehow, even retroactively, maintain awareness of this authorial duality.
The restoration of temporality, however, comes at the price of some of that intimacy with the timelessness of the dead that the mourner (who claims to be no mourner) did not want to give up. “If it’s your ‘restoration’ to the usual world,” she tells herself, “it’s certainly not a restoration you can celebrate.” Yet still, the loss can be configured as a sort of gain. “In your new perception of time, there is a kind of ‘carrying forward’” and “boundaries are extended by and after the death, as they had once been by and after the birth.” The survivor becomes a sort of translator between two worlds, and this new sense of time after timelessness reveals an “elaborate, dynamic, silent temporal abundance.”
Now there is a cruel, selfish, and repellent thought that I am nonetheless going to set down here in the belief that the writing of criticism demands honesty more than it does good character. It is the thought that without her son Jacob’s death, we who have been longing for the return of the poet Denise Riley might still be waiting. What becomes of the love of poetry when it takes this to create the conditions for its satisfaction? The only answer is that it is because we are liable to such loss that we have poetry. The last lines of “A Part Song,” given at last to the voice of the son himself, have earned their fleeting evocation of Ariel’s song in “The Tempest”:
My bone-dust is faint coral
Under the fretful wave.
Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow (London: Capsule Editions) is available online at Capsule Editions and other online booksellers.
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