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Barry Schwabsky’s Honest Take on Denise Riley’s New Work

By Harriet Staff

We are so grateful for Barry Schwabsky! For Hyperallergic, he’s just written at length about Denise Riley’s newest publications in over a decade–we told you about the nine-part poem, “A Part Song,” that appeared in the London Review of Books. She’s also written Time Lived, Without Its Flow (Capsule Editions 2012), a very small book of prose (“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’”). More from Schwabsky:

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.

As for the prose in Time Lived, Riley pushes at the limits of such paradox:

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.

Schwabsky also invokes Barthes’s Mourning Diary, and Riley’s shifting perceptions of time as a survivor. Near the end of the piece, Schwabsky writes:

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?

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, June 4th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.