Denise Riley's 'Shantung'



It's true that anyone can fall
in love with anyone at all.
Later, they can't. Ouf, ouf.

How much mascara washes away each day
and internationally, making the blue one black.
Come on everybody. Especially you girls.

Each day I think of something about dying.
Does everybody? do they think that, I mean.
My friends! some answers. Gently
unstrap my wristwatch. Lay it face down.

- Denise Riley, from Mop Mop Georgette (1993, Reality Street)


Annotation: Making the blue one black is a comic play on Macbeth's maximum guilt (2.2):

Will all great Neptunes Ocean wash this blood
Cleane from my Hand? no: this my Hand will rather
The multitudinous Seas incarnadine,
Making the Greene one, Red.

(That comma is usually modernized away.) Mascara remembering blood - we've all got some of the latter, as other Riley poems shrug in pointing out; and many possess the former. Perhaps the laugh ruefully wishes for selves (maschera / mask) which could be washed away, thankfully, perhaps even violently, leaving nothing left to interpellation's spin? One over the eyelash. Linguistic unease, partly generating a guilt, a feeling of self-identification fraud, receives a whole chapter in Riley's The Words of Selves (2000, Stanford), "Might not language itself arouse an anxiety which it must also try, through its other circuits, to assuage?" This my hand will type but I didn't turn the white one black.

If - and as ever with Riley's quotes, the edge is deliberately seamless, or the technique is to put the cut into the pattern so it disappears - the next line is heard as the opening to Marvin Gaye's 'Can I Get A Witness?', that song's title is also suggested as lyric poetry's magnifying line, the appeal for (prosecution) witnesses to sentiment (of which we've all got some) and to I's lies, also underlined just before a later Riley mention of watches in part iv of 'Outside from the Start',

Have I spoken only when things have hardened?
But wouldn't the fact of you melt a watch?

These questions are hooks tossed out, velcro-lyric which promises "My friends! some answers" but only lilts its echo-silk of the title, rough and rustling surface which, turned this way and that, shows us rhyming-wisdom, then mascara, then fear-of-death on its knotted and shirred screen while it's the Shantung - just the sound, "Shan-tang" - which remains.

Edmund Hardy

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