About some Denise Riley poems

by Michael Peverett

[The three poems I write about are all available on the internet - check out the links.]

Some of these endlessly exhilarating poems flow around a foreign ingredient. More accurately I ought to say, since all writing is made out foreign ingredients, that the ones I'm talking about are marked up for attention (in the title or epigraph or whatever). Everyone knows about A misremembered lyric, which interthreads pop song lyrics including "Something's gotten hold of my heart" -

A misremembered lyric: a soft catch of its song
whirrs in my throat. 'Something's gotta hold of my heart
tearing my' soul and my conscience apart, long after
presence is clean gone

The poem misremembers it just the same way a lot of other people in the UK do, unconsciously replacing the unfamiliar "gotten" with "gotta", and improving "keeping apart" into "tearing apart". Even when the words have definitely moved off from quotation you keep trying to fit them to the tune.

A Nueva York is another of these. The epigraph comes from Alphaville (1965), to which the title also alludes ("Nueva York" is where Natacha Von Braun is said to have been born). The epigraph runs: 'In order to create life, it is merely necessary to advance in a straight line towards all that we love' - this was the cry of a man excuted by the pool beauties, itself nearly a quotation from a poem in Paul Eluard's Le Phénix (1951) - (later, one of Natacha's own speeches is also loosely based on Eluard's poem). But anyway, it's specifically the English subtitle that is Riley's founding ingredient. Within the poem it pokes its head up at various points, swimming strongly, as

               the private affections

the statement of the need to merely
head directly;

               go straight ahead

In fact the poem's set-up poses as a tranquil discussion of Eluard's dictum (tranquillity unrippled by some unheard cries, dispensing with them as "individual wilfulness"...); this occupies about the first half; then it kind of explodes into kinetic and mesmerizing display, like this:

                              No era
changes palaces, old burr of swallows
lavender that prime spring I broke
through the abyss. Master I spoke
directly an arrow through me, ice?
questions come in fits a small pony
a name dragged across the sun eel-like
to me poor thing you think to be at the
centre skin of the royal worm, egg,...

It's the apparent simplicity of the Godard/Eluard advice that Riley plays off against an intuition of the ultimate obscurity of directness - by going there so directly you find yourself with a haziness about how you arrived, which is what we're left with at the end of the poem, when it subsides from its own fireworks:

          Fear is marvellous and simultaneity,
this morning Paris this morning Saigon
the tombs swollen the mouth's rock.
Between us we came down to the clear world
and went out together to observe the stars.

"Between" is a slight correction to the drift of the quote - no single person advances actively towards a passive assembly of loved objects; instead the movements are communal, there is always simultaneity. The sequence Alphaville, Paris, Saigon is generally an invocation of political context, but it doesn't fall out easily; it instantiates the communal making of politics that accordingly can never be summed up. Observing the stars, apparently so fixed and passive, almost as it were originating the word "observation", is an ironic clarity; this is just what creating life isn't like, in the doing of it.

Having got this far, you can go back to the poem and see that its opening passage develops the "slight correction" to Eluard just described: the "private affections" is the way it pours cold water on Eluard's "all that we love". But is the relation between the poem and its foreign element now a matter that is cleared up? Not at all: the emphasis on simultaneity, which picks up the idea of a seasonal change in the poem's opening, is really undermined by the blithe flow of "this morning Paris this morning Saigon" - they are not simultaneous times of day, nor is morning a good time for looking at the stars. And this new opposition reminds us of something evasive in that strident opening line

I would do it for you but not here

- This "I" is beautifully enunciating a reason for personally doing nothing at all; in fact, has more than a little in common with the problematically hubristic "man of dry vision" who later advises his disciples to "go straight ahead to where I'll find you". The poem can be read endlessly, and its movement through that kinetic storm is endlessly thrilling, but the lyric temptation to mark itself as morally normative is choked off.

'Outside from the Start' develops from its title in quotation marks, not quite a quotation as it turns out. Merleau-Ponty's sentence is supplied in the endnote: "Nothing determines me from outside, not because nothing acts upon me, but on the contrary because I am from the start outside myself and open to the world." This is from The Phenomenology of Perception (1945), a book that must have influenced Riley's own thinking about identity. (You can sample it online in substantial extracts fromThe Words of Selves - Riley writes about Merleau-Ponty's remark on p. 44.)

This is to suggest that the relationship of the foreign ingredient with the rest of this poem is, comparatively, non-adversarial. But neither are cool judges, both are already conflicted.


The first section has one unforgettable, mobile image:

             - something unskinned me, so
now it bites into me - it has skinned me alive,

I get dried from dark red to dark windspun
withered jerky....

It's snatched away from you so fast that the transformation from peeled damson to skinned human flesh to dried twirling rasher leaves only a trace of horror; the timing is comically breathtaking, as is the way the word "red" gets put to bed in "withered".


The second section stands under a lime tree, casting a glance upwards through "hot leaves, veined with the sun" - it's difficult to do this without constantly being blinded by gobs of sun, so the acid green that is the way one has learnt how to describe lime leaves is mainly an importation - "draining the watcher's look of all colour". But "importation" would suggest that there is a core individual experience, something more authentic - just what the title of the poem calls into question.


The section begins with a tongue in the ear, "as brown and flexible as a young giraffe's", another mobile and comic image, so rapid is the subliminal shuttle through violation and eroticism contained within this mildly exasperated admiration.

So far the poem's connection with its epigraph is really quite straightforward and satisfying, as if executed from a recipe: take an idea and strike brilliant pictures out of it. But no Riley poem is ever that comfortable. When the third section begins to elongate, the trouble, which is the poem, really begins. Similes become too obtrusive, natural description becomes trifling - oystercatchers are beautifully, but somehow mechanically, poeticized as "coral beaks dab at froth", and a certain frustration turns from the admitted seductions of "blank pennywort charm" (the coin-shaped leaf has no economic device stamped on it); the effort of this elongation turns into air-shots - "punch of now that rips the tireless air".


Still, the poem carries on trying to pursue the line it took at first. From the clopping "heart on legs" of the first section to the upright stalking of the third to this:

lumping across sterile air it counts itself
lonely and brave. At once it festers.

Finally it gets to shaping an apotheosis which affects us as strong even when the sense of the words is the utter illusoriness of the supposed struggle in which the lyric is imagined to be strong.

High on itself, it sings of its own end, rejoicing
that this cannot come about. Because I am alive here.


The poem decides to become fatuously rhymed and to make the shapes of political gesture: nature is now recast in the Victor Hugo manner: "The muscled waves reared up"; it rises (with help from the movement of Housman's "blue remembered hills") to the noble strains of

no setback for the partners of democracy
who portioned barnyards out to each volost

while florid in the twilight, Nation stood
alight above the low dismembered good.

"Partners of democracy" means, I suppose, financial partners: sometimes it does look like democracy can be owned, we uneasily concur. On the other hand, "dismembered" looks like a way of burying the good news of "shared". Patently, it isn't a political lyric to espouse; considering the massacre of lyric pretensions that's preceded it, this shouldn't come as a surprise, though it does.


This is only one disenchanting path though the poem. (There is no sixth section, but you scratch around looking at the note about Merleau-Ponty, and wondering what happened to the thrill of liberation it seemed to promise.)
You look back over the poem, noticing how "alight" picks up "the piney trees their green afire" in the third section. "Piney trees" - "rooky wood" - "rainy marching in the painful field"... 'Outside from the Start' is full of canonical clutter. You wonder why in the trombone pomposity of this ending the low-key "alight" displaces, for instance, an energetic "flaming", and then you see how the officialese meaning of "alight" ("passengers are asked to take care when alighting...") spangles the line with a kind of genteel reluctance to dirty one's feet (or hands) with suffering. I say "you" but I mean "I" - or rather, I think the Merleau-Ponty implications for identity rather affect the reader's poetic as well as the poet's.

"Like many others, I imagine, I can only leave a poem alone once it no longer resembles any product of mine..." (The Words of Selves, p. 62). But this writer's game requires, ideally, a reader who is as reluctant to discover what the writer has eliminated. If 'Outside from the Start' takes the shape of a fall from grace, you can go round again and find that this redeems the lyric, and go round again and find that the redemption sullies it. And when this recession is seen to be endless, then the thrill of liberation seems tangible again, and the poem walks, though awkwardly, as in one of those clopping or lumping images mentioned earlier. The playfulness of the language is out in the sun again, to cause more trouble.

Note: In Conductors of Chaos (ed. Iain Sinclair, 1996), the first of the five parts of "Outside from the Start" was presented as if it was the entire poem. I can't be the only reader who experienced a mild sense of bafflement at why such a broad trajectory seemed to drop off so abruptly.

Also in Intercapillary Space:

Denise Riley's 'Shantung' (Edmund Hardy)

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