New Poetry, Fiction, Essay

Our Reviews Editor Jane Simmons looks at Denise Riley’s: Say Something Back

denise riley say something back

Jane Simmons is a former teacher/lecturer who has recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. She is now a PhD student at the university of Leicester, where she is working on The Lyric Self: lyric poetry as a medium for autobiographical life-writing in the work of contemporary British women poets – with a collection of original poems. Jane has published a collection of poetry, from darkness into light, and she is currently working on a novel and a second collection of poetry. She is a member of the Lincoln-based Pimento poets and Outspoken Poets and regularly reads/performs her work in the Lincoln area. 

Denise Riley’s: Say Something Back

Picador Poetry 

ISBN 978 4472 7037 9

Denise Riley was born in Carlisle in 1948 and educated at Cambridge and Oxford. She is a critically acclaimed writer of both philosophy and poetry, and she is currently Professor of the History of Ideas and of Poetry at the University of East Anglia. She has also held a number of visiting positions: A.D.White Professor at Cornell University; Writer in Residence at the Tate Gallery; Visiting Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London. She has taught in various academic fields – philosophy, art history, poetics, and creative writing – and written extensively on philosophy, feminism, lyric, and literary history. She has published the following collections of poetry: Marxism for Infants (1977); the volume No Fee (1979), with Wendy Mulford; Dry Air (1985); Stair Spirit (1992); Mop Georgette (1993); Selected Poems (2000); and Say Something Back (2016), which was nominated for a Forward Prize for Best Poetry Collection. Riley’s nonfiction prose includes works such as War in the Nursery: Theories of the Child and Mother (1983); ‘Am I That Name?’: Feminism and the Category of Women in History (1988); The Words of Selves: Identification, Solidarity, Irony (2000); and Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect (2005). Her chapbook, Time Lived, Without Its Flow (2012), is a meditation on time after the sudden death of a child. Linking poetry and prose, a sequence of 20 short poems from the chapbook, titled “A Part Song,” was published in the London Review of Books and won a Forward Poetry Prize for Best Single Poem. Her most recent book is Say Something Back (Picador, 2016).

Photograph: Caroline Forbes

The collection Say Something Back takes as its starting point lines from W S Graham’s Implements in their Places


Do not think you have to say

Anything back. But do you

Say something back which I

Hear by the way I speak to you.


before beginning the most important poem of the collection, A Part Song, about the death of the poet’s adult son, Jacob. This lengthy poem in several parts becomes a moving account of loss and grief. It begins with the short but powerful poem, Maybe; maybe not

When I was a child I spoke as a thrush, I 
thought as a clod, I understood as a stone,
but when I became a man I put away
plain things for lustrous, yet to this day
squat under hooves for kindness where
fetlocks stream with mud – shall I never
get it clear, down in the soily waters.

This poem places what is to follow firmly in a Christian context, with its echoes of Corinthians – and in the English literary tradition, with its use of William Blake’s symbols of the clod and the pebble or stone. A later poem echoes a speech from Shakespeare’s King Lear. However, although Riley places the poem in the literary tradition, she soon begins to question the nature and purpose of song, or the lyric poetry which she is writing,

You principle of song, what are you for now

The obvious answer would be that the purpose of the lyrical elegy is to console, and to provide solace to those who are grieving,

I can’t get sold on reincarnating you

As those bloody ‘gentle showers of rain’

Or in ‘fields of ripening grain’ – ooh


To the poet, such conventional attempts at consolation are woefully inadequate. She wants her dead son’s living lighthearted presence, to be

bodied forth


and nothing less than this will do.

Not only does she reject the idea of lyrical elegy, and its purpose of offering consolation, she also rejects the expected voice of lyric poetry. In an interview with Kevin Corcoran, Denise Riley spoke of the influence of song on her poetics:

Perhaps song in general is, in the end, purely ‘for itself’. Whereas in ‘A Part Song’, its particular question was: what is the song for, in the teeth of this particular death. What can it do now? And what is its singer for, now? The only answer is: this instance of song is simply its own existence as voiced solidarity with the [not uncommon] experience of being left alive when your child isn’t. But this solidarity lies in raising that question of what it’s for, in concert with others’ questioning, rather than in anything averred inside the poem itself. … There’s a universal impulse to ask, a need to know, however unlikely it is that any answer can appear; and here’s just another instance of that usual impulse, still making its noise.”

There is nothing quiet or reverent about the voice which the poet uses: the I of these lyric poems is a real mother, with a mother’s scolding or reproachful tones. It is not formal, but informal, and very colloquial in its language and idiom. She is a glum mum or a fat-lot-of-good mother. This is what it makes it so powerful and moving – even painful – to read: the reader can hear the bereaved mother speaking to her dead son as if he is a living teenage boy

But by now

We’re bored with our unproductive love,

And infinitely more bored by your staying dead

Which can hardly interest you much either.

She is unsparing in her comments and in her judgement of herself

Your dead don’t want you lying flat

There’ll soon be time enough for that

The reader is then witness to this intimate relationship – and the effect is that the characters live for the reader, as if they are real people and known personally. The picture which she presents of her son is not romanticised; she speaks of his beaming face, how he lacked guile and was transparent, but she also speaks of his eczema scabs, describes him as a teen peacock, and – in a moment of exasperation – calls him a daft bugger. Denise Riley’s examination of her grief in A Part Song is unsentimental, never less than brave, and sometimes surprisingly witty.

The long, opening poem is a remarkable achievement – but it would be wrong to overlook the other poems in the collection. I have already referenced the echoes of Blake and Shakespeare in A Part Song, but this is not the only poem in the collection which positions itself in a literary tradition. In Composed underneath Westminster Bridge, Riley presents the reader with a contemporary companion piece to Wordsworth’s earlier poem,

Broad gravel barges shove the drift. Each wake

Thwacks the stone steps. A rearing tug-boat streaked

Past moorhens dabbling floss, spun pinkish-beaked.

Peanuts in caramelised burnt chocolate bake

Through syrupy air. Above, fried onions cake.

Pigeons on steeleyed dates neck-wrestled, piqued.

Oblivious to their squabs that whined and squeaked

In iron-ringed nests, nursed in high struts. Opaque

Brown particles swarm churning through the tide

That navy hoop of cormorant can compose

A counter to this shield – eagles splayed wide,

Gold martlets – on the bridge’s side; it glows

While through the eau-de-nil flaked arches slide

The boats ‘Bert Prior’ and ‘The Eleanor Rose’.

In a poem which begins with lines from La Rochefoucauld, and considers how inanimate objects offer consolation the light constancy/ of things.

Her questioning of poetic forms, first seen in the questioning of the lyric in A Part Song, continues in the poem Death makes dead metaphor revive. In Listening for Lost People, the poet finds the dead in language itself

 The souls of the dead are the spirit of language:

 you hear them alight inside that spoken thought.

There are poems about the first world war and its enormous death toll – poems which continue her preoccupation with the subjects of animation and lifelessness, the living and the dead, the preoccupation which is the organising principle of this remarkable collection.

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