Say Something Back – Denise Riley

Learning to read #7


First and foremost the title – this whole blog could be summed up with those three words. My attitude to poetry could be summed up in those three words. Poetry, in my opinion, is not a passive, spectator sport – it invites a response, a comment, a creative reaction to write something about your response to the poem or to write something new from within yourself. You share a poem with me, and I’ll say something back.

Secondly, now I’ve smacked that hobby horse and let it run, is the author. There is a confident ease about Denise Riley’s work. She has the coolest job title in the world (Professor of the History of Ideas and of Poetry) and the way that she pulls her poems together is so measured, but without appearing forced or laboured. Of course “Cardiomyopathy” reads the way that it does – how else could a poem about the loss of her adult son to a serious heart condition, read? It’s obvious, when you read it, that this was how the poem needed to be. The way that she captures that sense of being just so, that’s a skill.

Work your way through “The patient who had no insides”. “As clouds swell to damp gaps in mountains, so in / Illness we sense, solidly, our entrails expanding to stuff / That space of our innerness just feebly imagined before”. You have the insight, the sometimes toe curling accuracy of how it feels to be waiting for surgery, overlaid with the strange poetry that comes with the names of conditions and of bits of you that you are unlikely to know about until they start to go wrong. It’s compelling, and you feel a real empathy too. “An awkward lyric” is a five line piece that puts you into an entirely different place, giving a face and personality to a concept. Again, the construction and the language falls so neatly into place – yes, that’s exactly how a sentence would feel, when not quite fully formed.

There is an overlay of sadness to many of these poems, as you’d imagine given the themes of illness, loss and grieving. There is a keen eye for the poetic in every day life, as well – “Composed under Westminster Bridge” gives us “… Above, fried onions cake. / Pigeons on steeleyed dates neck-wrestled, piqued”. The sharpness of the observation, applied with insight and wit. It engages the thinking part of your brain and it sticks in your memory too.

I rely on my local library for a lot of my poetry but I read some pieces from this work in the 2017 Forward Book of Poetry, and went out and bought the collection for myself. It’s a strong collection of work, and I’d flag this as one of my favourites from 2016.

You can find more about the author here and here. Oh, and here.




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