Dark yet sparkly – Denise Riley, Lurex and ‘the flesh of words’

Any reviewer of Denise Riley who has read her 2000 book The Words of Selves, proceeds if not with caution, then with a definite sense of unease. There are two principal reasons for this. One is that Riley’s work is difficult; she is known as a poets’ poet for good reason – her poems contain a lot for those knowledgeable about poetry to get their teeth into, but on a first reading many can appear a little like crossword puzzles to be solved, codes to be broken. And this is intimidating – to review and misread her work would be to expose oneself as an inadequate reviewer. She knows this, and comments in The Words of Selves, specifically on the interpretation of literary references: “When reviewers interpret a poem, they may confidently misconstrue an allusion. Often they’ll think up the most ingeniously elaborate sources for something in the text that had a plainer association, a far less baroque connection, behind it.” (p.74) So there is the concern of making a fool of yourself by over-reading (something I’m sure I’ve been guilty of in this blog more than once); that’s the first reason. The second is that much space is given in The Words of Selves to questioning and problematising the lyric I, and Riley is skeptical, even scathing, of biographical ‘selves’ in contemporary poetry: “Poetry can be heard to stagger under a weight of self-portrayal…Today’s lyric form (is) frequently a vehicle for innocuous display and confessionals” (p.94) And yet, for Riley’s reviewer, the fact of her son’s tragic death and the fact that she has written in prose and poetry about this, leaves the poet’s biographical self very close to the surface, and (the reviewer might feel) liable to breach at any time. How then to know at what point the real Denise Riley steps back and an imagined subject takes over? As one of Riley’s great philosophical concerns is the means by which language creates the Self, the uncertainty that Lurex (Picador) creates in the reader around what is being said and by whom, is unlikely to be coincidental.  

And this sense of unease is not entirely out of place. Riley herself writes of the “linguistic unease” of the writer, and so there is some solidarity perhaps between these two unequal partners in the generation of a text’s meaning, the writer-poet and the reader-reviewer. If we can proceed together with a joint feeling of guilt and inadequacy, the job of searching for meaning might not seem so lonely. 

So, to the review.  

Riley’s discomfiture at the intense focus on her personal grief is one of the central themes in Lurex I would, tentatively and with all due caveats, suggest. Part of this seems down to the inadequacy of the word itself (“’Grief’ is too bland a word, and I’ve always found it irritating, all the more so since he died” she says in ‘Beggars of Life’); and part of it could be due to a physical reluctance to be looked at – to be ‘seen’ in even the smallest way (“Hopeless to caution the scanning eye ‘keep off me’ – an unfocused look just is promiscuous” she says in ‘And as I sit and I feel the gaze’, riffing on WS Graham). But mostly there is a sense that Riley does not see her grief as anything special – that singling out an individual’s misfortune in a world of pain is not entirely, for want of a better word, appropriate:

What authority could my old pain, broadcast, allow me to claim?  

– None, I’d say.  

The humans sound their billions-fold democracy of distress – a dying spillage.  

How clear and plain its songs, how hummable. 

from ‘Were I September’ 

These beautiful words, evoking another of Riley’s central philosophical concerns, solidarity (worked in with the gorgeous irony implicit in ‘the humans’ – and we’ll come to irony in a moment), are the final ones of the collection; and they carry all the weight that this privileged position affords them. 

This unease with a focus on herself in Lurex chimes with comments Riley has made in interviews, and I can think of very few other poets who appear to feel this way about the limelight (and those I can think of are all women I should note) – it is enormously refreshing in a culture/industry that overwhelmingly encourages inflated egos, over-confidence, and self-aggrandisement. 

But we can assume too much about a writer, even if our assumptions appear borne out by public appearances and other sources, and I realise that my inferences above risk falling into the “all too common” reviewers’ trap of imagining “character profiles or amateur psychoanalyses of the author” (Words of Selves, p.74) but the sadness of the lines quoted above, modulated between the personal and the political, the past and the present, the internal and the external, show how meaning in Riley’s poems is no simple thing, and the character/psychology of the poet could only ever be a speculative point of departure; a springboard perhaps, but too flimsy a one to use with any confidence.  

And anyway, as with much modernist writing, the question is not always ‘what do these words mean?’ but more ‘where do they take me?’. In the case of Lurex, they may lead you to continue the journey of personal and political speculation about the generalities of loss, grief, loneliness, and old age, or the specificities of post-war adoption policy, personal experience of abuse, and the act of writing; Lurex is about all these things. But lots of poetry collections are about these things, or things much like them; what is special about Riley is that her writing is about them while simultaneously asking questions (of us? of itself?) about how language creates us, what we are within language, and what language is, materially. These are not just a wordsmith’s musings or a smart-arse poet’s cryptography; they are questions fundamental to the human experience of Being. It always sounds a bit self-satisfied and pompous for a reviewer to declare a poet ‘important’ (it’s up there with ‘one of our finest living poets’ as an unforgivable reviewers’ cliché) but in spite of myself I can’t help agreeing with what seems to be commonly accepted, that Riley is, especially in these times when self-identification seems so central to cultural discourse… pretty important. 

Yet, where I say Riley says this or Riley says that in this review, I can imagine her wincing should she ever read it, because it is clear that she doesn’t really believe that she writes the poetry at all, and that it would be much closer to the truth to say that the words write her. She refers to this obliquely and directly in Lurex, and in The Words of Selves she states it plainly as the paradox at the heart of her ‘linguistic unease’; it’s a lovely passage:

Words are brought forward as things, even if their semantic element is not completely overthrown. Stuff predominates, but sense insistently wells up through it later. This generates awkwardness at being called a writer, because really I am largely written. Writing, my writing, has got to know far more than I know for it to be of any interest whatsoever. It knows superficially – at its surface laid bare to scrutiny. I wrote it, but more interestingly I didn’t; yet I am not its agent or vice versa. As writer, I must be the ostensible source of my own work, yet I know that I’ve only been the conduit for the onrush, or for the rusty trickle, of language.

from The Words of Selves, p. 90

This understanding of language as worker and language-user as work-in-progress (that which is ‘worked on’ to quote ‘What are you working on’ from Lurex) follows the Continental strand of philosophy much beloved of Riley and which is central to many of the Culture War (sic) squabbles that have been flustering people for the past five or six years. Riley is concerned with how we are created by our shared understanding of words, and as such she is as worth reading as Judith Butler on gender and identity. Lurex introduces complexity to the question of gender pronouns without claxon-signalling a position in any spurious ‘debate’, by highlighting them as a feature of language. The importance of pronouns has been part of Riley’s work since her first collection, Marxism for Infants (1977), where she says in ‘A note on sex and the ‘reclaiming of language’’, “The work is / e.g. to write ‘she’ and for that to be a statement / of fact only, and not a strong image / of everything which is not-you, which sees you”. But where in that early work the pronoun reference seems most likely aimed at steeling feminism to wrest language from the patriarchy, in Lurex they take on a more paradoxical, less easily defined importance (although her pokes at the patriarchy remain gloriously intact): 

To write the word she does less than you might think. Or it does more. 

To write the word she does more than you might think. Or it does less. 

What about he? – Well, what about he. 

Typing a solitary word, indifferent, doesn’t do much one way or another. 

from ‘Colour words, person words’

The pronoun minefield is stepped into with almost comic glibness in ‘Prize Cultures’, during a wittily sardonic comment on the contemporary poetry scene, where we read: 

‘They’ is storming the Recommendeds for International Pronouns of Boldness (mine was always an ‘it’). 

from ‘Prize Cultures’

This poem was published in the TLS as a stand-alone, and I can’t help feeling that if it had been written by a less well-known, and less incontrovertibly good, poet, it might have received words of criticism from some areas (perhaps it did and I missed them). But, like colours, our perception of poems changes depending on those that surround them, and the sequence that follows ‘Prize Cultures’ in Lurex, ‘1948’ – fifteen shocking and powerful poems about the abuse of a child who I take to be Riley herself (my doubts about autobiography in Lurex notwithstanding) – shows that the poem’s ‘it’ is far from mocking other people’s pronoun choices, it is in fact a sign of the dehumanisation visited on an adopted child by violent adoptive parents, and as such it is a comment on the profound importance of what we call each other and what we call ourselves (if there is an archness to the line quoted above it is aimed at the current fuss made around pronouns rather than the pronoun choices themselves):  

I tell my past it’s passed, though it can’t tell. 

More training, to teach obedience: the toddler 

who’d wet herself gripped by the scruff of the neck 

and her nose rubbed in it, in freshly damp white cotton. 

Their real beloved dog I envied, while I stayed an ‘it’  

burrowing through straw quills in the kennel 

to study the grace of the dog, to poach the secret of being liked. 

Yet gradually, my life as an ‘it’ has grown muscular. 

Almost, I am that dog. 

‘from 1948’

This “muscular” life as an ‘it’ is key here I think, because it represents the strength of a learned empowerment and self-actualisation, the arrival at a point of that, albeit ironic, dog-like grace. 

Riley is an advocate for and analyst of irony, as mentioned above, and she deploys it throughout Lurex to great and subtle effect, often burying it just below the surface, and as an addendum to allusions. One example of this is her apparent allusion to Lucretius in the prose poem ‘All, as a rule, fall towards their wound’, which while it is a reference to Lucretius, it is also pointing us back to Riley herself, the prose writer rather than the poet, as it is a quote which forms the title and part of the structure of a chapter in The Words of Selves (‘The wounded fall in the direction of their wound’, Ch 4). Is this irony? Well, I think so, but irony is, as any reader of Riley’s work knows, more complicated than Alanis Morissette’s critics would have us believe. Here is an allusion which simultaneously directs the reader away from and towards the poet (perhaps what allusion always does – a multi-layering of irony?), and which echoes in poetic form her own line of thought from more than twenty years ago; it calls out and back to itself, it distances and modifies – all features of irony mentioned by Riley. The poem gives symbolic resonance to the notion that we do ourselves a psychological disservice, having been as Riley says, “wounded by an aggressive description”, even a self-description, if we dwell too immovably on ourselves as wounded. 

The wounded fall in the direction of their wound in the sense that the injury, if narrated enough and without transformation, has the terrible capacity to embrace and infiltrate the whole person…I can easily become not just ‘the walking wounded’, but in myself a walking wound. Walking, and talking too; and once I am a talking wound, I am at grave risk of being heard only as a scar on legs.

From The Words of Selves p. 125

This brings us back to both the wound of a child physically and verbally abused by those charged with her protection, and perhaps to the different and differently difficult wound of being labelled a grieving mother.  

Here is the poem in full: 

The sentence at the centre of the poem, is also at the heart of its meaning, relating it back to the chapter quoted above, as I think the title encourages us to do: “Here the raised axe is no more than its action” – its meaning is removed in the same way as it is from words which have no receiving ear (“should a human receiver / fail to bear that light / clatter where no ear is.” – ‘What are you working on?’). I feel that in both the case of language and the violent action we are in Kantian – or more likely Hegelian – territory here, with a stripping down to the noumenon.  Poetry, like religion perhaps, edging towards the unknowable. This death-bringing gesture is a monument to the dead, and its meaning ends there. It is not the ‘old violence’ itself. What is to be gained, the wondering voice wonders, from sharpening those painful, even self-shattering, events from the past and making them real again by considering oneself a ‘survivor’? Would the recipient of this old violence attain some form of “purely secular grace”, or just become a “walking wound”? But the poem ends with a caution which may be aimed at the speaker herself or outwards at those who are tempted to define themselves through their victimhood: Agnes of Rome is patron saint of among other things, girls – and more particularly virgins and victims of sexual abuse – here I take her to be symbolising women as victims, which would of course include Riley herself if she in her autobiographical self is an intended presence – and the double meaning of Agnes’s emblematic lamb “bleating” feels pointed, but I’m not sure what to make of it. Perhaps this is the bleating of a lost or scared lamb – or a bleat of pain – rather than one of complaint. 

In common with a number of the poems in the collection, colour words abound, and they are given such physicality (“cloaks drip carmine and rose velvets glow”) that they seem to exemplify and elucidate what Riley calls “the flesh of words” (The Words of Selves, p.111), the materiality of language that creates us even as we feel we create it. This is why I think that separating Riley’s prose from her poetry is a mistake – they are both part of the same project of working with this raw material of language that is a physical reality in the world – her prose is expository, while her poetry is exemplifying and experimental. 

What lays across Riley’s work, for all its complexity, its sadness and its nuanced anger, is a deeply intelligent and knowing humour; the eagle-eyed reader will have noticed numerous instances of this above. Her humour is inseparable from her irony and comes across with varying degrees of centrality to the poems but is always present even if on the periphery (central to ‘Prize Cultures’ and ‘To a Lady, viewed by a Head-Louse’, on the periphery of ‘Another Agony in the Garden’, ‘Lone Star clattering’, ‘Person on train in August’ and others); and it is as much part of her language’s meaning-making as the grief, loneliness and “vast motherliness”. There is, we might say, a twinkle in her ‘I’. “Dark yet sparkly – / the seriousness of it!” she says in the titular ‘Lurex’. This describes a quality of Lurex the material but could also stand in for the paradoxical language of the Self itself…profound yet silly, heavy yet light, depressing yet amusing etc. 

‘Lone Star clattering’ is a nice example of peripheral humour. It picks up on the “light / clatter where no ear is” from ‘What are you working on?’ and blends the Texan imagery with the idea of someone happy in their own company (being alone she is in fact in a ‘lone star state’) to create a brief inner monologue that again expresses doubt that dwelling on the wound of past pain is helpful: “to canter around its crimson / rosette would tart up a harm”. The poem has begun in high seriousness with “What got done to me stains / through my hopes of passing // as fully human” but here in the third couplet ‘canter’ raises a small smile as it blends the horsiness of the Lone Star State with a very British sense of brisk and easy human movement, which is then consolidated with the “crimson / rosette” which ironically turns a traumatic wound image into a child-like sporting award, and takes it further with “tart up”, jarring with both the seriousness of the poem’s opening and the Americana of “yellow rose” and “Amarillo” that come a few couplets later. Having been shot down like an enemy fighter jet in the first line of the final couplet, the speaker then declares “Yet do I rise, a tad orange”, turning into both morning star and phoenix, picking up perhaps the rousing declamatory mode of Shelley’s “rise like lions”, only to puncture it with the archaic Britishism “tad” in the final clause, the lovely intentional bathos echoing the “orangey grey” of the morning light in ‘Plaguey winter’, and maybe even the “strayed montbretia’s orange flecks” in ‘Is there nobody in here?’. I wonder whether this kind of inter-poem repetition of particular words and intra-poem deflation of the move towards bombast, is a poetic experiment in irony’s potential for protecting the identifying Self against what Riley refers to in The Words of Selves as “cadences for antagonism…(which)…rise as syntactical forms”. Noting that “there may be a syntax of both remembered and anticipatory hostility”, she goes on to ask, “Is there some way in which irony itself can modify this grammar in its latent capacity for damage?” (p.171-2). 

So, I may be guilty of “confidently misconstru(ing)” Lurex, and “think(ing) up…ingeniously elaborate sources” for its associations (as I say above, it wouldn’t be the first time); but I choose to read this brilliant collection as an experiment in psycholinguistics and the sheer materiality of language, and as an expression of the ways in which people (particularly women of course but I don’t see why men need be entirely excluded) hurt by past violence might work towards new strength and grace; and more, through the “clear and plain…songs” of our “billions-fold democracy of distress “, which are “hummable” like plainchant, and hymns, and the buzzing of bees, we might do it in solidarity with each other. 

You can buy Lurex from Picador, here

You can buy The Words of Selves from Stanford University Press, here

Some online material relating to Denise Riley: 

Riley in conversation with Professor Lisa Baraitser from Studies in the Maternal, specifically on the interruption of the sense of temporality described in Time Lived, Without It’s Flow, here. 

Conversation between Riley, Emily Berry and Max Porter concerning their experiences of loss, in which Riley explains among other things her dislike of the word ‘grief’ and her reasons for writing about her son’s death and the language she used to do it, here

Riley and Berry discuss a couple of poems which were later published in Lurex, here

John Self’s Guardian review of Time Lived, Without It’s Flow and Selected Poems, here

Ange Mlinko’s 2016 review of Say Something Back, here. 

Interview in PN Review with Romana Huk from 1995, in which Riley gives in-depth analysis of her work. Behind a paywall – but if you don’t subscribe to PN Review, you should consider it, here.  

An interesting essay by Marxist-feminist Helen Charman, who was inspired by Riley’s early collections but is suspicious of the bourgeois attention given to her later work, here.  

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