Friday, January 8, 2010

Selected Poems, by Denise Riley

I have previously posted one of Denise Riley's poems on this blog, but I just finished her (too slim) volume of selected poems. I haven't read very much poetry over the past few months, so perhaps I'm out of practice, but reading Riley is a profoundly unsettling experience.

When a poem is really working for me, I have a sense that I am in some way inside the poem and that its contours and dimensions are recognizable if not also familiar. There is a sense of measured space, delimited and agreed upon by the author and myself. And at times, I feel this very much with Riley's poems, or more often, with specific lines. But frighteningly often, I get no sense of space at all, or rather I get a sense of an architecture that remains insensible to me—not alien, but actually indetectable. This is a far different feeling from the irregular but in the end mostly predictable shapes of surrealist or Ashberian lines; if Riley is playing games, they are not meant to be noticed superficially. There are puns, occasionally—some in sight, some in sound—but they seem somehow less like linguistic tricks or semantic lacunae than like something embedded more deeply, signs of a more subliminal disturbance.

In part, though, these effects are the direct and unsubtle effects of two of Riley's favorite themes: skin vs. the corporeal interior and the public vs. the private. (Of contemporary British poets I've read, only Geoffrey Hill might use the word "civic" more.) A characteristic sequence might be

I'm not outside anything: I'm not inside it either.
There's no democracy in beauty, I'm following

human looks. though people spin away, don't
be thrown by their puzzling lives, later the lives

secrete their meaning. The red sun's on the rain.
Where do I put myself, if public life's destroyed.

Only to manage something blindingly sweet. I'm
too old now to want to be careful. Then I wasn't.

What you see is what you could have easily. You
could. Or take me home. Another kind of thought,

liquid behind speech, bleeds away from it altogether.
I washed my son in the morning milk.

Sliced into the shine of now, a hand on a blade.
A wound, taproot in its day, its red blossom in light.
("Knowing in the Real World")

This is fairly straightforward as far as Riley's work goes, but the themes are consistent with a good deal of the poems represented in this Selected. It is a strange and eerie poetry; it feels to me like it is full of menace, but not a lurking menace—light is ever-present; there are few shadows in Riley's lines, and even precious little negative space. So much seems unenclosed—disclosed maybe—constantly brought to light. Maybe light is itself the menace or the bearer of menace. A strange thought.

At any rate, I think Riley's somewhat difficult to track down in the States, but if you can, find her. The post I linked to above has links to two of her other poems, and there may be a few more floating around the internet. They're more than worth your while.

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