I heard this poem for the first time a week ago, at the Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival, lovingly and expertly curated by David Woolley and Ann Gray. If you don’t know it, get down there. It is beautiful space where art and landcsape and music and poetry intersect and feed off each other. Next year’s dates are 27-29 May. Book yourself in for the whole weekend, which is what I’m going to do. You won’t regret it.
The reading in question was the closing performance of the Saturday night’s festivities, a showcase of young talent from the South West. The evening opened with poets reading their own and others’ work, including this extraordinary poem of Denise Riley. In a faultless rendition of the poem, our speaker expertly guided us through the poem’s breathtaking shifts and turns which demand complete attentiveness from the listener/reader.
And, right on cue, it began raining: ‘Rain lyrics. Yes, then the rain lyrics fall.’ So I now read the poem with the electric memory of its nerveless delivery in my mind: a young woman declaring Riley’s lines as though they had just occurred to her below a non-soundproofed roof with the elements closing in. What do we want from a poetry reading? We are all different, but alongside the preparedness to be vulnerable I would also take drama, and an openness to the risk of the given moment. By which I mean acknowledgement of the rain above you, by which I mean pretending as though you had arranged it that way. This reading had that. All of it.
‘I don’t want absence to be this beautiful’. The poem has already spoken of ‘tearing my’ soul and my conscience apart’, so the naming of absence rammed up against the assertion of beauty feels jarring. Tonally it is a perfect mimicking of an interior dialogue with a startled other self, shift-twisting away from a sensible rendition of the ‘loss’ at the poem’s core. The poem jams in febrile phrase making (‘your memory’s/ dead’, ‘unhappy pleasure’, ‘bossy death’) and ever-more extraordinary images: ‘upturned’ and ‘unfurnished’ leaves; ‘a pool with an eye in it’; and those marvellous ‘shrimps’, who may or may not be ‘good mothers’.
The poem appears to assert ‘There is no beauty out of loss’, closing with the speaker ‘looking for a brand-new start’. In this way the main action remains out of sight and in the future, something that we will not see or hear. The use of ‘looking’ reminded me of a very different poem, Ted Hughes’s ‘Wodwo’, whose last word it is. I badly want a sense of resolution, a happy ending if you will, but see no sign of it being presented. Some kind of search (for healing? for recompense?) has been enacted, but ‘never […] ever […] don’t’ puts paid to such easy wishes.