Denise Riley

Working Note

The three texts included here are all part of Riley’s Selected Poems. ‘A shortened set’ (originally from Mop Mop Georgette) adapts a line from a traditional song from Nigeria, and repeats one Stevie Winwood phrase and a Lewley Gore line from ‘It’s My Party’ written by W. Gold, J. Gluck Jr, and H. Wiener. The paintings referred to in ‘A shortened set’ are by Ian McKeever. ‘Wherever you are, be somewhere else’ (Mop Mop Georgette) is a title based on the Nintendo Game Boy slogan; the italicised phrases in the poem are adapted from the old Chyavash, from the play The Peach Blossom Faz by K’ung Shang-jen, and from the ballads ‘Fair Annie of Lochryan’ and ‘Sweet Willia and fair Annie’ in Alexander Gardner’s The Ballad Minstrelsy of Scotland, 1893 —also a source of the lines italicised in ‘Knowing the real World’. The title of ‘Outside from the Start’ is from Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception: ‘Nothing determines me from outside, not because nothing acts upon me, but on the contrary because I am from the start outside myself and open to the world’









A Shortened Set

All the connectives of right recall
have grown askew. I know
a child could have lived,  that
my body was cut. This cut
my memory half-sealed but glued
the edges together awry.
The skin is distorted, the scar-tissue
does the damage, the accounts are wrong.
And this is called 'the healing process'.
Now nothing's aligned properly.
It's a barbarous zone.
The bad sutures
thicken with loss and hope -
brilliant,  deliberate
shaking patients in an anteroom
refusing the years,  ferocious to be called
so l'll snip through the puckered skin
to where they tug for re-aligning. Now
steady me against inaccuracy, a Iyric urge
to showing-off. The easy knife
is in my hand again. Protect me.


Small is the history, and dark.
Its purplish valleys are unfurled
as the militant trees clash over it together.
I'd long in its steep descent to slip
past fuss and toughness to escape
both well-oiled grief and an escaper's
cheery whistling. Tedious. This
representing yourself,  desperate to get it right,
as if you could, is that the aim of the writing?
'I haven't got off lightly, but I got off' - that won't
deflect your eyes that track you through the dark.
There is the traveller,  there the decline
and his sex that the journey strips from him. A
perfectly democratic loneliness sets out
down the mined routes of speaking to its life.
So massively,  gently,  should it go
that it might overtake
even the neatest Professor of Speed.


The last sun on dark red brick burns violet-black where
I wait to get back something in the narrows of the city
under its great sides,  whose brick or painted walls
glow into the paler light above them, a hugely quiet halo
formed from the internal heat of rooftops. These seep
their day off to the sky cupped very coolly distant
over this tight rim. My heart takes grateful note
to be in life,  the late heat shaped in bricks of air
stuck out,  hot ghosts to catch my hand on.
The slap of recognition that you know.
Your feelings,  I mean mine,  are common to us all:
that puts you square between relief and boredom
under the standoffish sky.
In this I'm not unique,  I'm just
the only one who thinks I'm not. Maybe.


How can black paint be warm ? It is. As ochre
stains slip into flooding milk, to the soft black
that glows and clots in sooty swathes.
Its edges rust, it bleeds lamp-black
slow pools,  as planes of dragged cream
shoot over it to whiteness,  layered.
Or the cream paint,  leaden,  wrinkles: birch bark
in slabs,  streaked over a peeling blue.  A twist
of thought is pinned there.  A sexual black.  And I
can't find my way home. Yet wandering there I may.
By these snow graphics. Ice glazed
to a grey sheen,  hard across dark grass spikes.


Is that what's going on - the slow
replacement of a set of violent feelings
by neutral ones. The hell if so.
There has been damage,  which must stop at me.
I think that's finished. Then the underside
of a brushed wing unsettles things.
I'd cup that powdery trace in mind
like a big moth in a matchbox,  whirring.


Are you alright I ask out there
straining into the dusk to hear.
I think its listening particles of air
at you like shot.
You're being called across your work
or - No I don't want that thought.
Nor want to get this noise to the point
it interests me. It's to you. Stop.




Am I alright you don't ask me.
Oh probably,  and in the heart
of this light on hills it is for me
alone to speak.  No triumph.
This milky light's a fact and the broad air
and the strip of primrose water,  a long way down.
That red dot is my car,  let's go

Or let I go.


- That black dot was myself.
I strike you as complete:
a late unpacking in life
in hope of a human view.
After these nights of rain on
the mountain the water's running
so hard it's marbled white
the streams like heavy snow.
Deletions are sifting down'
onto the study floor - Cut
more cut more,  mutter my
hearing creatures,  snouts
rooting upward for light.
They push to nudge my
failures aside and go but
what would become of me in
the quiet once they were out.
Will you be good towards these animals of unease
I can just about call them home.


Coffee goes coppery on my tongue today
as 'Let's Dance' is hammered out again on the radio.
It was my party and I wept not wanting to.
'Mother of children, don't go into the house in the dark'.
Letters crash onto the hall floor with their weight of intelligence and junk.
I get up with hope for them,  until word may finally arrive.


It is called feeling but is its real name thought?
Moons in their spheres are not so bland as these.
A round O says I feel and all agree.
Walking by many on London streets
in a despair which carries me
I look from face to face like a dog going
in the social democracy of loneliness.
May move instead through a shimmer
around me of racial beauty crying like something expensive which
breaks into eyes sparkling all over skin.


It's that simple
in another town.
No, it doesn't know me
nor this train I'm on.

The ex-poet's beside herself:
'Here in the clouded
red, the grey, the burnt
oak forest,  the rails shake'.

Safely I'll love it by letter
yet skip the 'better
that way' to cancel
the doubter's rhyme,  trembling.


Aha we are frozen
stiff as young hyacinths –
outrageous blue
decides to leave green.


I'd drive anywhere with anyone,  just
to have that held sense of looking out
from a container,  amiably,  stolidly while
I'm portered by. Along the ring-road
murmurous orange lights on stilts with
necks stuck out like herons on the grey
slipway,  angled above the cars repeating
themselves fast and fast as if they were one.
When I'm unloaded and stood in dread
at home encircled by my life,  whose
edges do show - then I so want it to run
and run again,  the solitary travelling perception.
Road movie: Protectedness,  or,  Gets through time.

An ice blue calm,  violently sustained,
has got to know a thing about this nation
and our being in it.
How do I act,  then,  properly
without a sticky modesty
in the crammed-fullness of the place
too dense for story threads to pierce?
I'm quiet. I'm at the end of all opinion.
Should I not know where clearness lies.
Time has run short and I need company
to crack my separate stupidity.  I'd thought
to ask around,  what's lyric poetry?
Its bee noise starts before I can:
You do that;  love me;  die alone.


Don't quote the ‘we’
of pairs,  nor worse,  of sentient
humanity,  thanks.

That's attitudinising,  in those
three lines. That's what I do.
Help me out of it,  you
you sentient humanity.

I was signed up for a course
on earth by two others who left me and
left me impossibly slow at Life Skills

at admitting unlikeness or grasping the
dodgem collision whose shock isn't
truth but like the spine says is no

deception. I hate the word
collusion used of love but in the end
I wasn't anyone else ever -

that I sweated blood to force
lucidity to come as if headlocked
by history,  to explain I really was -

all that was powered by desperation -
the thought of it makes me mortified.
Then after years,  so-whattish:

The loves are returned to
themselves,  leaving
an out post-sexual.

Unanxious,  today.
A feeling of rain
and dark happiness.

Rain slops into dust
caught underfoot
in short grit runnels.

Faint news from the wharf
peppered on skin in
fresh patters of rain.

The evening lightens.
A friend's shout
blown inaudibly.

Sit. See,  from the riverside
winds buzz new towers
of puzzling wealth.

Curved to this view
the gleam of a moment's
social rest.

Hair lit to a cloud
the sunlight lowering
first hesitant then strong.

In a rush
the glide of the heart
out on a flood of ease.


Outside from the Start


What does the hard look do to what it sees?
Pull beauty out of it, or stare it in?  Slippery

heart on legs clops into the boiling swirl as
a pale calm page shoots up,  opening rapidly

to say I know – something unskinned me, so
now it bites into me – it has skinned me alive,

I get dried from dark red to dark windspun
withered jerky,  to shape handy flyports out

of my lattice,  or pulled out am membranes
arched bluish,  webby,  staked out to twang

or am mouthslick of chewed gum, dragged
in a tearing tent,  flopped to a raggy soft sag.

Yet none have hard real edges, since each one
is rightly spilled over,  from the start of her life.

How long do I pretend to be all of us.
Will you come in out of that air now.


Black shadows, sharp scattered green
sunlit in lime,  in acid leaves.

Hot leaves,  veined with the sun
draining the watcher's look of all colour

so a dark film moves over her sight.
Then the trees glow with inside light.

Hold to the thought if it can shine
straight through a dream of failed eyes sliding

to the wristwatch's face, wet under its glass
a thickening red meniscus tilting across its dial.


And then my ears get full of someone's teeth again
as someone's tongue

as brown and flexible as a young giraffe's
rasps all round someone else's story –

a glow of light that wavers and collapses
in a phttt of forgiving what's indifferent to it:

not the being worked mechanically but the stare
to catch just what it's doing to you –

there's the revulsion point,  puffs up a screen
tacks cushiony lips on a face-shaped gap

a-fuzz with a hair corona,  its mouth a navel
not quiet,  and disappointing as adult chocolate –

I'd rather stalk as upright as a gang of arrows
clattering a trolley down the aisles

though only the breastbone stone
the fair strung weltering

a softening seashore clay
steel-blue with crimps of early history

the piney trees their green afire
a deep light bubbling to grey

long birds honking across
the scrub,  the ruffled shore

coral beaks dab at froth
the pinched sedge shirring

unbroken moor, spinney rushes
petticoat brine,  bladderwrack-brown

coppice rustlers, always a one to fall
for – Cut it,  blank pennywort charm,  or

punch of now that rips the tireless air
or gorgeous finger-stroke of grime.


True sweetness must fan out to find its end
but tied off from its object it will swell –

lumping across sterile air it counts itself
lonely and brave.  At once it festers. Why shape

these sentiments, prosecution witnesses, in violet
washes of light where rock cascades to water bluer

than powdering hopes of home. A hook's tossed out
across one shoulder to snag on to any tufts of thrift:

Have I spoken only when things have hardened?
But wouldn't the fact of you melt a watch?

Unfurls no father-car umbrella here. No beautiful
fate is sought,  nor any cut-out heart renunciation

– if only some Aztec god could get placated! But he don't –
there's just a swollen modesty to champ at its own breast.

High on itself, it sings of its own end,  rejoicing
that this cannot come about. Because I am alive here.


The muscled waves reared up,  and scrupulously
no hints of mock neutrality were lost.

Containment-led indifference, or conspiracy
accounts of generals' pensions,  cost

no setback for the partners of democracy
who portioned barnyards out to each volost

while florid in the twilight, Nation stood
alight above the low dismembered good.

Wherever You Are, Be Somewhere Else

A body shot through, perforated, a tin sheet
beaten out then peppered with thin holes,
silvery, leaf-curled at their edges; light flies

right through this tracery, voices leap, slip side-
long, all faces split to angled facets: whichever
piece is glimpsed, that bit is what I am, held

in a look until dropped like an egg on the floor
let slop, crashed to slide and run, yolk yellow
for the live, the dead who worked through me.

Out of their lined shell the young snakes broke
past skin fronds stretched over sunless colour or
lit at a slant, or saturated grey - a fringe flapping

round nothing,  frayed on a gape of glass, perspex
seen through,  seen past,  no name,  just scrappy
filaments lifting and lifting over in the wind.

Draw the night right up over my eyes so that I
don't see and then I'm gone; push the soft hem
of the night: into my mouth so that I stay quiet

when an old breeze buffets my face to muffle
me in terror of being left,  or is that a far worse
terror of not being left. No. Inching flat out

over a glacier overhanging blackness I see no
edge but will tip where its glassy cold may stop
short and hard ice crash to dark air. What do

the worms sing, rearing up at the threshhold?
Floating a plain globe goes,  the sky closes.
But I did see by it a soul trot on ahead of me.

I can try on these gothic riffs, they do make
a black twitchy cloak to both ham up and so
perversely dignify my usual fear of ends.

To stare at nothing,  just to get it right
get nothing right,  with some faint idea of
this as a proper way to spend a life. No,  what

I really mean to say instead is,  come back
won't you, just all of you come back, and give
me one more go at doing it all again but doing it

far better this time round – the work, the love stuff
so I go to the wordprocessor longing for line cables
to loop out of the machine straight to my head

and back,  as I do want to be only transmission -
in sleep alone I get articulate,  to mouth the part of
anyone and reel off others' characters until the focus 

of a day through one-eyed self sets in again: go into it.
I must.  The flower breaks open to its bell of sound
that rings out through the woods.
I eat my knuckles

hearing that.  I've only earned a modern,  what,  a flatness.
Or no, I can earn nothing, but maybe
some right to stop now and to say to you, Tell me.

- That plea for mutuality's not true. It's more ordinary that
flying light should flap me away into a stream of specks
a million surfaces without a tongue and I never have wanted

'a voice' anyway,  nor got it.  Alright.  No silver coin has been
nailed to your house's forehead you dog-skin among the fox fur
where did you get that rosewater to make your skin so white?

I did get that rosewater before I came to the light grass
shakes in a wind running wild over tassels of barley
the sails were of the light green silk sewn of both gold

and white money, take down take down the sails of silk set up
the sails of skin and something dark
and blurred upon the ground
where something else patrols it,  cool,  nervous,  calling out

Stop now. Hold it there. Balance. Be beautiful. Try.
– And I can't do this. I can't talk like any of this.
You hear me not do it.

Bio: Denise Riley's critical books include: The Words of Selves: Identification, Solidarity, Irony (Standofrd, Standford University Press, 2000), “Am I That Name?” Feminism and the Category of “Women in History” (London, Macmillan, 1988, and Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, USA, 1988, reprinted 1993), Poets on Writing; Britain, 1970-1991 (edited and introduced; London, Macmillan, 1992), and War in the Nursery; Theories of the Child and Mother (London, Virago, 1983), She also has eight collections of poetry including Mop Mop Georgette (Reality Street Editions, London, 1993), Penguin Modern Poets Vol 10, with Iain Sinclair and Douglas Oliver. Her recently published Selected Poems (Reality Street Editions, 2001) provides an excellent cross-section of pieces from her overall poetic production and includes her outstanding and long out of print collection Mop Mop Georgette (Reality Street Editions, 1993) in a slightly reworked version. She is currently a Fellow at the University of East-Anglia.

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