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‘On this near side of a cut’: Fault Lines as ‘principle of song’ in Denise Riley’s Grief-Writing

‘On this near side of a cut’: faire de la faille le ‘principe de tout chant’ dans les écrits de deuil de Denise Riley
Héloïse Lecomte


Suite à la mort de son fils Jacob, victime d’une cardiomyopathie, la poète et philosophe anglaise Denise Riley a publié un recueil de poèmes intitulé Say Something Back, au sein duquel figure le célèbre poème « A Part Song », en 2016. Cette perte dévastatrice l’a également menée à écrire Time Lived without its Flow, un court ouvrage de non-fiction, mi-essai philosophique, mi-journal de deuil, en 2012. Dans cette œuvre où s’esquisse la poétique du deuil de Riley, l’autrice métaphorise la portée catastrophique de l’événement funèbre comme un glissement sismique qui force la figure de l’endeuillée à vivre « tout près de la coupure » (77). Par conséquent, l’expérience de la blessure, qui fait dérailler la perception du temps tout en créant des failles dans la mise en mémoire du défunt et dans la compréhension, semble empêcher l’accomplissement d’un processus de deuil. Les écrits de Riley explorent la nature de la faille et la représentent formellement et stylistiquement afin de mettre au jour la vulnérabilité du sujet endeuillé. Alors que l’élégie traditionnelle est décrite comme un poème de « perte mortelle et de consolation » par Peter Sacks (1987, 3), qui vise à guérir les blessures du deuil, l’émergence au xxe siècle de son double mélancolique, l’anti-élégie, cherche non pas à « atteindre, mais à résister à la consolation […], non pas à guérir mais à rouvrir les blessures de la perte » (Ramazani 1994, xi, ma traduction). L’écriture poétique, philosophique et autobiographique de la faille du deuil chez Riley est marquée par une friction entre élégie et anti-élégie, qui mène alors à l’émergence d’une troisième catégorie, déjouant la dichotomie entre deuil et mélancolie, guérison et (ré)ouverture de la blessure. L’esthétique du deuil de Riley pourrait ainsi être décrite comme une poétique de la vibration, une oscillation qui provient de la perte d’équilibre causée par l’événement funèbre. L’émotion ainsi engendrée semble devenir le « principe de tout chant » (Condello & Riley 2016), tout en interrogeant la notion de consolation.

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1In her 2021 memoir Aftershocks, Ghanaian and Armenian-American writer Nadia Owusu probes the metaphorical depth of earthquakes to record with a ‘seismic mind’ (212) the aftereffects of the private and public catastrophes that disrupted her life, namely her mother’s departure, her father’s death or the 9/11 attacks:

I think in seismic terms. They are everywhere in my journals.  . . . An earthquake is trauma and vulnerability: the earth’s, mine, yours. An earthquake is the ground breaking and the heart breaking. It is frictional forces and literary device. A fault is a weakness. A woman’s body is a weakness. A wound is a weakness I can’t help but pick at. Some wounds never heal. The fault is in my body. (212–13)

  • 1 The metaphor surfaces in Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, when the protagonist’s little brother Henry de (...)
  • 2 The original French reads thus: ‘le surgissement d’une perte qui fait événement, en ce qu’elle marq (...)

2Turning the earthquake both into a figure of vulnerability and a means of expression (‘literary device’), Owusu touches on the sense of relationality inherent in human life that Judith Butler posits in Precarious Life (2006). Though the geological metaphor provides fertile ground for the representation of grief and trauma,1 it is often enmeshed with embodied images of vulnerability such as the wound Owusu ‘can’t help but pick at’. Indeed, the shock and ‘radical rupture’ of someone’s death constitute an ontological and temporal breach in existence or ‘an internal conversion and a new relationship with time, now perceived both as fracture and as memory’, as Pierre Glaudes argues in Deuil et littérature (22).2 While, strictly speaking, fault lines precede and cause earthquakes, this temporal truism is turned on its head in the writing of grief as ‘aftershock’, where the fault line results from the fracturing event.

3When English poet and philosopher Denise Riley lost her adult son Jacob to undiagnosed cardiomyopathy, she endeavoured to put this experiential fault line into words, first in her essay Time Lived, Without its Flow (2012) and then in her poetry collection Say Something Back (2016). While the narrative form of the prose essay ostensibly focuses on the temporality of mourning, the poems seem to crystallise and dramatise unspeakable loss. Riley’s poetry has long explored the friction ‘between “expressive” and “experimental” poetries’ (Kinnahan 625) but this collection foregrounds the tension by probing the rift left by her son’s death. As for her grief journal/essay, it is the product of generic frictions that ‘cut across the boundaries of art forms’ (Skoulding in Robinson 275). It has bewildered many a critic and led to Judith Butler’s tentative definition: ‘I am not sure how to describe this essay since it has a phenomenological focus—the experience of finding time arrested in the aftermath of the death of a child—but it is neither pure philosophy nor a collection of poems’ (2020, 331). Both of Riley’s category-defying works thus illustrate the difficulty of putting the fracturing effect of death into words.

4Riley’s account of grief revolves around the figure of the rift, be it in the apprehension of time, the sense of self or language’s expressive abilities. Those preoccupations lie at the heart of the elegy, whose distinctive tone resonates through her works, echoing Clifton Spargo’s statement in The Ethics of Mourning that ‘the related economy of the elegy . . . deploys the language of psychic wounds as poetic capital’ (128). Now, while the desire to heal the wound underlies the traditional elegy (Sacks 3), the modern elegy or anti-elegy exhibits, according to Jahan Ramazani, an anti-consolatory stance, or a desire to ‘reopen the wounds of loss’ (xi) and thus dwell on the fault line. This article aims to investigate the ways in which Riley’s poetry and essay/journal complement each other and exploit the creative potential of the fault line in their attempt to represent the experience of loss. Indeed, the wounded self seems to be exposed through the fault lines of Riley’s vulnerable forms which syntactically and visually perform the wound. Does this textual performance of vulnerability showcase the possibility of healing and reaching a form of consolation or does it foreclose it entirely?

The Fault Lines of Grief: Literary Paradoxes

  • 3 While Time Lived, Without its Flow was published in 2012 and Say Something Back in 2016, I am using (...)
  • 4 In his philosophical study of death, Jankélévitch identifies a paradoxical blending of exceptionali (...)

5From its first pages, Time Lived, Without its Flow sets itself apart from other prose pieces of grief-writing: though inspired by autobiographical experience, it mostly eschews the reminiscing about the deceased and confessional tone that characterise the writing of canonical grief memoirs and journals such as C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (1960) or Roland Barthes’s Journal de deuil (2009). Riley foregrounds this distancing effect by only using her son’s initial, ‘J’ (TL 80),3 and referring to his passing as ‘the death’ (76), with a definite article instead of a possessive pronoun. Rather than primarily exposing her intimacy, the philosopher and poet strives to reflect on the ‘extraordinary feeling of a-temporality’ (71) that she experienced after the loss of her son. Since, according to Paul Eakin in Living Biographically, the self can be described as ‘a kind of awareness in process’ (2008), being cut from temporality fractures selfhood itself. In order to examine this condition, Riley performs some literary and generic tightrope-walking. Not only does her admission that she would ‘rather have steered clear of all autobiography’ (75) tersely express her wish to have never experienced the loss of a child, but it also shows that life-writing is but an entry point into her subject matter: the effect of death as the oxymoronic ‘banal, unique thing’ that Julian Barnes describes in his own memoir Levels of Life (2013, 68).4 The uncategorisable essay/journal is the result of friction between private heartbreak and Riley’s analysis of a shared human condition, but only insofar as the former helps illuminate the latter and leads to articulating a paradoxical ‘half-tellable ordinariness’ (TL 75). Riley’s philosophical stance thus introduces subtle nuances in her writing. Indeed, the metaphor of death as a fault line in the mourner’s narrative could easily be interpreted in the light of trauma theory, which ‘[centres] around the notion of piercing, or penetrating, the notion of “effraction” or wounding’ as Cathy Caruth reminds us in an online interview (2001). However, while the temporal and cognitive gap of the child’s death in the narrative and poetic texture shares characteristics with the writing of trauma, Riley refrains from using the ‘exceptionalist diction of “trauma”’ (TL 71) in order ‘to properly de-dramatize’ (75) an experience which is ‘not uncommon, I’m sure’ (72). The figure of the paradox is ubiquitous in Riley’s grief-writing, as she attempts to represent the unrepresentable by staging the friction between seemingly contradictory elements (‘the coexistence of antagonists’ identified by Jacqueline Barus-Michel in L’Énergie du paradoxe 7).

6Riley foregrounds the tension between the necessity of writing the wound and the very nature of the wound, described as ‘timeless and unrepresentable’ by Richard Kearney (in Ganteau and Onega 5). The wound as ‘cut’ is a defining and recurring polyptoton in her work: ‘that acute sensation of being cut off from any temporal flow that can grip you after the sudden death of your child’ (TL 71; italics added), ‘this cut through any usual feeling of chronology’ (84; italics added). Through comparisons and metaphors that evince emotional and physical violence (both ‘feeling’ and ‘sensation’), the experiencing subject is relegated to the position of passive object, stuck in the rift of arrested time. Both texts strive to represent ‘the puzzle of ‘what it ever truly meant/ For someone to be here then, just like that,/ To not.’ (‘A Part Song’, SSB 9), a cognitive and experiential gap that is embedded in the poetic form, as shown by the break of the run-on line and the poet’s final suspended line.

  • 5 For Katharina Lempe, ‘the motif of inexpressibility is typically used in an elegy to describe the d (...)

7The paradox of putting the unsayable into words that underlies the writing of elegy (Lempe 88)5 calls for a specific form of expression, as Garrett Stewart argues in Death Sentence: ‘death, waiting untamed beyond any representation, remains, for all its attendant anxiety, unthinkable; for all its tenacity, in the root sense untenable—refusing containment either of content or by form—becoming in itself just a form or figure of speech’ (4). The generational breach caused by the loss of a child thus leads to a failure of both cognition and language, which Riley comments on:

There’s no specific noun for a parent of a dead child; nothing like the terms for other losses such as ‘orphan’ or ‘widower’. No single word exists, either, for an ‘adult child’—an awkward phrase which could suggest a large floppy-limbed doll. For such a historically common condition as outliving your own child, the vocabulary is curiously thin. (TL 74)

8The accumulation of negative forms and the incongruous portrayal of the lost child as a lifeless puppet underline the failure of language to adequately convey the nature of the loss. Riley thus resorts to oblique linguistic strategies to circumvent inexpressibility. Puns feature prominently, such as this half-desperate, half-humorous antanaclasis that conveys the philosopher-as-mother’s sense of powerlessness: ‘you conceived the child, but you can’t conceive of its death’ (90). The inversion of giving birth into proclaiming death accompanies the shift from embodiment (‘conceive’) to the abstraction (‘conceive of’) and disembodiment of death. Likewise, the frequent use of inverted commas highlights the existential breach and the disjunction (or fault line) between what is said and what is meant:

Knowing and also not knowing that he’s dead. Or I ‘know’ it, but privately I can’t feel it to be so. . . . This knowing and not knowing is useful, for it allows the truthful richness of all those shades of acknowledging and dissenting. Half-realizing while half-doubting, assenting while demurring, conceding while finding it ludicrously implausible—so many distinctions, all of them nicely in play. (78)
I don’t experience him as in the least dead, but simply as ‘away’. (99)

9Inverted commas syntactically introduce a friction between the mourner’s discourse and her experience and open up a liminal space between denial and acceptance, characterised by the friction between binaries, which leads to a language of concession (the conjunctions ‘knowing and not knowing’, ‘half-realizing while half-doubting’). The irruption of inverted commas in poems usually builds up ‘sites in which a kind of counter-discourse plays with or argues with or interrupts an expected discourse’, according to Neil Corcoran (231). In Riley’s essay, the intrusion of a discourse of wishful thinking that contradicts reality syntactically represents the cognitive fault line of grief. Another form of disjunction appears with Riley’s use of the hypothetical comparison ‘as if’ throughout her essay, in her attempt to describe the unrepresentable: ‘it’s not only as if the ashes of your child had blocked your own mouth, but as if your own future is as neatly guillotined’ (TL 95). Analogies thus introduce a ‘comparison of the condition with often abstract yet renderable states’ (Colby 10) and supplement factual language in the attempt to represent the experiential fault line.

10Finally, the cognitive failure is figured by textual rifts, turning the work into a ‘vulnerable form’, which ‘not only shows but also performs the vulnerability that it thematises’ (Ganteau 2013, n.p.). The existential wound tears through Riley’s writing, with breaks between paragraphs and stanzas, as well as syntactic and punctuation choices that fragment the discourse (a comma even bisects the very title of the essay Time Lived, Without its Flow):

Neither my note nor my critique of it
Will save us one iota. I know it. And.
(‘A Part Song’, ii, 2020 7)

All that
Should flow is sealed, is poised
In implacable stillness. Joined in
Non-time and halted in free fall. (xvii, 13)

11In these examples, the run-on lines, syntax and clipped statement appear to perform the experiential fault line, the paradoxical representation of the unthinkable. The accumulation of semantically-charged past participles (‘sealed’, ‘poised’, ‘joined’ and ‘halted’) builds up the sense of arrested time.

12The work’s last crucial paradox lies in the representation of this sense of a-temporality, as Riley evokes the stopping of the flow of time, but within the narrative and temporal medium of the journal. Upon perusing the essay/journal’s table of contents, one may note that the narrative structure hinges around the temporal breach of death.

Time Lived, Without its Flow: table of contents

Time Lived, Without its Flow: table of contents
  • 6 Riley acknowledges the paradox and deems it a logical aporia: ‘any written or spoken sentence would (...)
  • 7 In the original French: ‘vrai deuil insusceptible d’aucune dialectique narrative’ (60).

13The shard in time caused by the event is deeply embedded in the textual fabric and the tectonics of the narrative: ‘the death’ becomes implicit after the first two titles, like a phantom presence that needs no longer be worded as the focus shifts onto the condition that derives from it. All twelve sections, followed by a ‘postscript’ and an ‘afterword’, are therefore fragments of the aftermath, but they seem to record temporal, if not emotional, progression. As Barry Schwabsky remarks in his review: ‘the very experience that Riley wants to describe is contradicted by the nature of the only language she has to communicate it’ (n.p.)6 and this paradox once again encapsulates the mourner’s condition. While for Barthes in his Journal de deuil, ‘true grief’, like melancholy, is ‘not susceptible to any narrative dialectic’ (60; translation mine),7 the narrative friction in the very structure of Riley’s work suggests a possibility of movement (similar to the energy inherent in the figure of the paradox for Jacqueline Barus-Michel), thus distinguishing her experience from melancholy.

14The time of grief, which remains poised on the fault line of a-temporality, could be defined as a time of the ‘interval’ (‘temps confondu avec son intervalle’ [Blanchot 63]), a liminal zone of suspension, since, according to Jean-Michel Maulpoix, ‘elegy [as a ritual] inscribes itself in an interval’ (45). The interval, both as a musical term and as an in-between space, becomes a poetic and creative principle in the poem ‘A Part Song’. While a sense of progression ensues from its division into twenty numbered sections, poetry circumvents narrative logic, as Butler argues in her analysis of Riley’s work, ‘though in poetry lines are themselves sequential, they are not necessarily parallel on the page, nor do they advance time in the way that a plot is supposed to do’ (2020, 336). The poetics of the interval derive from this paradoxical friction between poetic suspension and narrative drive. In one section of the poem, which touches upon the memory of the deceased, all the ages of man are packed into one stanza:

Each child gets cannibalized by its years.
It was a man who died, and in him died
The large-eyed boy, then the teen peacock`
In the unremarked placid self-devouring
That makes up being alive. But all at once
Those natural overlaps got cut, then shuffled
Tight in a block, their layers patted square. (iv, 7)

15Poetry allows Riley to turn memorialization into a ‘concentration of temporal layers which should have been laid out sequentially’, for Alice Troy-Donovan (2016, n.p.). The poem as a ‘tight block’ thus reproduces the suspension of temporal sequence, and defines a textual space for the paradoxical experience of writing life ‘on this near side of a cut’ (Riley 2020, 77).

Staging the Fault Line: The Cracked Monument of Poetry

  • 8 The solidification of the self is associated with the experiential fault line of a-temporality, as (...)

16Throughout Say Something Back, metaphors of the poem as monument recur, building on a topos that harkens back to Horace’s ‘Exegi monumentum aere perennius: I have raised a monument more permanent than bronze’. Riley thus plays with the poetic assumption that literary form can compensate for loss, following Elisabeth Helsinger’s analysis of visual elegies as ‘[perfected forms] that in their artistry testify to the dead’s significance while suggesting the possibility of bringing mourning to completion’ (in Weisman 660). However, Riley extends the monumental metaphor to the description of the grieving self in her work. For instance, in the poem ‘Still’, whose polysemic title evokes the stopping of time in both its adverbial and adjectival forms, images of solidification or reification are associated with the figure of the grieving mother: ‘rather turn solid, go blocky, be granite, not/whirr and not flare but lodge stock-still, a slab’ (2020, 23). In this poem, an implicit reference to the mythological figure of Niobe, the grieving mother who turned to stone, competes with the traditional image of the monument as symbol of permanence, since solidification is reminiscent of the freezing of time, as the use of the alliterative adjective ‘stock-still’ suggests by slowing down the rhythm of utterance.8

17Building on her stony metaphor, Riley underlines the fracturing of the poetic persona, suggesting that monument and self alike are cracking: ‘a strong impression that I’ve been torn off, brittle’ (TL 79), ‘here I sit poleaxed, stunned by your vanishing’ (‘A Part Song’, viii, SSB 9), ‘an unseen crater blown into my head’ (TL 90). The multiplication of past participles and present perfect (‘torn off’, ‘stunned’, ‘blown’) completes the image of a split self as ruined monument or fragile matter. Such a poetic account of vulnerability (from the Latin vulnus, the wound) may point to a melancholic interiorization of loss, defined by Freud as the ‘double loss of the object and myself’ [Laufer in Freud 28]) that threatens the integrity of the self. The fault line in the edifice of artistic masonry thematises the powerlessness of writing touched upon in Riley’s essay: ‘If writing had once been a modest work of shaping and correcting, now all your small mastery has been smashed by the fact of your child’s death. That you can’t edit’ (100). Riley’s foregrounding of the fault line, which is primarily defined as the geological result of friction between two solid blocks, complexifies the metaphor of the ‘small monument’ erected for the deceased in ‘A Part Song’. Indeed, if the elegy traditionally records the memory of the dead, here, memories mostly hinge around reminders of absence such as the autopsy report. When the monument of poetry and the solidified self are full of cracks, is recovery even possible? As Riley claims that ‘it’s not the same “I” who lives in her altered sense of no-time, but a reshaped person’ (TL 99), she seems to imply that the elegy itself requires a redefinition.

18Most of the titles of Riley’s poems are associated with a lack or a negation (‘Four blindfolded songs’, ‘There aren’t any stories’, ‘An awkward lyric’ or ‘Let no air now be sung’). Therefore, the opening question of ‘A Part Song’ resonates through Riley’s entire work: ‘You principle of song, what are you for now?’. As it challenges the role and purpose of poetry (underlined by the italicization of the preposition ‘for’), the poem’s provocative first section questions the possibility of ever reaching elegiac consolation:

You principle of song, what are you for now
Perking up under any spasmodic light
To trot out your shadowed warblings?

Mince, slight pillar. And sleep down
Your furriness. Slim as a whippy wire
Shall be your hope, and ultraflexible.

Flap thinly, sheet of beaten tin
That won’t affectionately plump up
More cushioned and receptive lays.

But little song, don’t so instruct yourself
For none are hanging around to hear you.
They have gone bustling or stumbling well away.
(‘A Part Song’, i, 6)

19The poem marks a ‘break from lyricism’ as Riley notably uses the word ‘ultraflexible,’ ‘a latinate construct that sticks out like a wrong note at the end of a musical phrase’ (Luzzatto n.p.). The redemptive powers of poetry are thus questioned and the monument of form broken, reduced to a diminutive ‘slight pillar’ or ‘sheet of beaten tin’ that offers no monumental redemption, since it is nothing but a ‘little song’ that nobody listens to. What resonates throughout the poem is a principle of dissonance, which could be defined as friction between one note and the other, or a rejection of harmony. The polysemous title ‘A Part Song’ might refer to the fragmentation of the poem into sections (‘either simultaneous as vocal harmony or linear as in a poem sequence’ [Skoulding in Robinson 274]), to the separation between mother and son, and/or to the poet’s sense of being torn apart. It could also be an allusion to the role (‘part’) that the poet would rather not have had to play (as the mother of a deceased son). Finally, if one reads ‘part’ as an adverb, it suggests that the poem is only partly a song because it repeatedly breaks lyrical conventions. It even incorporates a chorus of dissenting voices that attack the grieving mother: ‘What is the first duty of a mother to a child?/ At least to keep the wretched thing alive–Band/ Of fierce cicadas, stop this shrilling’ (‘A Part Song’ ii, 6). Dissonance, materialised by italics, pervades the poem and turns the ‘song’ into an unpleasant dialogue and disquieting ‘shrilling’.

  • 9 The origin of the poem is disputed: while some argue that Mary Elizabeth Frye wrote it in 1932, oth (...)

20The poem brims with quotations of popular elegies such as ‘Do Not Stand at my Grave and Weep’9 that it uses as foils of its own poetics:

I can’t get sold on reincarnating you
As those bloody ‘gentle showers of rain’
Or in ‘fields of ripening grain’—oooh
Anodyne—nor yet on shadowing you (x, 9

21The use of quotation marks and the mercantile metaphor (‘get sold on’) show that the poetic voice doesn’t want to incorporate trite elegiac clichés into her poetry. As Max Porter argues in his ‘Afterword’ to Time Lived, Without its Flow, ‘it is about elegy, but rages against the elegiac mode’ (in Riley 2020, 128). Indeed, Riley ironically mimics lyrical modes of expression by caricaturing and lengthening the lyrical exclamation ‘oh’, whose sonorities find an echo in the rejected elegiac solutions of ‘anodyne’ and ‘shadowing’.

22Therefore, Riley experiments with expressivity through the creation of faulty poetry. Many poems are haunted by vague reminiscences of the sonnet form—deprived of stanzaic structure (‘Still’) or with one missing line (‘Orphic’) to represent the fracturing of form. She also plays with the conventions of the elegy, such as the unanswered questions addressed to the dead ‘in a sharply interrogative mode’ (Sack 22), or the ‘praising’ of the deceased (Lempe 9) in a dramatic section of ‘A Part Song’, staged as theatrical discourse:

Oh my dead son you daft bugger
This is one glum mum. Come home I tell you
And end this tasteless melodrama—quit
Playing dead at all, by now it’s well beyond
A joke, but your humour never got cruel
Like this. Give over, you indifferent lad
 . . . (vii, 8)

23The poem, full of false notes, explores the fault lines between registers, for instance with the monosyllabic paronomasia ‘this is one glum mum’. Instead of devotion and praise, the mother reproaches her dead son with his absence in an unpolished and yet intimate language (‘you daft bugger’). As Peter Riley argues, ‘there is a certain detachment, sometimes self-mocking, which operates as a refusal of all the given, easy and evasive modes of lamentation’ (n.p.). But the pantomime of indifference and remonstration (supported by the omnipresence of the lexical field of theatre and child’s play: ‘melodrama’, ‘playing dead’, ‘joke’) is contradicted by the imperative urgency of the questioning and teasing (‘come home’, ‘quit playing dead’, ‘give over’). The run-on line ‘it’s well beyond/ A joke’ associates the cruelty of a prank that has lasted too long with a potential allusion to the realm of the dead (the great beyond), letting shreds of lyricism shine through the text’s seemingly faulty lines.

24By turning dissonance into a poetic principle, Riley also gives renewed vitality to the text and shows that the de(con)struction of poetic monuments has creative potential, for instance in the short poem ‘Boxy Piece’:

Exhibits of small boxes made from wood
to house their thought and each an open
coffin of the not-dead with their chirring. (38)

25Though the poem’s ‘chirring’ may not be perfectly harmonious, it remains a ‘principle of song’ that enables the adequate representation of grief. The faulty lines of the poem lead to the redefinition of the rift as an opening, a creative friction between expressive and experimental poetry, which explores the fault line between elegy and anti-elegy, progression and stagnation, consolation and desolation. Ange Mlinko observes that in Riley’s poems, ‘rhymes and rhythms assert themselves, then falter. It’s stop and go, this resumption of life after death. It is, actually, like forcing the boulder from the mouth of the tomb’ (n.p.). I would like to investigate now this conversion of the fault line into an opening or a space of resonance to allow for a redefinition of the elegy that navigates between mourning and melancholy and rethinks consolation.

Towards a Faulty Consolation?

26Riley professes in an interview her ‘commitment to the thing that is song. This is in some way linked to the persistence of hope’ (in Mlinko, n.p.). At the end of ‘A Part Song’, as a counterpoint to the question ‘principle of song, what are you for now?’, the poetic voice asserts:

It’s all a resurrection song.
Would it ever be got right
The dead could rush home
Keen to press their chinos (xviii, 13)

27The conditional form ‘would it ever be got right’ suggests that resurrection remains an unfulfilled wish. The poem thus oscillates between the elegiac hope of reviving the deceased through memory and the sense of inevitable failure ingrained in the very ‘principle of song’:

I make this note of dread, I register it
Neither my note nor my critique of it
Will save us one iota. I know it. And. (ii, 7)

28By registering the mourner’s emotion instead of the deceased’s memory, the poem rejects the Christ-like discourse of ‘saving’ or resurrection which often underlies the traditional elegy, to acknowledge pain and mortality. The ‘note of dread’, both music and observation, becomes the elegiac drive of the entire collection, as the last lines of the beautifully-entitled poem ‘Death makes dead metaphor revive’ suggest:

To make rhyme chime again with time
I sound a curious lilt. (
SSB 61)

  • 10 Fittingly, the cover of Say Something Back’s Picador edition (2016) looked like a representation of (...)

29The poet’s distinctive voice and ‘curious lilt’ celebrate both rhythm and movement, the potential unblocking of grief’s a-temporality. More than perfect harmony, what can bring back a sense of progression to Riley’s songs of grief is the voice’s vibration, its oscillation from one side of the fault line to the other, from the attempt to resurrect the dead to its failure (as it seems to never be ‘got right’). Indeed, according to its Merriam Webster definition, vibration consists in ‘periodic motion of the particles of an elastic body or medium in alternately opposite directions from the position of equilibrium when that equilibrium has been disturbed (as when a stretched cord produces musical tones)’. Vibration thus becomes a principle of transmission of the mourner’s faulty song, ‘curious lilt’ or ‘note of dread’, whose very resonance is enabled by the empty core of the deceased’s absence at the heart of grief-writing.10

30The key to Riley’s poetic endeavour thus lies in her definition of poetic voice and the oscillation between self and other in her reconfiguration of the Lyrical ‘I’. In her essay ‘The Inner Voice’, she underlines the ‘polyvocal’ nature of her writing: ‘as to how I inhabit my own inner speech, I’m probably more accurately described as talking with myself rather than to myself’ (in Riley and Lecercle 71). In Say Something Back, whose title embraces dialogue, as well as in her essay, Riley’s pronominal choices are revealing. The irruption of the third person in ‘A Part Song’ offers a comment on the public performance of mourning the bereaved has to put on (arguably one of the many senses of ‘Part’ in the poem’s title):

A wardrobe gapes, a mourner tries
Her several styles of howling-guise (vi, 8)

31The persona’s inner split allows for a self-witnessing and analysis of the mourner’s experience furthered by the shift from ‘I’ to ‘You’, another stylistic representation of the mind’s inner rift and the liminal condition of mourning, both in the poem and in the essay:

I see, as if I am myself dead. . . . You share in the death of your child, in that you approach it so closely that you sense that a part of you, too, has died that instant. At the same time, you feel that the spirit of the child has leaped into you. So you are both partly dead and yet more alive. You are cut down, and yet you burn with life. (TL 76)

You’d rather not, yet you must go
Briskly around on beaming show.
. . .
Your dead don’t want you lying flat
There’ll soon be time enough for that. (‘A Part Song’, vi, 8)

32The irruption of the pronoun ‘you’ performs the fault line between experiencing and witnessing that Irene Kacandes defines as ‘intrapsychic witnessing’, a traumatic process ‘in which the protagonist takes himself as a witness to his past harrowing experience in second-person self-talk’ (97).

  • 11 The poem was originally entitled He Do the Police in Different Voices.

33Nevertheless, the writing or ‘curious lilting’ that works ‘from the wound’ (Winterson 223) and blurs the limit between ‘you’ and ‘I’ also probes the ‘relational power’ of vulnerability (Ganteau 2015, 74), which can be described as a figure of ‘openness and dependence’ (Onega and Ganteau 5). Indeed, Sandrine Sorlin remarks in The Stylistics of You that ‘You’ ‘is the relating pronoun par excellence, linking one human to another as interdependent beings and as such it has an ethical dimension’ (24). The friction between ‘I’ and ‘you’ and the vibration thus established between self and other enables the poet’s voice to incorporate that of the deceased and other mourners alike. The use of ‘you’, defined by Butler as a ‘life-giving mode of address’ (2020, 337), blurs the limit between the mourner and the deceased, in poetic attempts to bring the dead back to life: ‘For the point of this address is to prod/ And shepherd you back within range/ Of my strained ears’ (‘A Part Song’ xix, 13). But it also opens up a space of resonance for other voices and elegies. For instance, the line ‘She do the bereaved in different voices’ (xix, 13) is an allusion to T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land.11 For Nathaniel Myers the subtle pronominal frictions in the poem turn the fault line into a poetic space of resonance:

In the way ‘A Part Song’ does the bereaved in different voices, it inhabits and draws potential affective charges from the various linguistic styles it performs, from cliché to popular verse, from literature to the literary and cultural conventions of mourning. (235)

34Indeed, the task that Riley sets herself in the ‘postscript’ of Time Lived, Without its Flow, is to identify the corpus of a ‘literature of consolation’ (112), a term crucial to studies of the elegy, which is defined as the soothing of pain by David James in Discrepant Solace (8) and the experience of ‘[finding] solace together’ by Michael Ignatieff (1).

35The last section of ‘A Part Song’, which features the unnamed son’s answer to his mother’s desperate plea, pays tribute to canonical texts such as Milton’s ‘Lycidas’, Shakespeare’s Tempest or the anonymous poem ‘The Unquiet Grave’:

My sisters and my mother,
Weep dark tears for me
I drift as lightest ashes
Under a southern sea

  • 12 In The Tempest, Ariel’s Song evokes the supposed death of Ferdinand’s father after a shipwreck: ‘fu (...)

O let me be, my mother
In no unquiet grave
My bone-dust is faint coral
Under the fretful wave
. (xx, 14)12

  • 13 For Judith Butler, Time Lived, Without its Flow also emphasises relationality: ‘the essay is about (...)

36The mention of the son’s ashes spread in the sea and the body turning to coral gives a new direction to the resurrection song as the use of italics signals the resonance of voices in the liminal space between life and death. The poet thus plays the part of a witness, or a link between generations of mourners, who crafts a space of resonance for the dead’s and other poets’ voices, as Ange Mlinko remarks: ‘the title Say Something Back becomes more than an address to the dead; it’s an enjoinder to the poet never to stop the transmission of poetry’ (n.p.). The title of the collection may not just be a plea to the dead son but also call for the poet to consolidate the frail edifice of literary consolation (‘A Part Song’ could thus mean ‘being a part of’ a community).13 Consolation arises from the sharing of pain, the relationality of the wound, as Riley argues in a conversation with Lisa Baraitser: ‘there can be consolation in finding that a description of some feeling that you took to be unhappily unique to you is described by other people; that comes as a great relief’ (4).

  • 14 Such a definition of consolation ties in with David James’s notion of ‘discrepant solace’: ‘what of (...)
  • 15 The original French reads thus: ‘consoler, c’est réparer les vivants dans leur intégralité et leur (...)

37Riley thus tries to find an expressive form for an elegiac art of consolation that does not seek to redeem the loss or repair the fault line, as the tension between the competing impulses of elegy and anti-elegy generate the poetic drive. In both works, consolation remains distinct from the completed healing of the wound: it is the mark of a permanent friction between suffering and recovery in the opening formed by the fault line, the cracked monument of the poem’s faulty lines.14 As Anne-Dauphine Julliand writes in her essay-memoir Consolation: ‘to console means to repair the living entirely and integrally. And it means repairing them with their suffering. Making them whole with their emptiness, their loss and their lack’ (189–190; italics added).15 Riley’s poetics of the fault line keep foregrounding this crucial paradox, which eschews the conflation of consolation and resolution, as the paradoxical last lines of Say Something Back suggest: ‘What to do now is clear, and wordless/ You will bear what can not be borne.’ (‘A Gramophone on the Subject’, 67).

38Both works thus question the possibility of consolation by representing the intervallic nature of grief-writing as a wound that never reaches a fully-healed state. In the flurry of current publications on the topic of consolation (James; Julliand; Ignatieff; André), one metaphor chimes in with Denise Riley’s tightrope-walking art of the fault line. It comes from the concluding lines of Anne-Dauphine Julliand’s meditation, as she compares the paradox of consolation with the Japanese art of kintsugi, which consists in sticking back together broken pieces of an object by adding golden powder to the glue:

  • 16 In the original French: ‘dans le kintsugi, l’artiste ajoute de la poudre d’or à la laque qui réunit (...)

[The cracks] remain perfectly visible, since gold, instead of hiding them, shines a light on them. And the object becomes even more precious because it has been broken. [. . .] Consolation is an art that embellishes the cracks of our lives. It applies a golden ointment onto our wounds. Gold tested by fire and drawn from the crucible of the heart. In the interstice of the tear, a portion of the other, of the consoler, merges with gold. (193–94; translation mine)16

39Likewise, Riley refutes the necessity of forming a perfect poetic harmony in order to recover from loss. She explores the poetic potential of the vibration formed in the ‘interstice of the tear’, the dialogue with and dissonance from other voices. This might be why the dark blue cover of her essay’s Pan Macmillan edition features golden lines that look both like chinks and bright openings that shine through the night.17

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André, Christophe, Consolations : Celles que l’on reçoit et celles que l’on offre, Paris: Iconoclaste, 2022.

Baraitser, Lisa and Denise Riley, ‘Lisa Baraitser in Conversation with Denise Riley’, Studies in the Maternal 8.1 (2016): 1–16.

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Brooks, Peter, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama and the Mode of Excess, New York: Columbia UP, 1984.

Butler, Judith, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London: Verso, 2006.

Butler, Judith, ‘Time “is” the Person: An Essay on Time Lived, Without its Flow’, Feminist Theory 21.3 (2020): 331337.

Caruth, Cathy, ‘An Interview with Jean Laplanche’, 2001, last accessed at, on June 19, 2022.

Colby, Georgina, ‘Imaginary Intimacies: Death and New Temporalities in the Work of Denise Riley and Nicholas Royle’, New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics 89/90 (2016): 1–30.

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Eakin, Paul John, Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2008.

Freud, Sigmund, Deuil et mélancolie, trans. Alice Weill, Paris: Payot et Rivages, 2011.

Ganteau, Jean-Michel, ‘Trauma and the Ethics of Vulnerability: Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs’, Études britanniques contemporaines 45 (2013). Last accessed at on 18 February 2023.

Ganteau, Jean-Michel, The Ethics and Aesthetics of Vulnerability in Contemporary British Fiction, London: Routledge, 2015.

Glaudes, Pierre and Dominique Rabaté, eds, Deuil et littérature, Pessac: PU de Bordeaux, 2005.

Ignatieff, Michael, On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2021.

James, David, Discrepant Solace: Contemporary Literature and the Work of Consolation, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2019.

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1 The metaphor surfaces in Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, when the protagonist’s little brother Henry describes the effect of his mother’s death through the comparison ‘it is like an earthquake’ (360).

2 The original French reads thus: ‘le surgissement d’une perte qui fait événement, en ce qu’elle marque une rupture radicale provoquant chez celui qui la subit une sorte de conversion intérieure : cette perte fonde une nouvelle relation au temps, désormais perçu comme “fracture et mémoire”, et donne une autre signification à l’existence’ (Glaudes and Rabaté 22).

3 While Time Lived, Without its Flow was published in 2012 and Say Something Back in 2016, I am using the New York Review Books edition of the two works, published in the same volume in 2020 (as an attempt to bridge the divide between the two different modes of grief-writing?). In order to differentiate the texts, I will be using the abbreviations TL and SSB in this article.

4 In his philosophical study of death, Jankélévitch identifies a paradoxical blending of exceptionality and familiarity: everybody dies, but the effect of each person’s death has a unique effect on mourners (9).

5 For Katharina Lempe, ‘the motif of inexpressibility is typically used in an elegy to describe the depth of one’s feelings and the incomprehensibility of loss’ (88). This statement is seconded by Riley, who asserts that ‘the very grammar of discussing a death falters in its conviction: . . . [e]ven the plainest “He died” is a strange sentence, since there’s no longer a human subject to sustain that “he”’ (TL 107).

6 Riley acknowledges the paradox and deems it a logical aporia: ‘any written or spoken sentence would naturally lean forward towards its development and conclusion, unlike my own paralysed time’ (73).

7 In the original French: ‘vrai deuil insusceptible d’aucune dialectique narrative’ (60).

8 The solidification of the self is associated with the experiential fault line of a-temporality, as Riley notes in her essay: ‘your living in this instant, this thinnest imaginable sliver of being, turns out to be hard-edged’ (TL 100).

9 The origin of the poem is disputed: while some argue that Mary Elizabeth Frye wrote it in 1932, others claim that it was Clare Harner’s work in 1934.

10 Fittingly, the cover of Say Something Back’s Picador edition (2016) looked like a representation of vibration:

11 The poem was originally entitled He Do the Police in Different Voices.

12 In The Tempest, Ariel’s Song evokes the supposed death of Ferdinand’s father after a shipwreck: ‘full fathom five thy father lies;/ Of his bones are coral made’ (Act I, Scene 2).

13 For Judith Butler, Time Lived, Without its Flow also emphasises relationality: ‘the essay is about the conditions of subjective experience, but it concedes that this experience of being displaced from the temporal conditions of life is a shared and sharable one, and something is shared, offered and given in this text’ (2020, 336).

14 Such a definition of consolation ties in with David James’s notion of ‘discrepant solace’: ‘what often makes consolation “discrepant” in contemporary writing is the restive interplay between the solace afforded rhetorically or structurally by a text and the affective repercussions of its wrenching outcomes’ (10).

15 The original French reads thus: ‘consoler, c’est réparer les vivants dans leur intégralité et leur intégrité. Et c’est les réparer avec leur souffrance. C’est les rendre entiers avec leur vide, leur perte et leur manque’ (189–190).

16 In the original French: ‘dans le kintsugi, l’artiste ajoute de la poudre d’or à la laque qui réunit les morceaux. Ainsi les fissures se trouvent soulignées d’une ligne dorée. Elles restent bien visibles, puisque l’or au lieu de les dissimuler les met en lumière. Et l’objet devient plus précieux encore d’avoir été brisé. . . . La consolation est un art qui embellit les fêlures de nos vies. Elle applique sur les plaies un onguent d’or. De l’or éprouvé par le feu et puisé au creuset des cœurs. Dans l’interstice de la déchirure se mêle à l’or un peu de l’autre, de celui qui console’ (194, 193).


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Héloïse Lecomte, « ‘On this near side of a cut’: Fault Lines as ‘principle of song’ in Denise Riley’s Grief-Writing »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 64 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2023, consulté le 29 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Héloïse Lecomte

Héloïse Lecomte has completed a PhD at the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon under the supervision of Vanessa Guignery. She is a member of the research unit IHRIM (Institut d’Histoire des Représentations et des Idées dans les Modernités). Her research themes are the narrative and fictional representations of mourning and their dialogue with poetic, musical and visual elegies in contemporary British and Irish novels by Ali Smith, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, Penelope Lively, John Banville and Anne Enright. She is the co-organiser of the international interdisciplinary seminar ‘Invisible Lives, Silent Voices’, together with Alice Borrego, Dr Gero Guttzeit and Prof. Esther Peeren.

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