Denise Riley

Say Something Back by Denise Riley

Griffin Poetry Prize 2017
International Shortlist

Book: Say Something Back

Poet: Denise Riley

Publisher: Picador

Click here to read and listen to an excerpt.

Denise Riley


Denise Riley is a critically acclaimed writer of both philosophy and poetry. She is currently Professor of the History of Ideas and of Poetry at the University of East Anglia, and has taught and researched widely at many institutions in Europe and America.

Judges’ Citation

“The beauty of Denise Riley’s book lies in its rejection of the kind of beauty that is ready to hand. In it we meet a mind that scrupulously rejects the grandiose gesture but is not averse to play and tenderness. Or indeed to tragedy. The longest poem in the book, ‘A Part Song’ is about the loss of the poet’s son. In it she addresses poetry itself and questions its ability to give appropriate form to such loss. But what might appear to be the bare cupboard of grief is, in her poem, packed with voices, entrances and movements that doubt their own validity and are, marvellously, all the more valid for that. Beyond the loss there remains the close, firmly disciplined observation of the world, of the humour and pathos at its edges, and the lifelong attempt to allow it its own voice, the willingness, as the book’s title has it, to ‘say something back’. Riley’s work has always been substantial but this book is something very special, a full blossoming and gathering.”


Say Something Back will allow readers to see just why the name of Denise Riley has been held in such high regard by her fellow poets for so long. The book reproduces A Part Song, a profoundly moving document of grieving and loss, and one of the most widely admired long poems of recent years. Elsewhere Riley’s poetry becomes a space for contemplation of the natural world, of physical law, and for the deep consideration of what it is to invoke those who are absent. Finally, it extends our sense of what the act of human speech can be, and especially what is drawn forth from us when we address our dead. Lyric, intimate, acidly witty, unflinchingly brave, Say Something Back is destined to introduce one of our finest poets to a wide new readership.

Note: Summaries are taken from promotional materials supplied by the publisher, unless otherwise noted.

Erin Soros reads from A Part Song by Denise Riley

from A Part Song


Flat on a cliff I inch toward its edge
Then scrutinise the chopped-up sea
Where gannets’ ivory helmet skulls
Crash down in tiny plumes of white
To vivify the languid afternoon –
Pressed round my fingertips are spikes
And papery calyx frills of fading thrift
That men call sea pinks – so I can take
A studied joy in natural separateness.
And I shan’t fabricate some nodding:
‘She’s off again somewhere, a good sign
By now, she must have got over it.’


Dun blur of this evening’s lurch to
Eventual navy night. Yet another
Night, day, night over and over.
I so want to join you.


The flaws in suicide are clear
Apart from causing bother
To those alive who hold us dear
We could miss one another
We might be trapped eternally
Oblivious to each other
One crying Where are you, my child
The other calling Mother.


Dead, keep me company
That sears like titanium
Compacted in the pale
Blaze of living on alone.


Suspended in unsparing light
The sloping gull arrests its curl
The glassy sea is hardened waves
Its waters lean through shining air
Yet never crash but hold their arc
Hung rigidly in glaucous ropes
Muscled and gleaming. All that
Should flow is sealed, is poised
In implacable stillness. Joined in
Non-time and halted in free fall.


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


She do the bereaved in different voices
For the point of this address is to prod
And shepherd you back within range
Of my strained ears; extort your reply
By finding any device to hack through
The thickening shades to you, you now
Strangely unresponsive son, who were
Such reliably kind and easy company,
Won’t you be summoned up once more
By my prancing and writhing in a dozen
Mawkish modes of reedy piping to you
– Still no? Then let me rest, my dear.


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

O let me be, my mother
In no unquiet grave
My bone-dust is faint coral
Under the fretful wave

From Say Something Back by Denise Riley
Copyright © Denise Riley, 2016

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Photo credit: Kevin Lake