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In this podcast Denise Riley reads ‘A Part Song’. The full text is available for subscribers.

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 sleek 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.

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.

My daughter lightly leaves our house.
The thought rears up: fix in your mind this
Maybe final glimpse of her. Yes, lightning could.

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.

Maybe a retouched photograph or memory,
This beaming one with his striped snake-belt
And eczema scabs, but either way it’s framed
Glassed in, breathed hard on, and curated.
It’s odd how boys live so much in their knees.
Then both of us had nothing. You lacked guile
And were transparent, easy, which felt natural.


Each child gets cannibalised 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.

It’s late. And it always will be late.
Your small monument’s atop its hillock
Set with pennants that slap, slap, over the soil.
Here’s a denatured thing, whose one eye rummages
Into the mound, her other eye swivelled straight up:
A short while only, then I come, she carols – but is only
A fat-lot-of-good mother with a pointless alibi: ‘I didn’t
Know.’ Yet might there still be some part for me
To play upon this lovely earth? Say. Or
Say No, earth at my inner ear.

A wardrobe gapes, a mourner tries
Her several styles of howling-guise:

You’d rather not, yet you must go
Briskly around on beaming show.

A soft black gown with pearl corsage
Won’t assuage your smashed ménage.

It suits you as you are so pale.
Still, do not get that saffron veil.

Your dead don’t want you lying flat.
There’ll soon be time enough for that.

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,
Take pity on your two bruised sisters. For
Didn’t we love you. As we do. But by now
We’re bored with our unproductive love,
And infinitely more bored by your staying dead
Which can hardly interest you much, either.

Here I sit poleaxed, stunned by your vanishing
As you practise your charm in the underworld
Airily flirting with Persephone. Not so hard
To imagine what her mother had gone through
To be ferreting around those dark sweet halls.

They’d sworn to stay for ever but they went
Or else I went – then concentrated hard
On the puzzle of what it ever truly meant
For someone to be here then, just like that
To not. Training in mild loss was useless
Given the final thing. And me lamentably
Slow to ‘take it in’ – far better toss it out,
How should I take in such a bad idea. No,
I’ll stick it out instead for presence. If my
Exquisite hope can wrench you right back
Here, resigned boy, do let it as I’m waiting.

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
In the hope of eventually pinpointing
You bemused among the flocking souls
Clustered like bats, as all thronged gibbering
Dusk-veiled – nor in modern creepiness.
Lighthearted presence, be bodied forth
Straightforwardly. Lounge again under
The sturdy sun you’d loved to bake in.
Even ten seconds’ worth of a sighting
Of you would help me get through
This better. With a camera running.

Ardent bee, still you go blundering
With downy saddlebags stuffed tight
All over the fuchsia’s drop earrings.
I’ll cry ‘Oh bee!’ to you, instead –
Since my own dead, apostrophised,
Keep mute as this clear garnet glaze
You’re bumping into. Blind diligence,
Bee, or idiocy – this banging on and on
Against such shiny crimson unresponse.

Outgoing soul, I try to catch
You calling over the distances
Though your voice is echoey,

Maybe tuned out by the noise
Rolling through me – or is it
You orchestrating that now,

Who’d laugh at the thought
Of me being sung in by you
And being kindly dictated to.

It’s not like hearing you live was.
It is what you’re saying in me
Of what is left, gaily affirming.

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

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