on ‘Lines starting with La Rochefoucauld’ by Denise Riley

Lines starting with La Rochefoucauld

‘It is more shameful to distrust your friends
than be deceived by them’: things in themselves
do hold — a pot, a jug, a jar, Sweet Williams’
greenshank shins — so that your eye’s pulled
clear of metallic thought by the light constancy
of things, that rest there with you. Or without.
That gaily deadpan candour draws you on.
Your will to hope quickens in their muteness.

from Say Something Back (Picador, 2016) by Denise Riley

*

I find ‘Lines Starting with La Rochefoucauld’ intensely moving, but I think that in order to get at that movingness at least some familiarity with some philosophy-speak might be useful: in particular, that phrase ‘things in themselves’. It’s kind of necessary, probably, to know that ‘things in themselves’ is how philosophers after Kant have referred to objects not as they’re perceived by humans, but as they are, outside of perception. Not ideas about the thing, as Stevens would have it, but the thing itself. The unperceived table; the tree falling soundlessly in the forest.

The point is that the La Rochefoucauld (La who? Don’t know, don’t care. Sorry, history. Sorry, culture.) quote is suddenly recast: the ‘friends’ we might be distrusting here are the physical objects around us. Do we know them, or do we just know what they look like? Do we come into contact with the pot, the jug, or do we just come into contact with our experience of them? Are we held forever apart from the reality of things? Well, the poem starts to suggest, it’s more shameful to distrust the reality of the pots and jugs than it is to be wrong about their reality. Touch a pot! Hold a jug, and don’t doubt your experience. Feel its weight. There’s something there.

Let’s be deceived by their comforting presence! But it isn’t only a comforting presence, in this poem – it isn’t just that they ‘hold’ (this is another philosophy term: something ‘holds’ if it’s true). Riley’s expanding that term – pots and jugs and jars hold, they contain things. But they’re also a hold like a castle, like a keep. They protect what’s valuable: our sense of a physical presence in this physical world. The sonic rush outwards from the simplicity of pots and jugs into ‘Sweet Williams’ / greenshank shins’ mimics the heady intoxication it’s sometimes possible to get out of our grounded presence amongst the objects of the world. ‘I exist’ can be perceived as an utterly basic, almost contentless truism, but also as an articulation of the astonishing and overwhelming strangeness of our being.

And so, this process from the thumpingly iambic anglo-saxonic percussion of ‘a pot, a jug, a jar’ to the glitzy assonance and sibilance of ‘Sweet Williams’ greenshank shins’ – this is a prosodic reproduction of the process being described: your eye being pulled out from its resting upon ‘metallic thought’ – that sharp-edged introspection we all know so well, somehow heavy and brittle at the same time: unfluid, unresponsive. We’re jangled by Riley’s metric heel-kick into something livelier.

Next comes what is, for me, the real emotional punch of the poem. So, these things, they rest there ‘with you. Or without.’ Note that the whole poem’s been one long sentence before now, not even breaking at the end of the quotation. And then it’s followed by a flat two-worder, directly in contradiction of the previous statement: ‘Or without’. Boom. The effect is one of an abrupt halt, a muted version of three exclamation marks. The brilliance here, though, is that there’s a play on the ambiguity of that word ‘without’. On one level, it means ‘outside of you’, the opposite of ‘within’. Those are the things-in-themselves, persisting through time, utterly indifferent to the perception of them by humans.

But it also means ‘without you’: in your absence. And here’s when the accumulated emotional weight Riley’s been building in Say Something Back comes rushing in – the implied ‘without you’ can’t fail to reference the son whose death she’s been mourning in the book. In a whiplash pivot, then, we’re brought to think of those objects resting mutely on, regardless of the presence or absence of the ‘you’. And, at the same time, we think that they remain unchanged, undiminished by that absence, because they’re those pot-like, juggy, jar-ish ‘things in themselves’. And that they remain unchanged is a source of comfort; they persist, self-contained, undiminished. Maybe the world isn’t over.

(I love how the poem’s most striking rhyme is between ‘shins’ and ‘things’. Both words are from the middle of their lines, so it’s a rhyme which is an echo in one buried place of a sound from another. In a sense, this is the whole project of Say Something Back: a way of summoning the voice of the dead somehow up from within oneself.)

The next line is another short sentence and, to my ear, an extremely beautiful one: ‘That gaily deadpan candour draws you on.’ The perfect iambic pentameter, the scatter of high-note vowels at the beginning with their hard consonants like a tinkling piano, slowing and smoothing to the ‘aw’ and ‘oh’ at the end. After the percussive shock of ‘Or without.’, we’re suddenly drawn on, lifted, brought out. In fact, what’s happening is best described by the following line: we, along with the poem, are quickened. We’re drawn on.

(‘candour’, there, is picking up on the ‘light’ from two lines ago – ‘candour’ originating in the same Latin root as ‘candle’; the eye is being pulled clear, here, too.)

(‘deadpan’ as a word choice, too. Dead. Pan. Christ, that’s good. There’s an essay’s-worth to be written about that alone, but I’ll let it make its silent network of implications on its own, for now.)

Which brings us to that last line, which has its own philosophy reference. This time, it’s that formulation ‘will to hope’, which is an echo of Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’, modified afterwards by Foucault into the ‘will to knowledge’. Both are proposed as fundamental human drives: Power! Knowledge! The will to hope, of course, is a project considerably less grandiose than these (completing therefore a trajectory continued by bell hooks in titling her book The Will to Change). And so Riley’s use of the phrase emphasises the struggle of hope, the striving and the scale and nobility of the project in the face of devastating personal loss. This is a poem of striving for the humble comfort of presence, an emotionally sustainable presence amongst the little things and ways of the world. They persist, crucially, despite their muteness. It’s a muteness which (paradoxically) emphasises their presence, their solidity, but also one which allows space for the work of hope to go on.

The poem, then, takes La Rochefoucauld, Kant, Nietzsche, Foucault and hooks, and with them in mind it turns to the holding of pots and pans and jars to find a response – or a way of working towards a response – to the silent absence of the lost. The poem’s achievement is that it manages to haul these huge tranches of technical thought and urgent emotion into its eight lines, and to make with them a simple, beautiful, moving little collection of things. Things, in themselves, which hold. They do hold.

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