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This article is taken from PN Review 172, Volume 33 Number 2, November - December 2006.

Denise Riley John Muckle

Denise Riley's poetry always has a quiet, astringent quality. Even when dealing with what seems by now conventionally feminist material in her early poems, she is more likely to be dryly humorous than emotional. Her famous holiday poem

Not What You Think

wonderful light
viridian summers
deft boys
no thanks

seemed to say it all about Greek island hedonism: she'd rather stay at home with her books. Her neat fable 'A note on sex and the reclaiming of language' was a marvellous class-room standby for those seeking an explanatory myth to help their students into some of the issues surrounding feminism and language. Riley's poem is both myth and counter-myth. Woman is presented as 'The Savage ... flying back home from the New Country', her predicament identical with that of colonised black people, but she questions the empty prospects offered by being defined as 'other' in either case. Instead, she suggests:

                                     The work is
e.g. to write 'she' and for that to be a statement
of fact only and not a strong image
of everything which is not-you, which sees you

In a sense she has it both ways in her poetry - she is both 'the other' and a centrally defining female consciousness occupying the site of what is usually the male gaze, both object and subject; but this poem had all the right resonances for those who ...


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