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This review is taken from PN Review 140, Volume 27 Number 6, July - August 2001.

UNDOING THE WORK DENISE RILEY, Selected Poems (Reality Street) £7.50

Denise Riley's Selected Poems opens with 'A note on sex and - the reclaiming of language ' - one of the few pieces preserved from her first volume Marxism For Infants (1977). Its third stanza asserts that,

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.

The poem's title locates it with books like Dale Spender's Man Made Language and poetry like Michèle Roberts' 'Women's entry into culture is experienced as lack' but the passage quoted has a double purpose. It establishes the formative context of Riley's poetry as the decade when the liberationist aesthetics of the 1960s were being rigorously re-articulated as theory but it simultaneously articulates dissent with aspects of its own apparent origin.

The double articulation means that placing 'A note on sex ...' at the beginning of a Selected Poems previews important aspects of Riley's poetry. The passage quoted is selfconsciously musical and rhythmical but undercuts its own pleasures by wanting empirical language. It uses the language of a collective re-articulation of identity while questioning that re-articulation's espousal of essentialism. It looks like a considered statement but when read aloud seems breathless with frustration and impatience.

To read Riley is to be drawn into intense dramas about language and identity in which the expression of authenticity and sincerity constantly founders on ...


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