Our Poem of the Week choices for the next several weeks are continuing on through the 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist. This week’s selection comes from Denise Riley’s Say Something Back, a collection suffused with a fierce, redemptive grappling with grief. The 2017 judges praise “a mind that scrupulously rejects the grandiose gesture but is not averse to play and tenderness. Or indeed to tragedy.”
Play and tenderness confront tragedy in the brief “Little Eva”. It’s a sharp, heartbreaking poem that strikingly interweaves lyrics from the charming eponymous pop song from the 1960s with the narrator’s acerbic observations about the grieving process. In it, the spritely lyrics inviting jubilant movement are in contrast and opposition to the narrator’s stasis:
“you lounge in confident no-motion, no thought
of budging. Constant in analytic sorrow, you abide.”
The narrator is skeptical that time will not heal her – in fact, is wilfully not letting her heal, as the poem’s opening line suggests. Not only that, but the narrator seems convinced she’ll never heal:
“I can disprove this ‘moving on’ nostrum”
… when another line from a live rendition of the song seems to cut into her somber thoughts.
As the notes about the song’s lyrics reveal, the song was about a dance that didn’t actually exist, but the song became so popular its most well-known performer Little Eva was compelled to invent a dance. The fiction became reality. In the same fashion, could the mourning narrator be struggling to find a kind of solace, even happiness, where it seems it couldn’t possibly exist?