Natalie Shaw unpacks ‘Maybe; maybe not’ by Denise Riley, with its echoes of Corinthians 13:11, Marianne Moore and William Blake, and tells us how it felt to read it for the first time in a bookshop in York
I chose this poem because I am new to Denise Riley (shockingly), but not to what I assume was a starting point for this poem, verse 13 of Corinthians. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face: now I know in part but then shall I know even as I am also known”.
I feel I must always have carried these lines inside me, although that cannot be true. Something about the rhythm and repetition of them puts me in a different atmosphere; the air is thinner and clearer. I grew up hearing a portion of the Torah read every Saturday morning at synagogue after going to Hebrew school. Corinthians is the New Testament so I can’t have heard it then, but when a bit of the Bible jumps out, it really jumps out. And in fact, now I sit down with it – really sit down with it, Riley’s poem – which jumped out at me in the bookshop where I came across it in York, visiting my oldest child – I am struck by the echoes it makes with several different poems. I am going to talk about three of these echoes – in Blake, in Marianne Moore, and the original echo I recognised so immediately, the lines from Corinthians.
Maybe; maybe not
When I was a child, I spoke as a thrush, I
thought as a clod, I understood as a stone,
but when I became a man I put away
plain things for lustrous, yet to this day
squat under hooves for kindness where
fetlocks stream with mud – shall I never
get it clear, down in the soily waters.
(from Say Something Back, Picador, 2016)
But first, the title. ‘Maybe; maybe not’ immediately puts us in the territory of a fuzzy binary. We are so nearly amongst clear boundaries between oppositional states – yes / no, black / white, on / off, live / dead. So nearly – but not quite. Riley’s oppositional territory is qualified – in fact, defined – by the uncertainty of ‘maybe’. One the one hand perhaps this, the poem starts off by telling me – but then on the other, perhaps this. Something is certain, but also in doubt, an uncertain certainty. Maybe; maybe not. For me, this title echoes that of another short poem, this time by Marianne Moore: ‘I may, I might, I must’; Moore’s tricolon has been condensed into a diptych; Moore’s rise into certainty is replaced by Riley with this balancing act around doubtful demarcations – it is this… it is not this. Maybe.
Moore’s poem continues “If you will tell me why the fen / appears impassable, I then / will tell you why I think that I / can get across it if I try”. Her syllabic lines neatly turn the impossible (impassable) into the possible, the will of the speaker a conquering force. Riley’s poem seems to do the opposite – linear progress is thwarted at each different turn, we end up not with the uplift of self-determination but squatting in muddy waters. We are not sure what is happening, where we are and if we can ever leave – “shall I never / get it clear”. Certainty is transformed into doubt – and I think this is a poem of many transformations, as well as a poem about the consequences of those transformations.
Certainty is transformed into doubt – and I think this is a poem of many transformations, as well as a poem about the consequences of those transformations
Most of the first line of ‘Maybe; maybe not’ immediately recalls “when I was a child, I spoke as a child”. Certainty. But Riley immediately subverts her reader’s expectation and the child is transformed by the end of the first line into a thrush – doubt. So here we are, not sure what we are sure about, aware something is or is not, and with a child who has become a thrush.
This – the first of a double shift; the next is to a clod – takes us into the realm of metamorphosis. Child to thrush, we are hanging out with Keats and his thrush’s repeated cry of “Oh fret not after knowledge – I have none”. Riley’s universal child, the one she has taken from St Paul and transplanted into we are not quite sure where – this child is no longer human but a creature whose voice and body have been transformed. What do we know? We’re not sure. I am reminded of all the characters in Ovid’s Metamorphosis whose suffering transforms them into birds or trees. I also think of the characters in tragedy – Lear, Oedipus, Antigone – who find themselves on the edges of language, a place where words can’t help them express themselves or their experiences. But unlike these characters, who stay human and find themselves at the edge of language’s possibilities, this child is elsewhere now. He is in a different land, speaking the language of birds. It is a remarkable transformation, all the more so as it is done so unremarkably, so quietly, in so few words.
The second transformation turns the child into a clod – “I thought as a child” becomes “I thought as a clod”. In Blake’s ‘The Clod and the Pebble’ we start with love, the place that the Corinthians excerpt eventually ends up (“but the greatest of these is love”). Here is the whole of Blake’s poem:
The Clod and the Pebble
“Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.”
So sung a little Clod of Clay
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:
“Love seeketh only self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”
Care and despair, please and ease – the little clod sings in binaries. Of course it does. ‘The Clod and the Pebble’ comes from Songs of Innocence and Experience, where we explore the experience of being human – of being innocent, of losing innocence (or gaining experience), of being a child, of no longer being a child, of being with and without God, and love. ‘Maybe; maybe not’ seems to centre itself wholly around love, a word that does not appear even once. Instead, love’s echo sounds, or is perhaps refracted, through the soily waters.
The poem has set me on a course, disrupted that course again and again, and now I am taking part in some sort of eternal (“yet to this day”), monstrous and impossible task. And I feel devastated by this
But now we are at a point where things start to sink – the clod, with its happy song, becomes not a pebble, small and light and something I might hold in my palm, but a stone, a dead weight, millstone, grindstone. Just as Riley’s child becomes a man, he arrives in some sort of Hades-like task, “squatting under hooves for kindness … shall I never / get it clear, down in the soily waters”. Innocence has become experience. We can never go back, never turn around and be back at childhood. The child / thrush / clod / stone / man transformation has left us stuck in an inexplicable place – what is going on? What does it mean to squat under hooves for kindness? What is the ‘I’ of the poem trying to get clear?
I am completely lost now. The poem has set me on a course, disrupted that course again and again, and now I am taking part in some sort of eternal (“yet to this day”), monstrous and impossible task. And I feel devastated by this. In the bookshop in York, reading this for the first time, I felt overwhelmed. By love, by the complications of love, by things turning into impossible things that nonetheless are things that must be borne. By how hard it is to bear our love woven into the certainty or uncertainty (or certain uncertainty) of another life, and yet how we do just that. We bear change, Riley’s poem says; we transform, and we can never come back. Maybe; maybe not.