Time Lived, Without Its Flow by Denise Riley review – stunning clarity

A precise examination of parental grief and a rich Selected Poems from the poet philosopher

In 2008, the poet and philosopher Denise Riley’s adult son Jacob died suddenly from an undiagnosed heart problem while on holiday. Four years later, she published two new works: a poem about Jacob’s death, “A Part Song”, which won a Forward prize, and the essay “Time Lived, Without Its Flowin a micro-press edition that was shared reader to reader like a samizdat pamphlet, and is now made widely available in this new edition, introduced by Max Porter.

Riley drops the reader into the thick of life after death. She begins: “I’ll not be writing about death, but an altered condition of life.” This straight-speaking clarity runs throughout, and helps the reader navigate Riley’s complex thinking on what Alice Oswald called “the being of grief and not the feeling of grief”. It is not a memoir: we learn only the barest of details about her son’s death.

The “altered condition of life” Riley experienced was “the curious sense of being pulled right outside of time”. For two to three years after her son’s death, she felt that time was arrested – stopped short – and most of the book records her contemporaneous efforts to write about this state of “bright emptiness”. This is difficult not just because a writer must “possess some feeling of futurity” – she has lost that – but because she is forging new ground, having scoured the literature for previous reports of this experience and found the cupboard almost bare, except for a few lines here and there from Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth and the 17th-century poet Henry King.

To be sure, early notes from the weeks immediately after the death (“I want to say ‘since he vanished’. That seems far more accurate”) are generic: no, there is no specific noun for a bereaved parent; yes, we recognise the denial stage. “He still hasn’t come home. What more does he want?” But the rigour of original thought asserts itself. Riley believes that she is living outside time because for a parent, a child’s time is “quietly uncoiling inside your own”, so when the child’s life stops, “the purely cognitive violence of it” freezes the parent’s time, too. She cannot “move on” because “there is no medium through which to move any more”. Coming close to your child’s death is, she makes clear, an existential risk to the survivor.

This book is without a scrap of sentimentality but provokes a deep emotional response: not from poignancy but in awe at the precision with which Riley records her grief. It is often too painful to read, but too valuable not to. Her aim is less to provide comfort to fellow travellers than to give the lucky many who will never experience a child’s death a way to no longer say: “I can’t imagine what you’re feeling.”

“At the death of your child, you see how the edge of the living world gives onto burning whiteness. [...] Nothing ‘poetic’, not the white radiance of eternity – but sheer non-being, which is brilliantly plain.”

Published alongside Time Lived, Without Its Flow is a new Selected Poems by Riley, which spans from 1976 to recently published work, and features all of her acclaimed 2016 collection Say Something Back, which includes “A Part Song”. Riley’s poetry is taut and concise, often enigmatic, but rich enough to give us snow in six words (“its grey and violet / trillion souls”) or the hurting heart in seven (“under my shirt / with its atrocious beat”).

The carefully weighted words in these two books are the hard-won results of “a forensic labour”; a small win set against the loss Riley has sustained, but a win all the same.

Time Lived, Without Its Flow for £8.79 and Selected Poems by Denise Riley are published by Picador (£9.99 and £14.99). To order copies go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


John Self

The GuardianTramp

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