Bereavement is a common theme in the literature of illness memoirs. It may be the bereavement of the survivor, or the sense of loss in someone whose life has been profoundly changed by trauma, and who grieves for the life possibilities that are no more. But nothing in the illness library deals with bereavement like the jewel that is Time Lived, Without Its Flow.
Denise Riley writes as a mother whose adult child has died, but her theme in Time Lived, Without Its Flow is not her son or even his loss. Rather, it is the acute sense of living out of time. She is ‘pole-axed’. Many people report a paralysis after a bereavement, and one aspect of this is the sense that time has stopped. Riley’s brief essay is an acute and detailed analysis – using all her skills as a poet and a philosopher – of her temporal disorientation, during the three years following her son’s death. ‘During the three years’ – I require the language and concepts that meant nothing to her, just to explain the book’s context. It is hard to imagine what it must be like not to recognise the different meanings of minutes, hours, days, months. Accordingly, the analysis could only be retrospective, for, as the author freely acknowledges, she could not write a book during the period when she could not conceive a future. The first half of the essay presents some of the contemporaneous notes which Riley wrote in those first three years, curious puzzled attempts to describe and understand the new sense of no longer being in time, even while living in a society that was moving onward. The second half of the essay is an attempt to analyse and characterise this sense, and to ponder why it has been so poorly described in literature, save in the well-worn metaphor, ‘time stood still’.
Riley examines several images and metaphors useful for her, but also commonly used by others, to describe this ‘out-of-time’-ness. Time is no longer a river, in flow, but is arrested. She likens this to how some people with brain injury can no longer see water flowing from a jug or a tap, but perceive instead a frozen glacier. Early on she sees clearly how the ripples created by her son’s death will soon themselves die away, to be succeeded by stillness, and yet she is also unaware of the water’s movement to come. (Her 2012 poem ‘A Part Song’ ends with the image of her son’s ashes under ‘the fretful wave’.) Riley felt herself to be in the middle of a barren plain, with nothing to orientate her, no sense of movement or direction. She also feels that she is like a Russian doll, from whom the innermost dolls have been removed. The Orpheus myth enshrines some of Riley’s perceptions of her own experience, torn between facing the future while also turning back to see a lost beloved. There is a strong experience of expecting to see her son again, to hear his key in the front door, which is common to many bereaved people.
The language is exact, but this essay is not without humour, despite its tragic cause. A playfulness of language is evident, exploring the clichés, puns and rhymes relating to time. The brain’s ‘temporal’ lobes become the ‘atemporal’ lobes; she has conceived her son, but is unable to conceive his death, and so on.
Riley’s experience is strongly physical. Initially she has to lie down during the day, aware of a weight on her like a lead sheet. Her sense is of a life ‘untimely ripped’ from her, the literary allusion at once apposite, but also physically shocking. At one point she describes being in time’s flow as like a fish swimming in a stream: only when the fish is removed from its element and is gulping for air does it become apparent how necessary is time to our narrative. She voices the feeling that we always live with our children’s lives and their possibilities within our own, and that something will always be missing after a child’s death, however replaced.
As a poet, Denise Riley goes on to discuss short-term memory in poetry, the importance of echoes and repetition in rhyming verse, and of the remembrance of words and rhymes that are not repeated but replaced. The strength of this association with being out of time, then recurs as she investigates verses by Emily Dickenson and Wordsworth, who also seek to explain their experience of unravelled time.
This is a powerful discussion, and a valuable addition to the literature. Riley is aware of the many people who have and will experience the death of a child. Even more numerous perhaps are those who think (in the words of ‘A Part Song’), “By now she must have got over it”. This essay is an important contribution to the literature of empathy and consolation.
Riley, Denise (2019) Time Lived, Without its Flow, London, Picador
Riley, Denise (2016) ‘A Part Song’, in the collection, Say Something Back, London, Picador
Riley, Denise (2012) ‘A Part Song’, London Review of Books, vol.34, no. 3, February 2012
Riley, Denise (2012) ‘A Part Song’, Podcast of Denise Riley reading her poem, at https://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n03/denise-riley/a-part-song