Involutions, Revolutions

Daniel Davis Wood reviews Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow

Denise Riley, Time Lived, Without Its Flow.
Picador, £9.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

What is radicalism in literature, but a redrawing of the usual boundaries of the readable? Find the zone of moderation, which is to say convention, then strike off in one of two directions. Push the boundaries outwards, claim liberties beyond those taken by the average book, and churn out a thousand-page treatise on melancholy or a doorstopper that makes room for every known fact about cetaceans. Or make your space more cramped, more pinched, and draw the boundaries inward. Forgo certain allowances; let your possibilities atrophy. Write a book in chapters of exactly one hundred words each, or in sentences that all take the form of a question. Use only phrases culled from other books, or refuse to use words containing the letter e. And then, if you really want to indulge your radicalism, choose a subject whose emotional freight tilts it in one of these two directions — excessive or aloof — and force your style to take the alternative. Go maximalist, go gargantuan, with a story about office boredom. Or else go minimalist, be ascetic by an act of will, with a counter-intuitive approach to a harrowing situation like the one faced by the poet Denise Riley.

Recent years have given readers no shortage of writers depicting, with extraordinary candour, the untimely deaths of their own children. From Aleksandar Hemon’s account of his three-year-old daughter’s fatal brain tumour, which concludes his essay collection The Book of My Lives (2013), to Ariel Levy’s excruciating description of a miscarriage in Mongolia, which forms the basis of her memoir The Rules Do Not Apply (2017), and on to Yiyun Li’s back-to-back book-length responses to the suicide of her teenage son, Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life (2017) and Where Reasons End (2019), self-exposure and the anatomisation of grief are the stuff of the words on the page. For writers who have experienced these sorts of traumatic events, there is a tendency to describe the occurrence in forensic detail — in part to demystify and destigmatise it — and to lay bare the emotional torment of the aftermath. Frankness, exposition, elucidation, prosaic lyricism: these are the aesthetic principles of such writers. “Unflinching” is therefore often the word used to describe their works, and so to honour a writer’s courage and apparent composure.

Riley’s adult son, Jacob, died very suddenly in 2008. The cause of his death appears to have been an undetected illness of the heart. In 2012, the London Review of Books published a long poem by Riley, ‘A Part Song’, about the emotional toll of her loss. In 2016, Riley published a new collection of poems, Say Something Back, with ‘A Part Song’ at its core, and wrote more broadly of her years of grief, confusion, and despair — albeit always a little aslant. The result could probably be called maximalist, certainly polyphonic, as, throughout the twenty numbered stanzas of ‘A Part Song’, Riley adopts and discards a series of voices and tones in which to directly address the death of her son.

For instance, in the poem’s sixth stanza, Riley describes her manic state prior to the funeral, in mock-Shakespearean couplets, while viewing herself from outside her own body: “A wardrobe gapes, a mourner tries/ Her several styles of howling-guise:// You’d rather not, yet you must go/ Briskly around on beaming show.” In the next stanza, the rhyme scheme falls away and the style slackens with jarring effect into something close to slapstick: “Oh my dead son you daft bugger/ This is one glum mum. Come home I tell you/ And end this tasteless melodrama — quit/ Playing dead at all…” The eighth stanza flirts with the mythic: “Here I sit poleaxed, stunned by your vanishing/ As you practise your charm in the underworld/ Airily flirting with Persephone.” In the ninth stanza, apparently describing her ruminations at the wake, Riley takes a heartwrenching dive into metaphysical speculation:

They’d sworn to stay for ever but they went
Or else I went — then concentrated hard
On the puzzle of what it ever truly meant
For someone to be here then, just like that
To not. Training in mild loss was useless
Given the final thing. And me lamentably
Slow to “take it in” — far better toss it out,
How should I take in such a bad idea. No,
I’ll stick it out instead for presence. If my
Exquisite hope can wrench you right back
Here, resigned boy, do let it as I’m waiting.

And the form of ‘A Part Song’ goes on shapeshifting, stanza after stanza, now splintering into tercets, now striving for something like haiku, until the final lines, italicised, take the voice of the dead man himself as he pleads with his mother to stop trying to catch his “[o]utgoing soul”: “O let me be, my mother/ In no unquiet grave…” So the polyphony of the style suggests the restlessness of the mourner’s consciousness. It enacts her frenzied search for a voice that might reunite her with a loved one who she knows, in her calmer moments, has been lost to her forever. As far as radicalism goes, the polyphony pushes the boundaries of the poem beyond the two people involved in its originating scenario: it claims the liberty of using disparate voices as vessels for the expression of a singular pain.

Riley’s follow-up book, Time Lived, Without Its Flow, takes exactly the opposite approach to the same experience. Written in the years after her son’s death, concurrently with ‘A Part Song’, it was first released in 2012 via the self-publishing platform Lulu, and now appears in hardback, beautifully repackaged, with a new introduction by Max Porter. Yet despite the lavish design of this re-release, Riley’s text announces its radical attenuations at the outset. “I’ll not be writing about death”, she begins, “but about an altered condition of life.” This condition is one of “living in suddenly arrested time”, the “acute sensation of being cut off from any temporal flow” after the death of a child, and, although it remains invisible to our culture at large, the preponderance of this condition has implications for Riley’s choice of words:

Because I’m considering a state that’s not rare, but for many is lived daily, I shan’t be having recourse to the diction of “trauma”. And whether it might be considered to fall within the compass of pathology doesn’t greatly bother me here. Then certainly someone could produce an account of this freezing of time as an act of dissociation, or a borderline psychotic effort to erect a shield against the reality of death. … [But i]nstead, while trying not to lapse into melodrama or self-regarding memoir, I’ll try simply to convey that extraordinary feeling of a-temporality.

But how could such a striking condition ever be voiced? It runs wildly counter to everything that I’d thought we could safely assume about lived time. So this is also a question about what is describable, and what are the linguistic limits of what can be conveyed. I’m not keen on conceding to any such limits. Yet it seems that the possibilities for describing, and the kinds of temporality that you inhabit, may be intimately allied. For there do turn out to be “kinds”, in the plural.

Radicalism in literature can be freewheeling, as comma splices and run-on sentences spawn clauses and sub-clauses and digressions, sometimes encased in parentheses, sometimes in footnotes that generate their own footnotes, but radicalism can also be this: as above. What language are we listening to? Consider the phrasing: “I shan’t be having recourse”, “the compass of pathology”, “[t]hen certainly”, “I’ll try simply”, “I’m not keen on conceding”. This is the language of politesse, of the boardroom, of a depersonalised existence, though it gives voice to the most raw of personal ordeals. Austere and abstract. Almost atonal. Disavowing of emotional indulgences. That is what radicalism can look like, and it is all the more radical when the conventional treatment of Riley’s subject permits such indulgences — indeed, when any sympathetic view of her circumstances would invite them.

How successfully does Riley sustain this radicalism? She doesn’t. Although Porter’s introduction describes the book as having “the focused clarity of a recitation… without so much as a whiff of melodrama”, that’s not quite so. It’s more the case that Riley does succumb to melodramatic impulses but then snaps into a self-reflexive mode, even a self-abnegating mode, and tries to scrub out the emotional excess after the fact. “Analogies ramify”, she writes, of her struggle to explain the sensation of arrested time, and her recourse to the language of comparisons:

Plunged in some florid jungle of “as ifs”, you sense them roaming everywhere, blossoming like bindweed, tying everything together then spiralling upward, entwining you and the dead child in conjoined experience… [a]s if you’d died too, or had lost the greater part of your own life. As if a new ether of no-time stands still in your veins. That’s the over-arching “as if”. Then there’s an “as if” of uttering, when the speech of the one left behind can turn staccato. That first day afterward, speaking by phone to the funeral director, I needed to yet could not get the word “ashes” out of my mouth without a strenuous physical struggle. “Ah-aassh-aashhes”, came a dry stammer. As if uttered through sawdust. … My jaw must have worked over the word “ashes” like that of a dying fish. Or it must have been as slack as J’s own mouth once the rigor mortis had worn off; but that analogy only comes to me now, well over two years later.

Is this not melodramatic? It goes on for page after page:

The brain could not calmly entertain the word. The mouth would not… [a]s if it had itself become sifted up thickly with ashes. … Inside your sheltering thicket of branching “as ifs”: it’s not only as if the ashes of your child had blocked your own mouth, but as if your own future is as neatly guillotined; as if you wipe away the physical traces of the dead…

But then, Riley abruptly backtracks:

Those skeins of “as ifs” don’t arrive as considered comparisons, though, but as direct feelings. In fact, the notion of “as if” scarcely applies here, although you’re forced to use it in retrospect to try to convey this many-layered apprehension. Something more intimate’s in play than straightforward analogy.

So she allows herself an instance of melodrama, but she doesn’t mean it in the spirit of melodrama. It is there in service of something else, as a means to the end of detached explication. She knowingly writes in a way that transgresses her own radical constraints, but then rescinds the sentiment of her words and takes it as an impetus to draw in her boundaries even tighter than before.

Where Porter is exactly right is in his observation that “one needs to read certain lines over and over because of the sheer quality and complexity of the thinking within”. This is largely owing to Riley’s propensity for abstraction — the description of her conversation with the funeral director being a rare lapse into scene-based specifics — and a function, too, of the compression of her style. At the risk of giving away the greatest rewards of Time Lived, Without Its Flow, it’s enough to say that the book is exactly what it purports to be and nothing more — a largely dispassionate description of a very particular state of being — and, as a result of the limited scope of its interests, its gifts consist in the graceful involutions of Riley’s thought as she chooses her words and sets down her prose.

This process of selecting and evaluating one’s language is necessarily time-bound, putting the very composition of Time Lived, Without Its Flow at odds with its author’s own sense of being. In consequence, the book is peppered with explicit temporal signatures — “One month after the death”, “Six months after”, “Nine months after”, “Two years and ten months later”, “Three years after” — which fragment Riley’s labours and make the book an “essay” in the original sense of the term. Over and over again, a pattern of illumination, skepticism, resolution, and revision plays out more or less as follows. Riley alights upon one possible way of describing her experience of arrest time and attempts to realise it. She selects a word that seems apt, or an analogy, or perhaps a poem that articulates something she feels, and she deploys it. Then she re-reads it as it sits in front of her, tests its strength, its truth, and complicates it, extending her line of thought or else undercutting it, reversing it, identifying some flaw in it, so that she may return to her work at a later time and try again to describe her experience more faithfully. In this way, the essay continually avers something, issuing some thesis or provocation — for example: “The very grammar of discussing a death falters in its conviction, in the same breath that the focus of talk, the formerly living person, himself disintegrates” — and then it turns back on itself, forming a chain of logic whose every link is an ouroboros, as Riley prods each contention and opens it up again to see whether or not its veracity survives as time unfolds around her.

But what is the result of Riley’s radicalism, finally? What, in the end, is the cumulative effect of her aversions and evasions, her ellipses and circumlocutions, her elisions of action and detail, her precision of philosophical phrasing and her abstruse argumentation? Does it offer conventional pleasures by unconventional means? Does it all, in other words, leave the reader moved? No. This isn’t a moving work of literature in the vein of Aleksandar Hemon, Ariel Levy, or Yiyun Li. It doesn’t condescend to conjure feeling. It is, instead, engaged in movement of its own, in motion, in escaping from the trap of feeling. Ironically for a piece of writing that is fundamentally about suspension and stasis, Time Lived, Without Its Flow positively writhes with pain, but the emotion itself is largely suppressed and shows itself through the author’s avoidance of it: it’s there where it doesn’t quite surface, where Riley flirts with breaking her stylistic constraints but instead strengthens her control on her modes of thought and expression. In place of demanding that something be felt, then, Time Lived, Without Its Flow demands that something be followed: an inchoate sensation, afflicting a body in shock, as it is agonisingly pressed into a clean, articulate form. In the writing of bereavement, and especially the bereavement of parents, its radicalism is truly unprecedented. Such are its disavowals, its refusals, and its withdrawals that it subjects this corpus of testimonial literature to a revolution, even as it adds its quiet voice to the chorus of laments.

About Daniel Davis Wood

Daniel Davis Wood is based in Scotland. His début novel, Blood and Bone, won the Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia, and his follow-up, At the Edge of the Solid World, was published to acclaim in 2020. He is also the author of a monograph, Frontier Justice in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Cormac McCarthy, and the novella Unspeakable. He blogs at Infinite Patience and tweets @DanielDavisWood.