This almost unbearably crystalline essay, first published in 2012, recounts how death smashed her sense of how the world works. In writing it, she sets out to explain (beginning with her title) why “time stopped” is an inadequate cliché for the months of stunned continuation that she lived through.
Not that this deters her from a quality of articulate witnessing that makes this book essential reading. Her almost-denial: “He still hasn’t come home” is set against almost-acceptance: “It still seems ludicrous to decide, finally, that I shall not see that face on this earth.” One wonders if that “ludicrous” is a nod to Jake’s character (“quietly wry and yet completely without guile”). I would love to have heard more about him, while recognising the book was not intended to be a portrait.
The first part of Riley’s essay is written as notes, each headed with a marker of time: “Two weeks after the death”; “Five months after the death”, etc. What we quickly realise is the irony of these markings – time is passing, but it is not passing. As Riley says, “it could be five minutes or half a century”. In the second section of the book, written three years later, Riley uses her keen insight into poetry, philosophy, and loss, to return to her notes, to make sense of them. After being “thrown outside time” by the death of her son, Riley explores the change of cognition she has experienced, the changes in her behaviour, the changes in her understanding of language and, particularly, grammar. Here, she is at her most erudite and insightful: “Perhaps language . . .possesses a belief in spirit.”
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”... 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.