Unfurled

Mona Arshi’s essay talked about Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow in a way that made me want to read it for myself. Riley wrote the essay after the sudden death of her grown son from an undiagnosed heart condition. After he died, she found herself experiencing time differently; the essay is a meditation on “that extraordinary feeling of a-temporality” and its implications for grief and consolation.

I hadn’t been thinking about my own experience in temporal terms, though I have often had the sometimes overwhelming sensation that I am standing still while the rest of the world is moving, which I suppose is a version of what she means about “living in suddenly arrested time.” When I try to describe my emotional state, I am drawn to metaphors of weight and especially of carrying: it’s a lot to carry, I can’t put it down, I can’t bear it, it’s very heavy. Arshi’s word “sticky” resonated with me because I also feel stuck in one place, unable to let go or move forward; there is a repetition, a sameness, even a tedium to my grief. Reading Riley’s essay, I thought that this feeling too could be a form of “temporal suspension,” a state in which, as she notes, “your reflections will crop up all over again but as if, on occasion, they’re newly thought.” On the other hand, perhaps her grief and mine are not the same: grief is such a strange blend of the intensely individual and the commonplace, even universal.

Time Lived, Without Its Flow begins with a series of notes recorded at intervals (from two weeks to three years) after her son’s death. They are followed by an analytical postscript that includes comments on some poetic treatments of grief and “temporal distortion”—”this is literary criticism as love,” Max Porter observes in his Afterword. After his own first reading, Porter says, he sat “marvelling that so few pages could have such an impact, could contain so much.” My own reading experience was not so thrilling. I found the essay more abstract than I expected, more conceptual, less immediate; I regretted the same lack of sentimentality Porter admires. Porter calls it “non-fiction burnished to the point of poetic intensity.” It is, but (like Riley’s own poetry) it’s very cerebral—which is not to say it is not often moving and powerful. There are lines in it that will echo in my mind for a long time, especially this one:

Perhaps what’s specific is this: that with the death of your child, your own experience of time may be especially prone to disturbance because the lost life had, so to speak, previously unfurled itself inside your own life.

Commenting on the inevitable return to “a communicable social life and its familiar chronology,” Riley notes that

the cost of recovering your conventional apprehension of flowing time is intolerably high. The dead slip away, as we realize that we have unwillingly left them behind in their timelessness.

How well that explains something I’ve been trying to understand: how being “stuck” in grief can feel preferable to the alternative, which is “a second, now final, loss.” Riley’s concluding vision, though, is a consoling one: a “temporality of love,” in which “the time of the dead is…freshly contained within your own.”

Riley’s collection “Say Something Back” is included in the same NYRB volume as Time Lived, Without Its Flow. Here’s an excerpt I particularly liked from one of its poems, “A Part Song”:

ix

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.

4 thoughts on “Unfurled

  1. Jeanne February 9, 2022 / 4:25 pm

    I read this with tears in my eyes; I can’t imagine what it’s like, but your words and those you quote bring me near enough to almost feel some of the weight.

  2. Mary Lu Redden February 9, 2022 / 8:18 pm

    Rohan: I think of you often these days, trying to picture how it must be to travel this unfamiliar road, that no parent should ever have to travel. Your meditations on grief have moved me deeply. Thank you.

  3. Susan Messer February 12, 2022 / 7:48 pm

    Me, too. Still thinking about you and reading your words, grateful for them.

  4. Janet Webb March 30, 2022 / 6:32 pm

    Death is almost always an unwilling stranger, particularly in your situation. I am so sorry–your pain is palpable and it just must be so hard.

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