This small, blue hardback, with lines of gold coursing down its front cover, might – from the outside – be mistaken for an exquisite book of prayer but it was written by the poet Denise Riley in response to the death of her adult son and is not about conventional consolation. The book will be appreciated by its readers precisely because it resists false notes. It was clear from Say Something Back (2016), Riley’s unforgettable poetry collection, which included a poem about the death of her son, that she has, emotionally, perfect pitch.
It was apparent, too, that she is an out-of-the-ordinary narrator – approaching her son’s tragedy crab-wise. It is only halfway through this new book that we learn that Jake was found dead in a still-running bath, having possibly died of a heart attack. These facts are offered not to satisfy our anxious curiosity but noted almost incidentally as Riley pores over his autopsy, wondering whether she might have prevented his death.
Max Porter, whose Grief Is the Thing With Feathers (2015) was a startling bestseller about the loss of a parent, contributes a moving introduction to Riley’s book, claiming that it has been “handed from reader to reader like a secret”. I can believe this. No sooner had I started reading than I found myself thinking of Emily Dickinson, and not only because I was reminded of her by Porter’s title. Dickinson’s line “After great pain a formal feeling comes” perfectly describes Riley’s tone – formal at her most exposed, withheld yet revelatory.
But one would need to think carefully about the word “after”. For Riley’s compelling thesis concerns the strange way in which sequential time is arrested after a sudden death. In one sense, there is no “after”. She finds herself captive to the present tense. It is as if she has died yet is more alive than ever: “You are cut down, and yet you burn with life”. Carrying her son in her mind is a mother’s continuing duty of care.
In the first grip of grief, Riley hears language more acutely – the world’s slipshod tactlessness is all around. She writes about how kindly intentioned people say they can’t imagine how she feels. She argues that they should try (her book will help). She observes the world’s obliviousness: “where people rush about loudly, with their astonishing confidence. Each one of them a candidate for sudden death, and so helplessly vulnerable … Later everyone on the street seems to rattle together like dead leaves in heaps.”
Riley is outside time – a time that, she fancies, she might be sharing with the dead. She writes from a brink, describes a “paper-thin” existence, as though detained at a border crossing. She is wary of muffled language, of words that seem to tiptoe, of vocabulary’s low-lights. She is not keen to apply “sorrow”, “grief” or “mourning” to herself. She rejects “died” too, as “an increasingly silly verb”, and exclaims: “What a lumpish little word: ‘dead.’” And “ashes”, as she movingly relates, is an impossible word for other reasons. Talking to the undertakers the day after her son’s death, she cannot heave “ashes” into her mouth. The wrong words – like her dead leaves in heaps – pile up. “There is no specific noun,” she reflects, “for a parent of a dead child.” You start to understand that her experience of bereavement is beyond language as well as time.
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.
Riley ends by considering what a literature of condolence might involve and looks at rhyme as a means of moving a poem on – in a way, comparable to life returning – nearly the same, always different. And she hints at the wrench of reacquainting herself with sequential time – a recovery sometimes experienced as a new form of loss.
• Time Lived, Without Its Flow by Denise Riley is published by Pan Macmillan (£9.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15