Time Lived, Without Its Flow: poetry of grief for a dead son

Denise Riley, the poet’s poet, with a cult status, writes a powerful meditation on grief

Denise Riley: her ‘ability to assimilate philosophy, feminism and literary history through a restless lyric exactitude is often breathtaking’

Denise Riley: her ‘ability to assimilate philosophy, feminism and literary history through a restless lyric exactitude is often breathtaking’

In February 2012, the London Review of Books published a series of 20 poems by Denise Riley. A Part Song, an extended elegy for her son, is an extraordinary work, and one of the most admired long poems of the 21st century. It later went on to win the Forward Prize, and the collection of which it became a part, Say Something Back, was published by Picador in 2016. So began the popular celebration of a poet and philosopher who, though she had published her first collection in the late 1970s, had typically been considered a “poet’s poet”, her works achieving a sort of cult status, often out-of-print, handed between those in-the-know with a sort of reverence.

After being 'thrown outside time' by the death of her son, Riley explores the change of cognition she has experienced

A Part Song is addressed to Riley’s son throughout, but begins with an invocation, a sort of accusation against poetry, in which the “you” is wonderfully ambiguous. “You principle of song, what are you for now.” Language, poetry, and the fundamentals of our perception, are shocked into question by grief, and Riley grapples with the limits of her trade when faced with such a monumental shift of perspective. Her short prose work Time Lived, Without Its Flow was published in the same year as A Part Song, and interrogates similar themes. Now, it is republished in a widely-available edition with a glowing introduction by Max Porter, author of that other striking work on loss, Grief is the Thing with Feathers.

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