21 January, 2013Issue 21.1LiteraturePhilosophyPoetry

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The Old Edifice of Knowing

April Pierce

Time Lived, Without Its FlowDenise Riley
Time Lived, Without Its Flow
80 pages
ISBN 978-0-9571395-0-3




Time Lived, Without Its Flow is a pocketbook exploration of a particular experience of time. Denise Riley, who published a set of 20 short poems almost alongside this tract-sized piece last year, has ventured into a portrayal of the delicate perception of time sensed by a bereaved parent. Riley dedicates her work to her own son, who died in 2008. In the tradition of the tract, the tiny book has the taste of the haphazard with a dash of urgent visions—it is at once eccentric and conventional, evocative and aloof.

Riley’s piece floats in the nebulous interdisciplinary space between poetic self-help and philosophical soliloquy; its use of the pronoun “you” indicates both “you, my empathetic reader” and “myself, the author”. The advantage of this method is its subtle blurring of potential distinctions between Riley’s lived experience and the experience of reading her work. The disadvantage is that it conflates her notion of time and the experiences of others. She often seems to assume, for instance, that her theoretical account of time applies to all parents equally:

Inside their senses of arrested time, millions must live today, and have lived. The death of their children, perhaps in wars or through natural disasters, is apt to induce a profound dislocation in the experienced time of those left alive. They are thrown into ‘timeless time’.

Here, and elsewhere, lack of specificity leads to an unnecessary universalisation of principles. At times it is not even clear that Riley has considered whom she is addressing. There are moments when she asserts that her special experience of time can only be understood fully by parents who have lost their own children, at others her considerations apply to any figure who has experienced death—whether fictional or real.

Whomever Riley seeks to address, there are flashes of subtlety and insight in her work, which are well worth the very short read. Time Lived, Without Its Flow lights upon tender fluctuations of epistemology and briefly sparkling images. When the piece succeeds it is poignant and touching, as when “the old edifice of ‘knowing’ now droops forward and flops without its scaffolding”, or when, in diary form, Riley describes how ten months after the death of her son “the future lay in front of me as if I could lean into it gently like a finger of land”. Unfortunately, Riley’s poetic abilities and stimulating transcendental inklings cannot mask the uneasy amorphousness and generality of the considerations presented in Time Lived, Without Its Flow.

One of the major distractions in Riley’s unique exposition is a crippling self-consciousness concerning her chosen form of communication, which all but overpowers the otherwise compelling introspections exhibited. Riley insists, for instance, that “it’s as if any death causes the collapse of the simplest language”, that “your very conditions militate against narrative”. Much attention is given to “limp puns” and “the weaker metaphorical use” of her terms. Riley also devotes a large portion of her piece to describing the impossibility of description itself, which eventually becomes tedious. The constant use of abstract description, as opposed to depiction, is part of Riley’s philosophical modus operandi. That a writer should explicitly refer to their own form—and avoid emotional outbursts—is certainly nothing new to 21st-century literary theory and philosophy. What is both jarring and problematic about Riley’s approach is her reliance on metanarrative in light of an experience as excruciating and personal as the death of one’s child.

The aversion to “direct identification”, paired with a somewhat self-contradictory presentation of objective categorizations of emotion (not to mention adverbial excess) in Riley’s work sometimes evokes a flavourless, almost clinical ambiguity, rather than an impression of the mystical or sublime. Exasperation in the face of necessary communication sometimes works, if a writer can convince her readers there is something of critical or unique importance to be expressed in the first place. Dickinson’s work, oft-cited in Riley’s piece, is artful and creative in its use of evocation and double entendre rather than direct expression. Riley, in contrast, uses a rather insipid breed of ambiguity—employing broad generalizations and trite observations on grammatical form—to express her struggle. Riley’s experiment with the borders of expression is laudable in its courageous abandonment of literary conventions or formal restraints, but at times her descriptions are veiled in a haze of indeterminateness.

However, she gives fair warning concerning her difficulty in coming to terms with her notions in the introductory remarks: “this is also a question about what is describable”, she muses, foreshadowing her own struggle to articulate her experience of time. Gesturing towards the (perhaps) necessary inarticulateness of her account, Riley describes her experience of time as “hard to put into words, yet absolutely lucid as you inhabit it daily, this sensation of having been lifted clean out of habitual time only becomes a trial if you attempt to make it intelligible to others who’ve not experienced it.”

And yet, the work of putting this experience into words is the very work Riley has chosen to undertake. It may be true that the articulation of tragic experiences using a more philosophical language is a trial, but does this justify a divergence from clarification of the abstract notions employed? Does difficulty itself warrant prevarication and self-reflexivity? The questions hang in the air. Perhaps the answers hinge on how individual readers experience death and whether they are able to uncover profound nuance in Riley’s stylistic avoidance of conceptual specificity and directness.

The second major difficulty with this piece is the quality of its engagement with other thinkers. Riley implies that her conception of the timeless present is an original contribution to philosophy. Durational time, it is assumed, is part of the plebeian experience or notion of time—of time as experienced by “everybody else”. This would explain the pained struggle to define; Riley’s experience of time is so new that she can hardly articulate it—induction and speech have failed her. Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Hegel are briefly acknowledged, but Riley fails to mention those theorists who have dealt explicitly with Presentism or notions of the timeless present (Augustine, Bergson, Plato, to name just three). Since an experience of “timeless time” is central to Riley’s work, it seems odd that she would ignore those thinkers who have dealt with precisely this possibility.

Although Riley’s short work is deeply satisfying poetically, there are serious problems with her philosophical speculations. At moments, she emerges into the bright light of lucidity, but much of the piece is devoted to the murky murmurings of self-consciousness. Many of Riley’s references are sloppy and inaccessible: “like that cartoon image of Donald Duck running straight off the edge of a cliff” (why not Wile E. Coyote?) and her abstractions feel uncomfortably vague. These problems aside, Time Lived, Without Its Flow is a courageous voyage into new territory, and those who desire a reflection on the death of loved ones might forgive its chimeric qualities.

April Pierce is studying for a DPhil in English literature at St. Anne’s College, Oxford.