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New Poetry, Fiction, Essay

Helen Dunmore’s Costa Book of the Year, Inside the Wave: a review by Jane Simmons

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Jane Simmons is a retired teacher/lecturer who is now studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. She has written several short stories and is currently working on her second novel and a collection of poetry. She is a member of the Lincoln-based Pimento poets and Outspoken Poets and regularly reads/performs her work in the Lincoln area. Although her main interests are poetry and prose fiction, she has written a short play which is to be published and performed in summer 2018.  Jane says she does not know how she ever found the time to go to work. Jane lives with her husband in a village outside Lincoln. They have one daughter – who is a vet, and Jane’s number one reader.

 

 

 

Late author Helen Dunmore’s final poetry collection has been named the 2017 Costa Book of the Year. Helen Dunmore is only the second writer to be awarded the prize posthumously; the first was to Ted Hughes for Birthday Letters.

 

Helen Dunmore

Inside the Wave

Bloodaxe

ISBN 978 1 78037 354 4

Helen Dunmore was born in Beverley, Yorkshire. She studied English at York University (1970-73) where she became entranced by the Russian poets. Her critical work included studies of Emily Brontë’s poetry, DH Lawrence’s stories and Virginia Woolf’s relationships with women.

Dunmore was a prolific and multi-talented writer – a poet, novelist, short story and children’s writer, the author of twelve novels, three volumes of short stories, many books for children and young adults, and eleven collections of poetry. She was awarded numerous prizes for her fiction: The Siege (2001), was shortlisted for the Orange prize and the Whitbread; The Betrayal (2010) was longlisted for the Booker; A Spell of Winter won the Orange prize in 1996.

However, she was first and last a poet. Her first collection, The Apple Fall, was published when she was 30, her last, Inside the Wave, in April 2017. It was her 1988 collection, The Raw Garden, that established her reputation as a poet, Dunmore’s poetry books have been given the Poetry Book Society Choice and Recommendations and won several prizes including the Cardiff International Poetry Prize, the Alice Hunt Bartlett Award and the Signal Poetry Award. Her poem The Malarkey won the 2010 National Poetry Competition.

Dunmore taught on Arvon Foundation courses, set up a Bristol poetry group, worked on the management committee of the Society of Authors and was, for a year, its chair. She was a trustee of the Royal Literary Fund and became a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1997.

 

Inside the Wave brings together the poetry which Helen Dunmore wrote in the final months of her life. It is simultaneously a poignant reflection on being close to death, and a celebration of life and the writing life. The collection has received great praise from a wide variety of sources:

 

It’s a phenomenal book… an absolute standout book said Alex Clarke, reviewing the acclaimed writer’s last published work on Front Row where the shortlist was first announced and where the overall winner was announced live on air.

 

It’s so relatable to anyone who has experienced loss on any level, says Kiran Millwood Hargrave, one of the 2017 Costa Poetry Prize judges, and it’s incredibly moving, even if you didn’t know it was Dunmore’s final collection.

Helen Dunmore was writing The Birdcage when she was diagnosed with cancer, but she continued to write, finishing both that novel and this award-winning poetry selection. In March 2017, Radio 4’s Open Book programme asked the poet about her refusal to give up her work despite being terminally ill; she replied, I feel like myself when I’m doing it. Nowhere is that stated more clearly than in the poem My life’s stem was cut:

My life’s stem was cut,
But quickly, lovingly
I was lifted up,
I heard the rush of the tap
And I was set in water
In the blue vase, beautiful
In lip and curve,
And here I am
Opening one petal
As the tea cools.
I wait while the sun moves
And the bees finish their dancing,
I know I am dying
But why not keep flowering
As long as I can
From my cut stem?

She describes the short journey from the garden to a vase, in a poem which, like the collection as a whole, shows how brilliantly she continued to flower from her cut stem. Of poems written in hospital, she says:

The words come easily

Bubbling like notes

From a bird that thinks it is dawn

As a poet, Dunmore remained curious to the last about where she was travelling and how she was going to get there. Journeys feature in a number of the poems in this collection, as subject but also in the language and imagery. She takes us to Hornsea, to the Humber, and to the Spit, to hear the click /and tumble of pebbles, slumbrous /Geography shifting

The central subject of Inside the Wave is mortality, seen through Dunmore’s personal experience of cancer where, Pain is yards away / Held off like bad weather. However, the poems also celebrate life. The poet’s appreciation of the beauty of the natural world is undiminished. She writes of the

waterfall in the ante-room

Basalt, I think, the rock

Where the white stream leaps

Elsewhere, she writes of a glacier, of seas, sand, waves, foam, a beach in summer, wind. Her appreciation of natural beauty sustains her during her illness:

I don’t need to go to the sun –

It lies on my pillow

Who would have thought that pain

And weakness had such gifts

Hidden in their rough hearts?

These poems are full of trees, leaves, plane leaves,

Billow of leaf in the summer dark

just as they are full of petals and flowers. The occupying Romans walked in bluebell hollows, girls are lissom as lilies and a drop of rain lies swollen/on the petal of a rose. We are shown mimosa, wallflowers, pollen, foxgloves, harebells and sunflowers, the chill buds of the camellias. Even a lamplighter is seen through an abundance of flowers:

His head is a ball of petals. He barely coughs

As the soft skin of petunia

Plasters itself against his nostrils

Death itself is

The bearded iris that bakes its rhizomes

Beside the wall,

Your scent flushes with loveliness,

Sherbert, pure iris

Lovely and intricate

The poet writes of birds, and birdsong, of unglamorous dunnocks whose dusty wings flirt, of swans and cormorants, the sound of fat pigeons dumpily purring, and pothering hens, and the bees and moths of the insect world.

The smell of cardamom delights her, as does the incantatory sound of

the rare metals:/Antimony, molybdenum,/Wolframite, uranium/Gold, silver and indium

and Ikea furniture Stuva, Droma, Expedit, Tromso, Isfjordan

It is as if her intense appreciation and her fascination with natural beauty are enhanced by her awareness of mortality.

Dunmore draws on her wide reading to make Biblical and classical references in a number of poems in the collection. In “The Underworld”, she writes:

I used to think it was a narrow road
From here to the underworld
But it’s as broad as the sun.
I say to you: I have more acquaintance
Among the dead than the living
And I am not pretending.

The underworld which she imagines is one with antecedents in classical mythology. Elysium, and fields of asphodel are as familiar to the poet as her own garden. In Inside the Wave, the poem which provides the title for the collection, Ulysses himself, having returned to Ithaca, realises that to be home is not to be free, and settles to watching the sea:

It was on the inside
Of the wave he chose
To meditate endlessly
Without words or song,
And so he lay down
To watch it at eye-level,
About to topple,
About to be whole.

From the works of Homer, she moves on to use other literary references and writes about the poems of Catullus and elsewhere, she references Biblical language and stories.

In other poems, Dunmore attempts to praise and grant permanence to fleeting moments as in “In Praise of the Piano”:

Finger ballet on the telephone
switchboard,
The one word that flows from the lips
And the one heart by which it is heard
Unrepeatable, fragile. In praise
Of all that cleaves to the note, then
slips
From it and never stays.

Elsewhere, she creates dramatic vignettes for example in Closing the Gate where two girls in brief lovely dresses, girls who might be my daughters shelter in the poet’s garden, anxious to close the gate because in the street is a car containing two suspicious-looking men who don’t look / Much like the sons of anyone, revving car the engine so we don’t forget.

There are also more detailed biographical pieces such as The Duration, in which a woman remembers running into the sea afraid that her young son had gone too far out. Afterwards, the boy is ashamed of her behaviour and her wringing wet, tell-tale skirt. Now, years later,

She wonders if Father remembers.
Later, when they’ve had their
sandwiches
She might speak of it. There are
hours yet.
Thousands, by her reckoning.

A sense of unrealised potential haunts many of these poems, including Hold Out Your Arms, which was written days before she died and added to the second reprint of the book. It is a poem which glows with clear-eyed calm in the face of death. Dunmore addresses death directly but she also compares it to a tender, caring mother, an image which she maintains right up to the poem’s heart-breaking conclusion:

Hold out your arms

Death, hold out your arms for me
Embrace me
Give me your motherly caress,
Through all this suffering
You have not forgotten me.

You are the bearded iris that bakes its rhizomes
Beside the wall,
Your scent flushes with loveliness,
Sherbet, pure iris
Lovely and intricate.

I am the child who stands by the wall
Not much taller than the iris.
The sun covers me
The day waits for me
In my funny dress.

Death, you heap into my arms
A basket of unripe damsons
Red crisscross straps that button behind me.
I don’t know about school,
My knowledge is for papery bud covers
Tall stems and brown
Bees touching here and there, delicately
Before a swerve to the sun.

Death stoops over me
Her long skirts slide,
She knows I am shy.
Even the puffed sleeves on my white blouse
Embarrass me,
She will pick me up and hold me
So no one can see me,
I will scrub my hair into hers.

There, the iris increases
Note by note
As the wall gives back heat.
Death, there’s no need to ask:
A mother will always lift a child
As a rhizome
Must lift up a flower
So you settle me
My arms twining,
Thighs gripping your hips
Where the swell of you is.

As you push back my hair
– Which could do with a comb
But never mind –
You murmur
‘We’re nearly there.’

Helen Dunmore died of cancer in June 2017, aged 64

 

 

 

 

 

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