THE American poet Wallace Stevens commented that “people ought to like poetry the way children like snow.” In the stark, clear, warm-chill of poetry we see our own breath as well as immerse ourselves in a world reimagined. We play truant from the prosaic and attend to life’s stored magic. A poem forms us more than informs us, promising more of us at the end of it than at the beginning. It introduces us to the intimacy of life’s immensities, and to the immensity of life’s intimacies.
Caroline ForbesThe late Helen Dunmore, award-winning poet and novelist.
It is plain for all to see, then, that Helen Dunmore is a poet. Though chiefly known as a novelist, she began her writing career writing poems, and, in this collection, she ends her life doing the same. The poems of Inside the Wave reflect on her terminal-cancer diagnosis and impending death: “Pain is yards away Held off like bad weather” (“Plane tree outside ward 78”). Many of them were crafted on a hospital bed.
Several years ago, Dunmore said that she was “trying to do without scaffolding” in her poetry, and here she fulfils her task. The poems are alert, generous, contained. Their resonance is born in a distillation and a consciously mortal, intuitive fascination with the world in which she has found herself. So, for instance, in “My life’s stem was cut” we find her “set in water In the blue vase”:
I know I am dying
But why not keep flowering
As long as I can
From my cut stem?
Reading these poems reminded me of the words of Zechariah in St Luke’s Gospel: they seem to give light to those who sit in darkness, even the shadow of death, by guiding us into a way of peace. Although living in that shadow, they are life-affirming, assured, and always true to pain; despair never has the final word. Even death in “Hold out your arms”, written just ten days before she died, is seen as mother:
As you push back my hair
— Which could do with a comb
But never mind —
“We’re nearly there.”
In her poem “Cliffs of Fall”, in which she pays tribute to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s elliptical, elaborate phrasing, the light streams as through a prism. The meanings jostle and excite, although all centred on that word “fall”, which, she concludes, is a “slow marvel”. “The shaft” is another beautiful example of how she does not give in to a paralysis of fear as she steps out of the shallows into the deeper, unknown waters:
I don’t need to go to the sun —
It lies on my pillow.
Without movement or speech
Day deepens its sweetness.
As her own day draws to its close, its “sweetness” deepens. The sun lies on her tired body. She senses the gift of the moment, and we, watching, wish that we could do the same now, in our own lives, before our own hospital bed, one unexpected day, has to remind us. Good poetry offers us words from which we cannot retreat.
Some of the poems seek to capture some permanence for things born to vanish, like music. She writes “in praise Of all that cleaves to the note” (“In Praise of the Piano”). She welcomes the “unglamorous dunnocks” that are so often “unnoted” (“Winter Balcony with Dunnocks”), and, in “Nightfall in the IKEA Kitchen”, she recognises that “Everything is a little below scale And therefore ample”.
Because the great myths are not about what happened in history, but of what always is in the human soul, Dunmore often makes imaginative reference to them. She explores “The Underworld”, tells of Odysseus wanting to honour his oarsman’s fate, and even watches her daughter play Penelope at school. Her own poems are rooted in the perennial obsessions of the mythical dramas in which our own recognitions are a first step towards redemption. Odysseus builds the oarsman’s grave mound so as not to let him be forgotten:
And thrust into its heart my oar
So that I may row myself forever.
(Odysseus to Elpenor)
If readers are unsure about poetry and how to approach it, it’s good to remind ourselves that to ask “What does it mean?” is as misguided as asking the same question after listening to a late Beethoven quartet. We may not feel that we understand a poem, but we still sense that it understands us, somehow.
The Australian poet Les Murray speaks of poetry as being “wholespeak”, not the “narrowspeak” of our pragmatic, flat, get-it-done world. Dunmore’s craft allows us “inside the wave” that crashes over all of us in time, and, in the patterns, flat tones, and resonances, and a repetition of the word “now”, we encounter ourselves as what the past is doing in this moment, and in memory, and how the future might be better distilled, maybe through a detachment.
Etty Hillesum once said that we had to become as simple and as wordless as the growing corn or the falling rain. These last poems by Dunmore are not sheltered from the hurt and loss that befall us, but still there is a sense of freedom, even growth, within them, and, perhaps, within us, as we close the book and let them begin their work.
The Revd Mark Oakley is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Dean-designate of St John’s College, Cambridge. His The Splash of Words: Believing in poetry is published by Canterbury Press.
Inside the Wave by Helen Dunmore is published by Bloodaxe Books at £9.95 (CT Bookshop £8.95); 978-1-78037-358-4.
INSIDE THE WAVE — SOME QUESTIONS
- Dunmore wrote that she hoped that the poems “reflect the sense of where the Underworld meets the human world”. What do you think she meant by this? Was she successful?
- “About to topple About to be whole”. Consider the various boundaries and thresholds in Inside the Wave. Does Dunmore make you think differently about how boundaries and thresholds operate in our lives?
- In the title poem, Odysseus, a man who has experienced years of war and travel, chooses to “meditate endlessly” on the inside of the wave. What does Dunmore suggest, here or elsewhere, about wisdom to be found in the small, the local, or the everyday?
- Does this collection celebrate life as well as consider death? How?
- What is the effect, for you, of Dunmore’s use of classical allusions?
- “In praise . . . of all that cleaves to the note, then slips From it and never stays”. How does Dunmore reflect on the notion of impermanence in the poems?
- “Who would have thought that pain And weakness had such gifts Hidden in their rough hearts” (“The shaft”). What gifts have you discovered from Dunmore’s poems? Did any of them surprise you?
- “I used to think it was a narrow road From here to the underworld But it’s as broad as the sun.” What different sorts of journeys feature in the collection?
- Dunmore often moves swiftly between the everyday and the intellectual (for example, taking the bus to the fields of asphodel). What effect does this have, for you?
- “Hold out your arms” was written days before her death. Are you convinced by the representation of death as a caressing mother? Do the images of death in this poem make you think differently about life?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 3 August, we will print extra information about our next book. This is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. It is published by Faber & Faber at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-571-23058-7.
A Fine Balance (1995), Mistry’s vast, vibrant second novel, is set during the “State of Internal Emergency” declared by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s. Against this background of intense political and social upheaval, Mistry focuses on the individual lives and relationships of four members of India’s struggling working class who find themselves living together in a small apartment: Dina, a widow struggling for independence; Ishvar and his nephew, Om, tailors who are attempting to break away from their village caste system; and Maneck, a young college student. The novel, often described as Dickensian, won several awards.
Rohinton Mistry was born and raised in Bombay in a musical and literary Parsi family. After emigrating to Canada at the age of 23, he worked as a bank clerk while studying for an English and Philosophy degree at the University of Toronto. Much of his literature is based in his first homeland, India, and focuses on India’s Parsee community. He has become known, too, for his portrayals of inequality and oppression in India, particularly within the caste system. Mistry has won a number of high-profile awards, including the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
September: Precious Bane by Mary Webb
October: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber