Costa winner Helen Dunmore a beam of light on a darkened world
Poet Jessica Traynor celebrates the work and vision of a versatile writer whose last collection posthumously won the Costa Book of the Year Award last night
Tess Charnley, daughter of the late British poet and author Helen Dunmore with her mother’s award-winning book Inside the Wave. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images
I came relatively late to Helen Dunmore, discovering her work through her most recent collections of poetry, in particular Inside the Wave, which I reviewed for Arena last year and which has just won the Costa Book of the Year Award. What struck me most when I shared the link to the review on social media were the number of responses I got from other writers and avid readers – all of whom had been touched by Helen’s work.
Dunmore was one of those rare writers who have achieved success in many genres. She was a novelist known for her character-driven historical fiction, a successful children’s author and a well-respected poet. She has published regularly since the 1980s and her poem Malarkey won the National Poetry Competition in 2010.
Dunmore’s poetry lives within the lyric tradition. The natural world and her deep interest in local flora, has been the prism through which she approaches themes of transience, loss and regret. In Inside the Wave, however, inspired by her last illness, she took us to new destinations; to the world beyond our perception; the underworld, land under wave.
Costa Book Awards ceremony
This is a collection that deals with mortality by showing us what the next life might offer. There’s uncertainty here, but also a faith in the human imagination as expressed through timeless literature. We come face to face with Odysseus in the underworld. Often the pictures we get of these mythic figures are unsettled and unsettling, as if seen through distorted glass. It’s as if the poet knows that it’s too soon for us to see the picture clearly – we’re still tethered to the land of the living and can’t quite grasp what the dead are up to. She imagines the fields of asphodel, where the ordinary unheroic Greeks spent their afterlife in “The Place of Ordinary Souls”, as a place of dull picnics and missed closing times: “In the fields of asphodel we dawdle/ Towards the rumour of a beauty spot/ Which turns out to be shut.”
Dunmore’s particular talent here is to negotiate these unnerving unknown territories with genuine curiosity. Even though her subject matter is dark, she approaches it with a sense that even in the afterlife there are familiar compass points for us to navigate by.
There are poems that also introduce interior spaces, such as hospital waiting rooms, detailing the poet’s own experiences of illness. But these interiors are always defined by their relationship with the outside world; the poet is always looking either outside, through a window, or beyond. In one very beautiful poem, The Shaft, the fact of a beam of sunlight on a hospital pillow creates a tangible and important link between the poet and the outside world, ending with a question that entreats us to find the beauty in sterile places: “Who would have thought that pain/ And weakness had such gifts/ Hidden in their rough hearts?”
What sets Dunmore’s work apart, then, is its true lyric spirit – even in her darkest moments, there’s an awe around the world’s beauty, and the beauty of ideas themselves, that proves uplifting. The poems in Inside the Wave, though sad, never feel morbid. Now that we are forced by the sad circumstance of her death to contemplate her legacy, I think it’s worth looking at the collection’s final poem, September Rain, in which we’re left with the thought that each ending contains within it a sense of becoming: “I am in the deep deep water/ Lightly held by one ankle/ Out of my depth, waiting.”
Jessica Traynor’s debut collection Liffey Swim is available from Dedalus Press