I was deeply saddened to read of the death of Helen Dunmore earlier this week. The loss of one of my favourite wriiters haunts me: I can’t quite believe that there will never be another book from her.
I came across Helen Dunmore when I read Burning Bright aged about 16-17. The assured delicacy of the prose, when compared to its subject matter, jolted and intrigued me. Dunmore’s words were like a cool, clear glass of water on a hot day. Her stories of love, desire, danger, revenge and things done wrong pull you in as relentlessly as the tide in Zennor, the setting of her first book.
When I read of Dunmore’s illness a couple of months ago there was no confirmation that it was terminal. I put a reminder in my diary to send her a letter, wishing her strength and telling her how her writing had affected me. I sent this letter finally about three weeks ago and I really hope she got it, and knew what an impact she has had on me and on so many other readers.
If you haven’t read Helen Dunmore, Zennor in Darkness. Mourning Ruby is startling in its raw and paradoxically beautiful depiction of grief. The Lie, published during the centenary of World War 1, is gut-punchingly powerful. Burning Bright is sheer poetry. Your Blue Eyed Boy and Talking to the Dead are darker tales of people not always being quite as we’d like them to be.
She wrote this poem before her death. If you haven’t read Helen Dunmore, this must tempt you into doing so.
Hold out your arms
Death, hold out your arms for 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
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 –
‘We’re nearly there.’
I am still on the library waiting list for Birdcage Walk, her final book. When I get paid I’m going to stop waiting, and buy it. Right now I am going to start rereading the books I do have in all their elegant, searing, fine-boned beauty, and cry a little more.