15 years ago, I rediscovered poetry – like so many others, I’d imagine – with the Staying Alive collection. I still think this is such a powerful collection, covering all manner of poetry from the traditional to the contemporary, and there were a lot of poems that caught my eye. One that particularly struck a chord, though, was from Helen Dunmore. It was one of her poems that helped me understand that poetry could be a conversational piece, from a voice that was kind of like mine really. British. Yorkshire, in fact. It wasn’t inaccessible or high brow, it wasn’t abstract and aloof, it was real life, it was human, it was something I could connect with. In my head, she was kind of halfway between a character by Victoria Wood and Charles Bukowski.
So it was with real sadness that I heard the news of her death today. “When You’ve Got” really had an impact on me, with it’s theme of everyday life and the grinding frustrations that life brings. The recurring line “this is not what I was after“, the lovely image part way through “when the vacuum cleaner seethes and whines in the lounge / and the waste disposal unit blows / when tenners settle in your account / like snow hitting a stove” – the whole thing was something that I could – with a young family of my own – easily relate to. You spend years trying to achieve something, and then realise it really isn’t the perfect dream that you thought it might be. The poem doesn’t give you a promise that it can be magically be better, but it does reassure you that, at the very least, your experience isn’t unique.
I compromised a little with her back catalogue by buying the “Out of the Blue” collection, with it’s front cover of sea and sky. Was this the blue of her title, or was it the blue of a pregnancy test coming back as positive? There are poems in here of conception, and loss, and life, and illness and strength and pain. She writes of giraffes in Hull and of parachute packers and cows in meadows. She picks a single detail, and unravels it into a cascade of words. “It was Hansel who crumbled the bread / while I skipped at your side and pretended / to prattle questions and guess nothing” is from Babes in the Wood – a view from a fairy story made real and vivid.
Of course, along with all of the poetry, Helen also wrote childrens books and novels. I remember being slightly surprised when my youngest daughter starting reading “The Ingo Chronicles” and I had to check it was by the same author. That’s range for you, right there.
She was 64. That’s no age. Another reminder that, for any of us who want to write, then we have to write, today. Tomorrow is a distant place, that we might not reach. We have to write, if not for anyone else then for ourselves, and do it now. Write of our own lives, if we want to, that’s fine. Somewhere, someone might just read it and say – yes, that’s exactly how I feel today. Somewhere further down the track we might re-read it and say – yes, that’s exactly how I felt that day, and in remembering it helps us understand our journey more intimately.
RIP Helen Dunmore.
You can read more about her, here.