Last month I went with hubby to see comedian Richard Herring perform his F**k I’m Fifty stand-up show at Liverpool’s Hot Water Comedy Club. In one bit of the routine Herring compared being a child to being on the beach with your back to the sea. Then when you’re older, you’re in the sea, and the older you get the further out get, until eventually you can hardly see the beach at all. And then the sea covers you and you die. (I’ll admit it doesn’t sound like a laugh, but it was the way he told it.)
The sea is likewise used as an image of living and dying by Helen Dunmore in her award winning poetry collection Inside the Wave.
“And the life in me stirs like a tide
That knows when it must be gone.
I am on the deep deep water
Lightly held by one ankle
Out of my depth, waiting.”
from September Rain
Inside the Wave won the 2017 Costa Book of the Year Award. I remember thinking, wow, a poet winning the overall award, that’s unusual, and even asserted as much to a group of friends who all nodded in agreement. One googling session later I realise it’s not unusual at all; if history tells us anything it’s that the poetry winner actually has an above average chance of winning the overall prize. (If this seems unlikely, the p.s. explains!)
Much has been made of the fact that Dunmore wrote Inside the Wave during the last months of her life. (The overall Costa prize was made posthumously.) There are poems tackling her illness and impending death. Plane tree outside Ward 78 has a wonderfully ambiguous last line “We live for the moment”; The shaft opens with a beautiful sick-bed observation “I don’t need to go to the sun – /It lies on my pillow”; My life’s stem was cut is an extended metaphor about a flower with a life-affirming ending “I know I am dying/But why not keep flowering/As long as I can/From my cut stem?”; Rim possibly reflects the mundane, practical side of preparing for death with “I’m getting rid, getting shot, cleansing/Dark cupboards”; and the final poem, Hold out your arms, added in the second reprint (after her death), is a striking personification of Death as a mother comforting her child “As you push back my hair/…You murmur/’We’re nearly there.’”
On the whole, though, the collection is an eclectic mix. A handful of poems draw on Greek legend, as with The Place of Ordinary Souls: “In the fields of asphodel we dawdle/Towards the rumour of a beauty spot/Which turns out to be shut” (the helpful foot note explains that asphodel is where ordinary souls pass the afterlife i.e. not heroes like ‘Swift-heeled Achilles’). Many take inspiration from nature, or seem to be family reminiscences. Many more have no apparent connection to anything else in particular, such as Nightfall in the Ikea Kitchen: “Here is the place where I begin again/As a twenty-three year old Finn.”
And therein lies the rub because Inside the Wave is not, as the blurb has it, “concerned with the borderline between the living and the dead” – or at least not exclusively. Having to adjust expectations mid-read isn’t helpful.
The publishers also haven’t done the collection any favours with the typography, which seems to be all over the place. The titles of some poems capitalise the initial letter of main words, as in a traditional title, whereas others only capitalise the initial letter of the first word, as in a sentence. Lines don’t always start at the same level on opposite pages, meaning verses that would otherwise line up on opposite sides of the page, well, don’t.
Picky? Perhaps. But the way the text looks on the page is less than appealing and gives the general impression of a book that’s been thrown together. A shame in any circumstances but especially so considering this is Dunmore’s final collection.
So: read Inside the Wave but forget that living and dead stuff. Think about Time. Or, better yet, approach each poem thinking about nothing at all and take it as it comes.
Rating: * Not for me (but worth a try)
PS The Costa/Whitbread Book of the Year award was first made in 1985, which is 33 years’ of awards, and there are five categories (First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry, and Children’s Book), so on a simply average you’d expect the winner of the Poetry category to have taken the overall award 6.6 times (7, say). In fact it’s gone to the poetry winner eight* times, an above average hit-rate, only the novel winning more (11 times). Of course you could take the view that the five categories represent only three genres (i.e. first novel, novel and children’s book categories belonging to the overarching genre ‘novel’), which means the simple average increases to 11, but even by that benchmark the success of poetry is still very respectable particularly when compared to biography, which was named book of the year only six times in the same period.
*The eight Poetry winners also winning Book of the Year are: Douglas Dunn’s Elegies (1985), Seamus Heaney’s The Spirit Level (1996), Ted Hughes with Tales From Ovid (1997), and again with Birthday Letters (1998), Heaney again with Beowulf (1999), A Scattering by Christopher Reid (2009), Of Mutability by Jo Shapcott (2010), and Inside the Wave by Helen Dunmore (2017). All bar Elegies I’ve reviewed earlier on this blog so please look them up!