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Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore
Newcastle upon Tyne 1997

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Of the forty-five poems in Helen Dunmore’s Bestiary there are some, a good number, that are breath-of-fresh-air-takingly good. And others that contain individual lines that equal that standard. Here skill lies in rendering the language of everyday poetical; in making a rhythm and a symmetry – a music even – out of simple words, phrases, pictures:

Thirty-four bass, small bass, not worth keeping

So, when you come across,

keeping the moon down
and the night from blowing
its smoke of stars across heaven

the obvious ‘poetry’ of it comes as a surprise. The way she regularly pairs certain words is a microcosm of this: we expect children to ‘dawdle’ through poems but unexpectedly they ‘dwindle’ too. Here the presence of both cliché and new is ingenious, self aware.

The volume begins with a quote from Keats’ Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds but if Dunmore believes that she also sees ‘too distinct into the core / Of an eternal fierce destruction’ then she is sorely mistaken. The brilliance of ‘He lived next door all his life’ (one presumes under the name of West) is the very fact that until we reach the last stanza the shocking fierce destruction is lurking hidden very deep. The forest she wants to be buried in is ‘a summer’ one where the dawn is ‘almost touching’ the darkness.

It is hard to define Dunmore’s style, although ‘alliterative’ is perhaps the one constant with such as the hare’s ‘liquid leaps’ and the cat’s ‘sinew of shadow’ perfect in their enjoyment of language. But for the rest… Reading Bestiary is like being at a wine tasting where vineyards from many different lands are represented. It’s hard to believe that the same writer produced both ‘Need’ and a page later ‘The thorn’. The first is almost a modern-day Gibran’s The Prophet, the second Herbert-esque with its startling simplicity and brilliantly gentle use of repetition. It stands alone, centre justified, in the collection:

There was no berry on the bramble
only the thorn,
there was no rose, not one petal,
only the bare thorn
the night he was born.

There was no voice to guide them,
only the wind’s whistling,
there was no light in the stable,
only the starshine
and a candle guttering
the night he was born.

From nothing and nowhere
this couple came,
at every border
their papers were wrong but they reached
the city and begged for a room.

There was no berry on the bramble,
no rose, not one petal,
only the thorn,
and a cold whispering
the night he was born.

Internal rhymes, echo, reflection – the poem reads like a song, a carol, and yet manages through its framing by nature to render afresh one of the oldest stories in the book.

Then thirteen pages later a sudden whiff of Carribean vintage with the rhythmic ‘sleep sleep’ of ‘Baby sleep’.

Seldom joined obviously by style, the poems also seem to avoid being catergorized by subject. Both title and back page seem to claim an underlying theme of beasts, both animal and human, but this is an easy label to place on almost anything and Dunmore doesn’t give us a themed collection. Indeed there are some poems: ‘A pretty shape’, ‘The phone’s ring’, ‘Signals’, that could have made up their own ‘Human’ collection.

Her best are her simplest; those which don’t seem to actively seek a style but happily settle into their own simple and direct address of the subject at hand:

or I climb to a ledge and lie,
dulled by its half warmth. Half wasp, I’m still
helpless not to sting your exploring finger

This second stanza of ‘The wasp’ gives us the tired and broken creature with broken words and broken lines, each ‘h’ a breathless, tired-out gasp of dying energy, mirroring those last helpless attempts to sting.

Once I’d stopped trying to force the notion of Bestiary into every poem, I found Dunmore occasionally ordinary, frequently good and sometimes quietly and simply excellent. She sums it up best when she herself says, ‘Sometimes in the rough garden of city spaces…I stop to take a breath’ and those breaths are worth waiting for.

Reviewed by Tamara Harvey


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