Mo­ments of po­etry in writer’s last tales

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Felic­ity Plun­kett

“My life’s stem was cut,” writes cel­e­brated Bri­tish poet and novelist He­len Dun­more in a poem from the Costa Book of the Year award-win­ning Inside the Wave, her 12th and fi­nal po­etry col­lec­tion, writ­ten when she had can­cer, from the van­tage point of a writer with “hours yet./Thou­sands, by her reck­on­ing”. Dun­more, also the au­thor of 15 nov­els, fic­tion for young adults and chil­dren and four short-story col­lec­tions, died last year soon af­ter its pub­li­ca­tion.

In one poem, the speaker imag­ines be­ing poised “in the deep deep wa­ter / Lightly held by one an­kle / Out of my depth, wait­ing”. This im­age of at­tend­ing the un­known — death, specif­i­cally, but not only — is one that re­sonates through the sto­ries col­lected posthu­mously in Girl, Bal­anc­ing.

The col­lec­tion be­gins with four Nina Sto­ries. In the first few, Nina is yanked and held “out of her depth, wait­ing”. As a small child, she wakes alone with ear­ache and is brought into the night space of her par­ents’ re­la­tion­ship. They smell of smoke, cider and “the time that hap­pened af­ter she went to bed”. In later sto­ries, she ne­go­ti­ates the awk­ward in­ti­macy of a shared board­ing house bath­room and hav­ing to pay for the drinks of ex­trav­a­gant friends. These sto­ries lead to the fourth, Girl, Bal­anc­ing, where the dangers of ice-skat­ing and lone­li­ness frame the men­ac­ing un­knowa­bil­ity of her some­times-boyfriend Mal, from whom, sud­denly, she has to es­cape.

Like the creep of dark­ness into this se­quence and story, dis­quiet seeps into re­la­tion­ships and mo­ments. It’s in Mal’s sneer­ing ques­tions — “You don’t think I’m go­ing to hurt you, do you?” and “Don’t you trust me?” — as his thumbs press into Nina’s throat.

It’s in the glimpse of a stretch of ur­ban wilder­ness “full of owls and mur­ders and rare or­chids” and the in­dis­tinct strug­gle of a man and woman wit­nessed from afar by two young women. It’s in the an­o­dyne mono­logue of an em­bit­tered mid­dle-aged univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tor, ogling young stu­dents (“the girls are so lovely”), his of­fer of tea to a Chi­nese in­ter­na­tional stu­dent dur­ing a meet­ing, and the preda­tory surge of en­ti­tle­ment when she de­murs: “She is re­fus­ing me … Doesn’t she un­der­stand that it’s po­lite to ac­cept what you are of­fered?”

The col­lec­tion is pref­aced by a fore­word by Dun­more’s son, Pa­trick Charn­ley. He de­scribes work­ing with his mother be­fore her death to “get things in or­der” — from Spo­tify pass­words to emails and the man­age­ment of her lit­er­ary es­tate. Although she men­tioned that “a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries at some point might be nice”, she added that it would de­pend on “how good they are”. Charn­ley’s mod­est pref­ace echoes her own hu­mil­ity and limns ques­tions of cu­rat­ing and edit­ing a writer’s pri­vate and pub­lic words, and the ways death af­fects these.

“For my mother, hu­mour was one of the sides of a good life,” writes Charn­ley. Much of this hu­mour curls it­self in the shade of covert and overt vi­o­lence. A young post­grad­u­ate stu­dent, Hamid, wears his girl­friend’s Santa’s Sweet­heart dress­ing gown, but only be­cause po­lice are raid­ing their home. His neigh­bour, a woman in her 60s, sees the po­lice as­sess­ing her — “a nan. Six­ty­ish, over­weight in spite of re­li­gious at­ten­dance at Zumba in the church hall, wear­ing glasses, clutch­ing grand­child” — and coolly as­sesses this dis­missal later while she con­sid­ers “what to do”. Dun­more writes about ac­quis­i­tive­ness, ma­nip­u­la­tion and nar­cis­sism — all the jostling and joust­ing hu­man be­ings tend to­wards — a trace of ten­der­ness reg­is­ter­ing the weak­ness from which such ac­tions spring amid cel­e­bra­tion of those who re­sist or sur­vive them. Hid­den or un­der­cel­e­brated courage is held in the sto­ries’ em­pa­thetic stretch. This is the sub­ject of Es­ther to Fanny in which an aca­demic whose mother has re­cently died con­sid­ers 18th-cen­tury writer Fanny Bur­ney. Bur­ney un­der­went a mas­tec­tomy in the days be­fore anaes­the­sia and wrote about it to a friend. The nar­ra­tor’s stu­dents won­der why some­one of Bur­ney’s age would bother (she was 59 and lived for an­other 29 years) “in or­der to be old for even more years”. Dur­ing the op­er­a­tion, Bur­ney had a cam­bric hand­ker­chief placed over her eyes and now, though time lays its own “semi-trans­par­ent cam­bric hand­ker­chief” across her, her let­ter still “cuts like pol­ished steel”.

In an exquisitely poised story of hum­ble courage and des­o­la­tion, a young fa­ther walks with his baby out into the night, drawn equally to the an­ni­hi­lat­ing sea — “the swell, the mus­cle of it pulling from the deep At­lantic, the con­cus­sion when it runs up against gran­ite” — and the beau­ti­ful words he might use to call to his beloved from the dark­ness they are in: “that all places and all sea­sons shall be sweet to him, so long as she is there”.

Other sto­ries in­volve John Donne, Keats and Grace Poole, the house­keeper in Jane Eyre, as well as peo­ple — es­pe­cially older peo­ple, and women — usu­ally over­looked. A few sto­ries feel slightly sketchy or pro­vi­sional but none is with­out its mo­ments of po­etry and each is cut with a sharp blade.

“My stem was cut”, yet Dun­more wrote in and be­yond that ex­pe­ri­ence: I know I am dy­ing But why not keep flow­er­ing As long as I can From my cut stem? These sto­ries fol­low fi­nal, sharp flour­ish. Inside the Wave is a poet and critic. with a

He­len Dun­more

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