Wonderful blog post about Helen Dunmore’s poetry and mine – from last year

dovegreyreader scribbles

a Devonshire based bookaholic, sock-knitting quilter who was a community nurse once upon a time.


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Friendship of Poets.

I didn’t know Helen Dunmore and I don’t know Susan Glickman, but when I bought my copy of Helen Dunmore’s poetry collection Inside the Wave last year, a few months before Helen died, one of the first things I noticed was the book’s dedication

‘For Susan Glickman’

Having also had a book dedicated to me for the first time recently I now understand quite how special this is. Jacob’s Room is Full of Books might have been written by Susan Hill, but it’s my book really; it’s like a baby of mine. I look on the book fondly when I spy it in bookshops and have even been known to give it greater prominence if I feel it is sitting in the shadows; a bit like easing a child to the front of a crowded venue so they can see. I have been known to open a copy just to check my name is still there; maybe stare at it a bit longer than usual; maybe hope that someone will ask me ‘Is it any good?’ or ‘Should I read it?’ I’d like to think, being traditionally English and therefore modest, self-effacing and retiring (ahem) that there would be no brag and boast, that I wouldn’t say ‘ Of course Susan dedicated that to me you know…’. But there are no certainties in life. The words might slip and slide out before I could stop them because I am inordinately proud and honoured by the whole thing.

And I don’t know but I can only imagine Canadian author and poet Susan Glickman might have felt similarly honoured about Inside the Wave; to be the dedicatee of someone’s final collection of poems surely an honour beyond thanks, an indication of a very special friendship. The connection was enough to make me order a collection of Susan Glickman’s poetry and The Smooth Yarrow (2012) has sat beside Inside the Wave ever since.

Inside the Wave is a collection that has become something of a touchstone for me, in many ways a gentle and uplifting elegy, a requiem, by a remarkable writer, and I have read it over and again. It is a book of resilience and reality, of consolation and comfort. Different poems take on new resonance with each read and it has been revealing to hear Helen Dunmore’s children talking about the legacy of their mother’s words since the post-humous announcement of the Costa Book Award. About how much those words have always meant to them, but how incredibly precious they are now….

My Life’s Stem Was Cut

My life’s stem was cut,
But quickly, lovingly
I was lifted up,
I heard the rush of the tap
And I was set in water
In the blue vase, beautiful
In lip and curve,
And here I am
Opening one petal
As the tea cools.
I wait while the sun moves
And the bees finish their dancing,
I know I am dying
But why not keep flowering
As long as I can
from my cut stem?

Helen Dunmore (Inside the Wave)

When a final poem, written just days before her death, was published in The Guardian, I printed it out and stuck it in the back of my copy. Hold Out Your Arms the ultimate in consolation and preparation for the next journey.

I was reading both collections again this week, Inside the Wave and The Smooth Yarrow  and came across a poem by Susan Glickman, dedicated to Helen Dunmore, entitled ‘Snow’. It is a poem that reads as a conversation of questions and works best if read out loud with all the intonations of voice that a question and response create. I would normally quote an extract here to give a flavour, but Snow is a poem to be read as a whole so I wrote to Susan Glickman and am very grateful for her blessing to publish it here in full.


for Helen Dunmore 

What is it?
A storm of feathers
From a bird?
From a landlocked cloud.
Full of thunder?
No, full of silence.
As a kind of song.
For one voice or many?
Many. It is a dance of transient beings.
But you said it was a song.
I meant a dance. Silence itself, moving.
To the edge.
The edge of what?
Where earth and sky meet.
The horizon?
The horizon.
Perhaps it is nothing but sand.
It may be nothing, but it is not sand.
What do you mean, nothing?
It’s landscapes are illusory.
Can you build with it?
When it is wet enough.
And when it is not wet, what then?
It cracks underfoot, or hardens into dangerous transparency.
Like glass?
But without reflection.
Moving like a river?
Unmoving. Like a lake.
Water then.
Then water.

Susan Glickman (The Smooth Yarrow)

What is the nature of something so transient. The more I read it the more I felt it, as it moved towards those final two lines. Grasping at something that is so fleeting yet so very special, something so tricky to define. Without incurring the wrath of Philip Pullman writing in Daemon Voices, as he takes up the cudgels over the ‘interrogation of poetry’, (especially in the classroom), I found much to love and ponder here, moments like that single extended line stretching out icily into the frozen distance.

I am so delighted that Helen Dunmore has lit my way to Susan Glickman because there is another much longer poem in Susan Glickman’s collection which I had only read properly this week.

I loved ‘In the Garden’ for its realistic take on gardening and plants, all seeming particularly relevant after my recent foray out there and I think we’d all agree with this…

‘Like poets, gardeners
never concede failure.
If something doesn’t thrive
they promptly transplant it….

But then I read this, the final stanza…

‘Those we love we try to coax into staying
but it is not their way, though they swear
never to forget us, and to return bearing new gifts.
We clutch this promise to us through the chill that follows
squinting at the snow. imagining instead
a blizzard of white blossom.’

Ostensibly about plants as winter approaches (and don’t we all love to keep things in flower to first frosts) but what a wonderful analogy it seems with thoughts of losing someone special. Those words arced across to Snow and My Life’s Stem Was Cut  and to the sad loss of Helen Dunmore,  before transporting me back to Hanmer Springs, New Zealand and that stunning blossom in the grounds of the deserted Queen Mary’s Hospital. In the space of minutes I had travelled many thousands of emotional miles

I have no idea about the day-to-day realities of the bonds of friendship in this case, but its language is out there for everyone to share, so how pleased I am to have discovered this one, and as if to complete the circle and bring me back to where I started, Susan Glickman tells me that her forthcoming collection will be dedicated to Helen Dunmore.

I can’t possibly end without my very most favourite poem from Inside the Wave…

Little papoose

If I were the moon
With a star papoose
In the windy sky
I’d carry my one star home.

If I were the sea
With boats in my arms
On this cold morning
I’d carry them,

If I were sleeping
And my dream turned
I would carry you
Little papoose
Wherever you choose.

Helen Dunmore


Footnote : A hat tip to poetry publisher Bloodaxe  for bringing Inside the Wave to fruition, and who have been around for a great many of my poetry-loving years featuring large on my shelves. Searching for more collections by Helen Dunmore, and having bought The Malarkey in Waterstones recently, I headed to the Bloodaxe website for any more available titles. How pleased I was to discover they would send Glad of These Times to me for £7.95 post free. Sadly my order was followed by an email of apology and cancellation, a website error as the book is out of print. Never mind, I will find a copy somewhere…and still a hat tip to Bloodaxe for being there.

What an investment and such incredible value poetry books still represent for the hours and hours they give back in return.

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