Sunday, 19 August 2012
Helen Dunmore, The Malarkey
The Malarkey … I can’t think of a much more musically colloquial title for a volume of poetry, and rightfully so, for its kitchen-table intimacy draws us readers together to face what most intimately affects each one of us. Leavings and partings, hellos and goodbyes, and the dying of old faces and old ways of life form the most muted vernacular of what it is to be human: we live, we pass by, and we die.
Helen Dunmore’s most recent collection of poetry knocks the notion of art imitating life on its head and instead gives life a nudge to bring the certainties of death and dying into easier conversation. Each culture has its own mourning rituals and mourning rules, but as a former cancer care nurse who spent many a night shift talking with the dying, we have become unhelpfully reticent about calling a spade a spade, as it were, when it comes to facing the graveyard. In ‘Writ in Water’ she imagines Keats’ last days in what he himself famously maligned as ‘this posthumous life of mine’, and his concern about the effect his slow dying was having on his companion, Joseph Severn. She examines the grief of romantic love in ‘Playing her Pieces’ imagining Thomas Hardy as having an almost necrophiliac need to connect with the physicality of his first wife’s death:
he kneels beside the body of his love
to wash his hands between her ribs
where the blood throbbed.
Remembering the dead means remembering the imperfections of the living, and poor Mrs. Hardy gets no special treatment in that regard. Her ‘dull flesh’, her music and her ‘stiff intransigent difficultness’ all culminate in memories of how she ‘wearied’ him in their married life, but none of that matters now that he cannot pick up a pen to write because he still clasps her soul in his hands.
Dunmore captures the personalities between birth and death that give dying its emotional significance. The Malarkey is peppered with pen portraits of lives lived. ‘Pianist, 103’ an unexpected love story with the luminosity of transcendent moments and with love itself, from the perspective of a woman who has lived for over a century and whose mind is still as clear as the notes she plays. John Donne, the aesthetically delicate poet sits for a portrait before entering the next stage of his life in poverty with his wife Anne.
Dunmore’s use of technical devices is subtle and controlled, but all the more evocative for that. Her use of rhyme and metre lift a veil between this world and her imagining of the next as these stanzas from ‘The Torn Ship’ illustrate:
And then the swans woke from their nest
And stood unfurling
Their steeple wings in warning
As the shade and shadow passed
Of whatsoever torn ship it was.
‘The Torn Ship’ is a beautifully ragged metaphor for those souls who are already lost in life with no-one to mourn them in death:
Remember this was no ark
But something broken
Long before the dark took it down.
The Malarkey doesn’t idealise the relationship between parents and children. Peace is forfeited during the early years of parenting and the struggle to keep the kids occupied usually falls on deaf ears: ‘stop that malarkey in the back’. When they’ve all grown up it’s the malarkey that is missed most because it is anchored to an old way of life that hadn’t seemed significant at the time but is now drenched in nostalgia. Where the wholeness of self must merge with the family in the process of adaptation to parenthood, the mundaneness of those chip-shop counter moments come to represent a heart-stopping gap where wholeness was.
The title ‘The Malarkey’ provides a kind of verbal talisman to the older grieving parent. There are no such memento mori for the adult child who is immersed in the experience of grieving for their dead parents. The father figure has a particularly strong presence across this collection. He is there in the first emails he tried to send to his daughter ten years ago, which she has still kept. She holds his hand in hers as she leads him, an older, more frail man to the banks of the River Styx in ‘Boatman’. But death stubbornly refuses to come and relieve him from his infirmity – the curse of modern medicine on those who are ready to go.
‘The Malarkey’ stretches our human relationship with grief, passing and parting. Reviewing this collection is as emotionally rousing as the absolute joy of having read and re-read it. Dunmore leads the reader through a supernaturally insightful conversation with living and dying, and the intensity of the threads that bind us together: our individual selves and the unexpected appearances of emotion and meaning for what matters within our relationships.