Updated: Jun 12, 2018
Published a few short weeks before she died, Helen Dunmore’s final collection of poetry Inside the Wave delicately traces the line between life and death. For Dunmore, who began this contemplative journey after being diagnosed with cancer, to be inside the wave is to be alive “About to topple / About to be whole.” This fragile balance is not only the subject of her verse, but her own personal experience of dying.
Dunmore’s reflections on morality are as surprising as they are moving. At times, her verse is brimming with joy. She revels in moments of solitude and shafts of sunlight: “Who would have thought that pain / And weakness had such gifts / Hidden in their rough hearts?” She recalls memories of her childhood, as well as those of her own children, time stretching out in front of them: “There are hours yet / Thousands, by her reckoning.” She evokes classical mythology to help her navigate the idea of an afterlife, using homeric allusions to find peace in an ordinary, unheroic death.
But the most heart-wrenching compositions are those in which Dunmore writes tenderly of her fate. In the beauty of the ephemeral and it’s predictable embrace. In the final poem of the collection, which was written for her children shortly before she died, Dunmore likens death to a “motherly caress” leaning into it with the comforting knowledge that “We’re nearly there.” This poem, which was added to the collection posthumously, is bravely written as consolation for her family. It was her way of reassuring them in her final moments - and through the power of her poetry, will continue to do so for many more readers to come.
Inside the Wave is Dunmore’s parting gift to the world, to help those suffering from both illness and grief find comfort in death and see the beauty in the everyday.
Inside the Wave by Helen Dunmore. Published by Bloodaxe Books, 2017.