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Helen Dunmore: A Personal Tribute by Neil Astley

Posted on 26th February 2018 by Martha Greengrass

In an exclusive article for Waterstones, Neil Astley, the founder and editor of Bloodaxe Books, looks back on his long-term friendship and collaboration with the author and poet Helen Dunmore. From bringing her first book of poetry to print in 1983, to the publication of her Costa Book of the Year-winning final, collection, Inside the Wave, Astley considers the work and legacy of an extraordinary talent.

I first met Helen in 1977 when I was working on Stand magazine, which had published a few of her poems. She came up to Newcastle to be interviewed for a vacant co-editor’s post, and we took her on an outing to Holy Island as a way of getting to know her. Very wisely as it turned out (I left the magazine not long afterwards), she decided not to take the job, which would have involved moving up from Bristol. She’d recently returned from Finland, where she’d lived for two years after graduating from York University, and was wanting to devote as much time as possible to her writing: she would work as an office temp for two months, then reserve the next two months just for her writing; then earn enough from office work to spend another two months just writing. Some of her early poems and stories drew on her time in Finland as well as celebrating the lives of women. This was the period of the Greenham Common protests which Helen supported, and the first magazine to publish her work was Spare Rib.  

We kept in touch, and when I set up Bloodaxe in 1978 I asked her if she’d send me the manuscript of her first collection once it was ready. This took a few years. She didn’t want to rush the book. We had the core of a manuscript, and she sent me new poems as she wrote them. In the meantime she had met and married her husband Frank Charnley, becoming a stepmother to his young son Ollie, and soon she had her own son, Patrick (followed much later by her daughter Tess). Family life and motherhood started to figure in the new work as the collection came together. When The Apple Fall was launched at Newcastle’s Morden Tower in 1983, she had just turned 30 and was training to be a nursery teacher. Very few poetry collections by women were published at that time, and Helen’s ability to combine the domestic with the universal – in poems remarkable for their rhythmical fluency and sensuousness – was an influence on other poets of her generation.

I wasn’t surprised when she turned to fiction, her poetry being so strong in narrative, each poem telling its own story; and I was delighted to see how much her prose was illuminated by her beautiful use of language. Each novel was as much a pleasure to read as her poetry, and I loved savouring both. Despite her growing success as a novelist and children’s writer, Helen continued to see her poetry as central to her writing. Every few years she’d set aside time to work on a new poetry collection, sending me a manuscript once she had accumulated 30 to 40 poems she was happy with. Over the course of the next year, or sometimes longer, she’d send more poems, sometimes just one, other times two or three which were thematically linked. The collections were always completed like this, originally with single poems arriving by post, then later, one or two at a time, by email. It was lovely to keep in touch with her in this way. I never needed to give that much feedback to the poems, but whatever I did have to offer she always considered carefully.

With Inside the Wave the process was the same but the effect was alarmingly different. In April 2016 she delivered the initial manuscript, a smaller collection then entitled Counting Backwards, written while undergoing cancer treatment thought to have been successful. As with her just-written novel, Birdcage Walk, much of the work – but by no means all – related to mortality and death, to what and whom we leave behind. Over the next few months, eight more poems followed by email. Then in August she phoned with the devastating news that a previously undetected growth had been discovered – and too late. She’d been given less than a year to live, but she felt some consolation in having completed what would be her final novel and final poetry collection. 

She continued to add new poems to the collection, using the Notes function on her iPhone to write from bed and then emailing them to me. The eight poems which completed the collection were among the most heartbreaking. ‘My life’s stem was cut’ – the poem she wrote in response to her terminal diagnosis –brought tears to my eyes. Then she re-ordered the book to accommodate the last poems, commenting: ‘It is exciting to see the collection typeset. It gives the poems that slight distance from me, as if they were ready to go out into the world. I’m so glad that you think the order works and that the poems reflect that sense of where the Underworld meets the human world.’ 

Inside the Wave achieved its power and greatness as a poetry collection largely because of how the manuscript was transformed in the course of Helen’s final year, when a third of the poems – including some of those which readers have connected with most deeply – were added, not in chronological order, but placed where they strengthened the overall coherence of a book which is as much about celebrating life as facing death. She wanted the book to be read as an organically whole collection concerned with all areas of life and being.

A month after its publication, Helen told me she was ‘living very quietly now during this last stage of my illness, cared for by Hospice at Home. They are fantastic.’ And she sent me her final poem, ‘Hold out your arms’, written on her phone the day before, on 25 May 2017. The book had sold out in just a month, and she readily agreed to the poem being added to the first reprint, which we were able to make available shortly after her death last June.

I’ve often found that the best writers can be the least pushy and sometimes even the least confident of new work. I think that Helen always knew that she was a fine (I would say wonderful) poet, but she could still be quite tentative with new poems, not lacking in confidence but perhaps worrying that her absorption in her fiction was leaving the poetry out on a limb. Submitting ‘The Malarkey’ anonymously to the National Poetry Competition in 2010 achieved exactly what she was hoping for: validation from the poetry community in being judged by fellow poets who didn’t know who’d written the winning poem.

She would have been both delighted and bemused had she known that Inside the Wave would win a Costa Book Award, something she never achieved with any of her brilliant novels, not even for The Siege, a magisterial book that was shortlisted for but unaccountably failed to pick up the Whitbread Novel Award in 2001. Yet readers – being read – mattered to her far more than prizes. What she would have appreciated most about having Inside the Wave made Costa Book of the Year would be that so many of the people who loved her fiction would come to know her poetry as well. To borrow a comment she made about my anthology Staying Alive, it’s ‘a book for people who know they love poetry, and for people who think they don’t’.

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