Books: A Finnish family and other animals
Carol Rumens on the nature of the beast
Saturday 31 May 1997
Fiction and poetry share equal place in Helen Dunmore's preoccupations, and these new poems and short stories illuminates the holistic quality of her imagination. Their achievement reminds us that the artistic pay- off from women's new confidence in their own psyches is still only beginning to impact on literature. "Post-feminism" is in fact feminism's most productive phase.
Though she may pause at the lyric moment, or spread herself descriptively, Dunmore does not write what is disparagingly known as "poet's prose". In fact, from Hardy and Lawrence to Elaine Feinstein and Andrew Motion, it's not easy to think of a good poet who does. Poet's prose is written by bad novelists.
So does she write novelist's poems? Bestiary has an uncluttered, informal texture, an ease with unmetred rhythms and touches of narrative. Skating, a powerful symbol in her work, suggests the technique she sometimes employs. Her attention floats alertly but lightly. She wants us to see, touch, taste, but is content to throw us the merest hint: "Behind you, a sheet of fire/does something to pole, to boat, to boy." ("Fishing beyond Sunset"). She can also be flat and literal, with "polystyrene cups" or "curled lino". The novelist trusts the power of ordinary names.
If meant literally, Bestiary is a misleading title: only a few poems feature animals. The most successful of those is probably "A Tortoise wrapped in Newspaper", with its Lawrentian descriptive strokes: "lifting its shell on long hydraulic legs"; "the sideways sawing of its mouth". There's an undoubted naturalist in Dunmore, but our most vivid sighting occurs in a story called "The Orang Utans and the Angry Woman". Most of her animal poems are really people poems, and many dwell on human beastliness more than beasts - as when the shy, dull man in "Under the Leaves" turns out to be a sex-murderer.
The celebrations which do occur are low-key. They include some sad, clear- sighted, loving poems to children and a rather unconvincing modern-dress Christmas carol. While food for Dunmore is invariably the food of love, her poetic larder is drab (service-station coffee, funeral buns) compared to her fictional deli ("twists of sweet white bread with poppy-seeds"). This is very much a bestiary of pre-election England - one still there, of course, under the gilded hopes.
The stories in Love of Fat Men range farther and have more of a pre-lapsarian glow. A number feature pregnancies which, however shadowed by troubled pasts, cannot fail to symbolise fresh starts. The fat men invoked have "thick springy flesh which makes space" for women.
Much of the optimism derives from the Bildungsroman weaving through the text: a series of stories featuring a young Finnish woman, Ulli, who is taking her first joyful, careful steps in autonomy, having escaped an unhappy family background largely composed of skinny men.
The "Ulli" stories are perhaps sketches towards a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman, and a welcome addition to an under-nourished genre. Occasionally I find them too much in love with fashioned surfaces, as though Dunmore were still new to fiction and the thrill of naming. When they demonstrate a balancing psychological observation, as in the drama centred on little Ulli's "truth-game" in "Family Meetings", we know that the mature novelist has arrived on the scene.
In her poetry, Dunmore is attracted by strong final statements. Her sense of closure is more craftily accommodated in the stories, which deftly twist the tale and tumble readers' expectations. Similarly, the flirtation with distancing post-modern devices in "Girls on Ice" doesn't have a poetic equivalent. Dunmore's poems have become more direct and urgent. They remind us, perhaps, of the more primitive nature of our need for poetry. Stories are to live in; poems to sing along to. It's not an inevitable either/or. But genre, like gender, proves hard to escape, however miraculously the fabric stretches.
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