The Malarkey, By Helen Dunmore
Thoughts of time past and people lost
The Romantic poets die hard. One of the notions they bequeathed to us is that of the youthful poet burnt up in the fire of his own genius. But steadily another poetic image is taking hold: that of the mature talent, growing and deepening, yet ruefully aware of all that's lost as well as all that's gained. Youthful poets write about death in a glamorous way; for older poets the end is too close and real to fall in love with.
All of this is not to pile the years unnecessarily on to Helen Dunmore; just to say that her latest collection is a clear-eyed, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, meditation on time past and people lost. The title poem is one of those riddling affairs so beloved of the judges in National Poetry Competitions (it won first prize in 2010). "You looked away just once / as you leaned on the chip-shop counter, / and forty years were gone. You have been telling them for ever / Stop that malarkey in the back there! / Now they have gone and done it." It's about children growing up and leaving, I'd hazard, but there is a sense of unease that hints at other, more sinister ways that children can vanish than just by growing up.
The key phrase is "and forty years have gone". Another poem whizzes the poet back decades to an English Literature lesson: "Does anyone know what he's on about? / Helen?" The madeleine moment has come via a school poetry text book: "T S Eliot looks desperate / in front of a BBC microphone / the size of a parking meter …."
"The Inbox" has another look at new/old technology, as the poet's father attempts to get to grips with email and voice-recognition software. "I told you that crashing was all too common," the poet says, and again there is more than the surface meaning to her words.
This is a superbly structured collection in which poems echo and answer each other. Later poems deal directly with a death and its aftermath. The poet recalls "my father at The Tin Drum / on his last weekend / smiling, with coffee in front of him." "The Last Heartbeat" is a wonderful poem of sadness and solace: "The last heartbeat washes the body clean of pain / in a tide of endorphins," it begins hopefully, concluding that: "the firework show of synapses … slowly dies down / to a last, exquisite connection."
These poems are mostly brief and intense. There are also two longer prose pieces celebrating those hectic young poets: John Keats, still obstreperous, lies dying in Rome, and John Donne is addressed via the attractive and sensitive portrait of him as a young man. Finally, I liked Dunmore's rueful poem about a childish wish for invisibility and its granting: "We didn't know how easy / the trick would turn out to be .… You only have to let the airy cloak of years / fall on your shoulders."
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