Helen Dunmore’s Catullus

April 22, 2018 0 Comments

When Helen Dunmore died at the age of 64 in June 2017 her readers mourned the loss of one of most sensitive and versatile writers of recent years. 

Many of them will have known her for the novels, short stories and books for children.  The first work of hers I read was the first novel, Zennor in darkness, a quietly powerful story about Frieda and D.H. Lawrence in west Cornwall during the First World War.  But she began as a poet, and Inside the wave, the last book to be published in her lifetime – a posthumous volume of short stories is still to appear – was  a collection of the poems she wrote when she knew that her cancer would be fatal.

Inside the wave found an immediate and warm response, and went on to win the Costa Book of the Year 2017 – one of a handful of poetry collections ever to be awarded the prize, and one of only two posthumous winners.  Its theme, unsurprisingly, is death.  Helen Dunmore’s lyrical and apparently simple treatment of death and dying won many admirers. 

And there are plenty of short, direct poems here.  Some of them deal with the experience of being in hospital, like ‘Counting backwards’, ‘Plane tree outside Ward 78’ (‘Pain is yards away / held off like bad weather’) and ‘My people’ (‘We wake in the wan hour / between three and four, / listen to the rain / and consider our painkillers’.  Others take their lead from nature.  One poem, maybe a tribute to John Clare, celebrates the humble dunnocks visiting the balcony of her hospital room.

But many of the poems are far from simple.  They’re woven from a dense skein of ideas provoked by the imminence of death.  ‘Liminal’ is an overdone word these days, but that’s precisely the place they inhabit – the threshold dividing a rich life from an unknown death.  ‘September rain’, where three young surfers are seen running down a hill, ends ‘I am on the deep deep water / lightly held by one ankle / out of my depth, waiting’.

There’s no heaven here, and no Christian hell either.  But there is a Homeric underworld, a world of thin shades and vague ghosts who keep some of their earthly identities and memories.  Achilles and other heroes belong elsewhere (‘they’re gone / route-marching to Elysium’), while ordinary people make do with a more modest home: ‘In the fields of asphodel we dawdle / towards the rumour of a beauty spot / which turns out to be shut’.

In Book 11 of the Odyssey Odysseus is allowed to visit this grey region, and Dunmore recalls one of his encounters there.  Elpenor, a member of his ship’s crew, lost his life in a drunken fall from the roof of Circe’s palace.  He’s a bloodless ghost, and in life was a barely missed comrade (‘When your neck broke / we were already racing / down to the harbour / where our black ship quivered’), but he asks Odysseus to bury his body and erect a grave mound to him (‘And thrust into its heart my oar / so that I may row myself forever’).

Odysseus recurs elsewhere, in the company of his long-suffering wife Penelope.  In ‘Inside the wave’ he comes home at last, but the meeting is subdued, to say the least, and Odysseus returns to the sea shore, to watch the wave about to break and vanish: ‘And so he lay down / to watch it at eye-level, / about to topple / about to be whole’.  ‘My daughter as Penelope’ remembers Dunmore’s seven year old daughter performing the part in a school play, ‘thrusting / her bare arm out of her chiton / pushing away her suitors’).

The story of Odysseus attracts Dunmore, I suspect, because it’s a ‘nostos’, or homecoming, or welcome-back story.  The last poem in the book, ‘Hold out your arms’, written eleven days before her death, paints Death as a welcoming mother, come to relieve her from suffering through tender gestures and reminders of the comforts of childhood and a childhood home.  It ends, ‘As you push back my hair / – which could do with a comb / but never mind – / you murmur / “we’re nearly there” ’.  Part of the returning process consists of recollecting childhood.  There are several loving pictures of Dunmore’s own mother, including one of her on holiday in Hornsea, with Helen in her womb, and an affectionate portrait of her father as reflected in the books from his library.

It’s this connection between death and return, maybe, that gave Dunmore the idea of writing ‘versions’ of some of the shorter poems of Catullus. The first takes his elegy (poem 101) for his brother, who died in faraway Asia Minor.  He imagines making the long journey from Italy to pay tribute to this brother’s memory, and to say farewell:

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,
heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi.
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

Dunmore translates Catullus’s original into this:

Through babel of nations and waste of water
I come to my brother.  What are these rites to us?
Your ashes are speechless
My words falter.

Blind fate has taken you, brother,
You and I are undone.
The wine I bring you is spoiled
With the salt of parting –
What else can I give?
Only a last greeting

Her version is a miracle of compression.  She omits little of consequence but pares the words down to the minimum.  ‘Waste of water’ preserves the alliteration of the letter ‘m’ in the original.  The meaninglessness of the mission (‘what are these rites to us?’) is reinforced by the epigramatic pairing ‘Your ashes are speechless / My words falter’, which mirrors Catullus’s ‘mutam’ and ‘nequique adloquere’.  A second, brief pairing, ‘You and I are undone’, replaces two more highly charged words in the Catullus (miser, indigne).  Similarly, the overtly emotional ‘fraterno multum manantia fletu’ is abandoned for a more English resignation, almost a shrug (‘what else can I give?’).  And Catullus’s famous phrase ‘ave atque vale’ is transmuted into ‘only a last greeting’.  The overall tone of Dunmore’s poem is more resigned and restrained than that of the original, but its concision gives it just as much power.

Another Catullus version, of poem 31, is more directly connected to the homecoming theme.  Catullus tells of his return from foreign travel in distant Bithynia to his home of Sirmio, a peninsula in Lake Garda.  Despite its multiple allusions it’s a straightforward poem of relief and contentment with the familiarities of home, and ends with the pathetic fallacy of the lake’s laughing waves.

Paene insularum, Sirmio, insularumque
ocelle, quascumque in liquentibus stagnis
marique vasto fert uterque Neptunus,
quam te libenter quamque laetus inviso,
vix mi ipse credens Thyniam atque Bithynos
liquisse campos et videre te in tuto.
o quid solutis est beatius curis,
cum mens onus reponit, ac peregrino
labore fessi venimus larem ad nostrum,
desideratoque adquiescimus lecto?
hoc est quod unum est pro laboribus tantis.
salve, o venusta Sirmio, atque ero gaude
gaudente vosque, o Lydiae lacus undae,
ridete, quidquid est domi cachinnorum.

For Dunmore the poem is much darker:

Almost island and jewel of all islands
In lakes stiller than thought or in wild oceans
Sweet or salt as the sea-god makes them,
I see you, all of you, I take you in
I see you, barely believing
I’ve left those featureless, endless Bithynian plains.
We travel over many waters
To reach home-coming,
Struggle and suffering over, the mind dissolved
Of all its troubles, burdens laid down –
The soft bed waits for our exhaustion.
I see you, all of you, I know your
Confusion of ripples against the lakeshore
Welcoming laughter
The sounds of home
Ringing like masts in harbour:

This is a much freer version than poem 101, and in marked contrast to that one it’s freighted with more emotional resonance than Catullus allows.  Dunmore’s ecstatic ‘I see you, all of you, I take you in’, partially repeated later, goes far beyond Catullus’s ‘I see you safe’.  Catullus welcomes his return to Sirmio as a relief from mere tiredness or ‘jetlag’ (‘peregrino labore fessi’, ‘laboribus tantis’), but for Dunmore coming home means a release from extreme physical and mental suffering.  And finally she changes Catullus’s lapping lake waters into an image traditionally associated with a last journey: ‘the sounds of home ringing like masts in harbour’.  Sirmio for her is both home and the future ‘terra incognita’ that is the subject of another poem: ‘And now we have come to the unknown land / with its blue coves and inlets where sweet water / bubbles against the salt’.

All of the poems in Inside the wave replay close reading.  They’re often complex, with references to a lifetime’s poetic reading – the Song of Solomon, Andrew Marvell, John Clare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edward Thomas and probably many more keep her company in her hospital bed.  Against expectation, they’re sometimes humorous, as in the fantastical ‘Nightfall in the IKEA kitchen’ and the just-right phrase ‘Ted Heath’s improbable grin’ on an old newspaper wrapping ancient crockery.  And above all, despite Death’s stalking, they’re full of the most intense light and life.

Leave a Reply