One of the great things about borrowing books from the library is that you can take a chance on books – which is what I did recently with a whole load of poetry and novels. The only problem then, is that you might not enjoy them all. Here are thoughts on two of them – one I loved, and one I didn’t finish.
The Yeah! – Inside the Wave by Helen Dunmore
Dunmore’s final book of poetry was published just a month before she died from cancer in 2017. Inside the Wave went on to posthumously win the Costa Poetry and Book of the Year Awards later than year. One final poem, Hold Out Your Arms, written ten days before her death was added to subsequent editions of the book. Sadly, the library copy I borrowed was a first edition… in the poem she writes to death, whom she personifies as a mother. You can read the full poem here, but it begins:
Death, hold out your arms for me
Give me your motherly caress
Through all this suffering
You have not forgotten me.
Many of the poems reflect on her death to come and dying. One particularly poignant short one, My Life’s Stem was Cut, considers the palliative care given to a cut flower put into a vase of water to keep it alive for as long as it flowers. That one got me.
A group of poems Five Versions from Catullus are very loose translations of the Latin originals, made more flowing and poetic by being set free. Sirmio and Sparrow are two I recall from my Latin O-Level. One of Catullus’ most celebrated poems, Sparrow tells of the relationship between a girl (who is probably his lover Lesbia) and her pet bird – Catullus’ following poem, which Dunmore doesn’t tackle, the bird is dead, and the poet rages at the grief it has caused her.
The title poem, Inside the Wave, is one of three inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, telling of how waves, like Odysseus are always travelling, until the wave finally breaks bringing him home. In Odysseus to Elpenor, Odysseus speaks to the shade of Elpenor, the only other survivor of Circe. He’d climbed on the roof of the palace to sleep, but fell off breaking his neck, and Odysseus cremates his body, giving him a good send off. I loved the third, My Daughter as Penelope in which she makes a costume for her young daughter, contrasting with Penelope sewing and unpicking a shroud as a means to put off potential suitors. These poems steeped in Greek myth and Latin contrast strongly with the occasional strikingly contemporary one such as Nightfall in the IKEA kitchen, which lets us pause for a breath of fresh air, but in which the Nordic names of the furniture unconsciously echo the classical names before.
Dunmore’s final poems aren’t necessarily easy to read. There are references to Marvell, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Siegfried Sassoon and more, as well as the aforementioned classical themes, which may be unfamiliar. The text is nearly all in free verse (do correct me if I’m wrong), it simply flows. Dunmore’s last collection is nostalgic without sentimentality, accepting with equanimity, a lasting testament to her life.
Source: Library. Helen Dunmore, Inside the Wave (Bloodaxe Books, 2017) paperback, 72 pages.
A bit meh! – Country by Michael Hughes
I was intrigued by Hughes’ first novel, The Countenance Divine, reviewed here, which had a labyrinthine plot told over four different timelines each 111 years apart and featured Milton, Blake and Jack the Ripper in its pages.
His second novel refers back further in ancient mythology to Homer’s Iliad (yes, him again), in particular the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, bringing that into a near-contemporary setting of Northern Ireland towards the end of the Troubles. It’s 1996 and an uneasy ceasefire is now in place. Close to the border, an IRA cell squabble amongst themselves on an isolated farm where they were prepping a job before the ceasefire started. The group’s leader Pig and their sniper Achill fell out over a girl. Pig had been shacking up with the daughter of the farmer who owned the land, but when her father (‘a Prod farmer from up the country’) came to get her back, Pig took Achill’s girl. Pig, aka Brian was actually married to Nellie, who unknown to him had turned informer to the Brits in return for them arranging an abortion for her. Pig and his brother, Dog will risk breaking the ceasefire with their vendettas…
I got up to page 140 of 314, then gave up. Yes, the writing was visceral, pugnacious, peppered with swearing and Irish vernacular. I had just had enough, for apart from a few short sections where Nellie explained how she got involved on both sides, there was just no let up. There is no room in this tragedy for humour. Don’t get me wrong, Country is well-written and I wanted to read it, but it was so concentrated, so violent, so nasty to the women. I couldn’t read on – a rarity for me. I’ve seen this book compared to Anna Burns’ Milkman, as shorter and more accessible – I’ve yet to read the latter, so we shall see. (DNF)
Source: Library. Michael Hughes, Country (John Murray, 2018) paperback, 314 pages.