Helen Dunmore's daughter: Mum's last poems told us not to fear death


Helen Dunmore in Clifton, Bristol on 9 May 2011Image copyright
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Helen Dunmore has posthumously won Costa Book of the Year for Inside the Wave

When poet Helen Dunmore was nearing the final stages of cancer, she told her daughter Tess Charnley one day: “Darling, check your email. There’s something for you.”

“And she’d emailed us all this final poem, Hold Out Your Arms, about her impending dying,” Tess explained on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday.

Hold Out Your Arms was written on 25 May 2017. Dunmore died less than two weeks later at the age of 64.

The poem – reproduced in full below – talks of death’s “motherly caress”. It implores: “Death, hold out your arms for me/Embrace me/Give me your motherly caress/Through all this suffering/You have not forgotten me.”

The final lines read: “As you push back my hair/- Which could do with a comb/But never mind -/You murmur/’We’re nearly there’.”

The poem was posthumously added to reprints of Dunmore’s final collection Inside the Wave, which on Tuesday was named winner of the Costa Book of the Year prize.

‘Enormous comfort’

Tess told the Today programme that receiving the poem was “an enormous comfort”.

She said: “You worry so much when someone you love is dying – that they’re frightened, or you just worry that it’s a horrible thing for them. But she showed us all that it was OK.”

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Tess Charnley says her mother made the most of every day

The collection was written after Dunmore was diagnosed with cancer and looks at the liminal space between life and death – the book’s blurb says it examines what it’s like to be travelling inside a wave, before it crashes – exploring it all the while with an artist’s eye.

The opening poem Counting Backwards first came to her when she was lying on an operating table and talks of the anaesthetist and his cannula. Another, which she wrote about living for the moment while hooked up to oxygen, is about the tree outside the ward where she was staying.

Her bravery was what marked her final days, weeks and months, her daughter said.

‘Seeing the beauty in everything’

“I suppose because I’m quite young, maybe naive, I’ve always seen death as something very frightening,” said Tess. “My mum just showed me that it doesn’t have to be.

“I think although her world got smaller, she couldn’t go out so far afield, she continued to just see the beauty in everything – which I find very inspiring.

“She just made the most of every single day until she died.”

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Media captionHelen Dunmore’s daughter remembers her legacy

Dunmore never saw her writing as a job.

“To mum, it wasn’t working – poetry was so intrinsic to her as a person that it was never work,” said Tess. “It was just a part of her and she would never not do it. It was very natural that she would write until she died.

“We were just enormously proud of the work she was producing and actually, last year before she died, she had Inside the Wave published and Birdcage Walk, her novel, and one of her children’s books as well.

“So it was actually quite an enormous year for her as a writer. I’ve always just loved reading it as she goes along.”

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Dunmore’s son Patrick Charnley, daughter Tess and widower Francis collected the Costa honour on her behalf

Tess told Today how she held her mother’s hands in her final days.

“She continued comforting everyone around her, even when perhaps she was the one who needed comforting the most,” she said.

“She was intrinsically my mum until the very end. Which was lovely.”

Her favourite of her mother’s works was a poem Dunmore wrote for her daughter, All the Things You Are Not Yet.

“She wrote it about me as a baby and everything she hoped for me as I grew up,” she explained.

“It’s become particularly resonant now she’s died, because it has bits about, for example, when I would have a baby – which I now know she’ll never see me have. It’s precious to me.”

Hold Out Your Arms

Death, hold out your arms for me

Embrace me

Give me your motherly caress,

Through all this suffering

You have not forgotten me.

You are the bearded iris that bakes its rhizomes

Beside the wall,

Your scent flushes with loveliness,

Sherbet, pure iris

Lovely and intricate.

Death, you heap into my arms

A basket of unripe damsons

Red crisscross straps that button behind me.

I don’t know about school,

My knowledge is for papery bud covers

Tall stems and brown

Bees touching here and there, delicately

Before a swerve to the sun.

Death stoops over me

Her long skirts slide,

She knows I am shy.

Even the puffed sleeves on my white blouse

Embarrass me,

She will pick me up and hold me

So no one can see me,

I will scrub my hair into hers.

There, the iris increases

Note by note

As the wall gives back heat.

Death, there’s no need to ask:

A mother will always lift a child

As a rhizome

Must lift up a flower

So you settle me

My arms twining,

Thighs gripping your hips

Where the swell of you is.

As you push back my hair

– Which could do with a comb

But never mind –

You murmur

‘We’re nearly there.’

25 May 2017

Inside the Wave was published by Bloodaxe Books in April 2017.

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