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Sequence, consequence and the random.

A Fortnightly Review

Counting Backwards: Poems from 1975-2017

by Helen Dunmore

Bloodaxe Books /412pp / £14.99 $15.13

By MICHELENE WANDOR.

THIS RETROSPECTIVE OF Helen Dunmore’s ten poetry collections is a truly remarkable record of the poet’s work. Dunmore, who died in 2017, was also an impressive and successful novelist and short story writer, and her imagination was able to encompass the expansive and the distilled with equal accomplishment. The title of this collection was also the original title for Dunmore’s final book of poetry, and Bloodaxe’s offering is structured with that volume first – that is, it runs from 2017 to 1975. That raises some fascinating questions about ways of reading, ‘narrative’ sequences and interpretative consequences.

Language moves ‘forward’, from beginning of word/sentence to the end. The novel moves ditto – even where the ending might appear ‘first’, as a kind of loss leader, the novel (very generally) proceeds with a cause-and-effect dynamic, even when it returns to its ending/beginning. So you pick up a novel, and generally read from the beginning (first numbered page) to the end. While much thought and work goes into structuring a collection of short stories, there is no necessary narrative imperative to begin on p.1 and follow through. One can start anywhere and then go anywhere. The same is true of poetry collections. Ways of reading poetry and stories are flexible in a way that reading the novel is not.

So what of this? Does placing 2017 first mean that one should/must/wants to read it first? Or does one ‘cheat’ the publisher, respect chronology, and start at the ‘end/beginning’ with 1975?

I didn’t want to engage with and/or answer these questions, and so decided on a different way of reading. Random. Open the book at a poem and read. The only stipulation I placed was to ensure that I entered each of the ten collections, though I might not discuss each poem.

The first poem turned out to be  ‘Bristol Docks’. Spare, short stanzas, spanning the present – ships, gulls, the past, historical figures, slavery, and the overarching economy from financiers to traders. There is tight, musical rhythm, an Audenesque cadence here and there, and the hovering influence of the syllabic/haiku: a tiny taste:

See their white wings
fledge on the Avon.
They speak of cargo,
profit-margins,
schools they’ve founded,
almshouses.

I find, though, that I have cheated my idea of the random. In aiming to open at random, but in turn in a different collection, my eye inevitably catches other poems, and I see the strong influence of the presence of history (there in the above poem as well). So a short poem: ‘Prince  Felipe Prospero (1657-1661)’, is seen in and through a painting, though we have no idea why the dates only cover four years. Three materials, one in each stanza: silver, amber, thistledown, are fixed in the painting, and we are fixed ‘watching him’. While ‘Bristol’ gave us historical interpretation, this poem gives us the ‘picture’ in words, leaving interpretation to ‘us’.

A more personal – well, perhaps autobiographical – the poems are all ‘personal’ in terms of their individual and individuated authorship. ’On looking through the handle of a cup’ is the startling title, which is repeated in the first line, each stanza beginning ‘On looking through…’ The handle of a cup, the hole made by a pin, ‘the fault in my eyes’…and each ‘vision’ is the natural world and beyond. A breathtaking sense of close discipline and vista combined.

Finally (and, of course, it is not finally at all) there is ‘Whooper swans’. Three and a bit wing-shaped stanzas, bound by the tiny intros:

‘they fly…’

‘they come…’

‘and they’re gone…’

And dove (!)-tailed within the stanzas is a non-specific ‘he’, linking swans and planes and vast earth-bound landscapes.

“”Although I have discussed only four poems, it is enough (for now) to show Dunmore’s taut play with form, and a distilled linguistic focus which can combine the domestic with the worldly. Of course, there is no such thing as the genuine random. As I flipped through, my eye constantly caught other poems and I stopped to read. This collection, however, deserves to be read over time, starting at whatever page, or defying the publishers and reading the first (last) collection first, and the first (last) last. The idea of sequence has consequences and the random cannot solve the conundrum of how to read. This collection of over 400 pages will repay many readings and evaluations.


Michelene Wandor is a poet, playwright and short story writer. She has also written a critique of Creative Writing — The Author is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived (Palgrave).

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