Published weeks before her death, this collection carries the weight of Dunsmore’s terminal diagnosis but carries it lightly. It is impossible to read this collection without that context – for the moment, at least, that may change with time.
But it is how she tells us these things that matters: isn’t that always the way with good poetry. The universal and the daily, sit side by side with the myths of Ancient Greece and the remembered visit to “Hornsea 1952”, where “The wind blew from the east, you were always cold,/ And there was a boating lake…”
What struck me were the details and the noticing of those details, the precise choice of “absolutely the right word” noticing of these details, in this, Dunsmore’s collection reminds me of the last TV interview that Dennis Potter gave with Melvyn Bragg, swigging from a flask of liquid morphine, talking about the “blossomiest blossom” he had ever seen that Spring, which he knew would be his last. She talks about a “Mimosa – with plumes that make the sky quiver”, “The Bare Leg – the calf tightening/ The vessel of the hip cupping”, “Four cormorants, one swan – …it is flying/ Arrowlike to a fish a hundred yards off./ A lover could not be more direct” and “A Lose Curl – I have never known you easily/ hold my hand as you do now. / We sit for hours…”
Sitting anonymously, invisibly, silently at the heart of her world and noticing. And reporting. All of which is a cornerstone of good writing. Much here appears to come from time spent in a hospital bed, or hospital grounds; “The Shaft”, “Leave the door open”, “Winter Balcony with Dunnocks”, while other poems are a literal clearing of the decks “Rim – I’m getting rid, getting shot, cleansing/ Dark cupboards and fossil-deep/ Drawers…”, “Ten Books” or “On looking through the handle of a cup”. All this without wistfulness or self pity. The clear-eyed matter of factness is both admirable and salutary. As she says in the closing lines to the collection’s opening poem, “Counting Backwards”,
But you can get used to anything/ Like the anaesthetist/ Counting to himself/ Backwards, all wrong.
The edition I’m reading has an extra poem “Hold out your arms” which it states was written on 25 May 2017, hence too late for the first edition. It is a welcome note to Death, who may well have been seen a gentle lover and/or mother and finishes with Death murmuring, “We’re nearly there”.
I want to finish by quoting in full the poem, “Plane tree outside Ward 78”
The tree outside the window/ Is lost and gone,/ Billow of leaf in the summer dark,/ A buffet of rain./
I might owe this tree to morphine,/ I might wake in the morning/ To find it dissolved, paper/ Hung in water,/
Nothing to do with dreams./ I cannot sleep./ Pain is yards away/ Held off like bad weather,/
In the ward’s beautiful contentment/ Freed by opiates./ Hooked to oxygen/ We live for the moment.