I’ll never forget waiting for that notorious cutpurses’ cash cow: Rome’s number 64 bus. Locals yacked nonchalantly into mobiles, or strutted their bella figura but, as the doors hissed open, even the most infirm of nonni were transformed into a dervish of elbows and heels. Roman Holiday? Mean Streets, more like. I took a deep breath and threw myself into the wall of bodies on the ramparts. The doors pinged closed, trapping my face and right wrist. The bus pulled onto the Corso, as my watch was ripped off and my swollen ears smarted with indignation. When I arrived at dinner, my hostess pealed with laughter. In the bathroom I saw why: the sides of my face were blackened with rubber parentheses.
Helen Dunmore is right. We make the mistake of looking forward to the Grand Tour when it is the bus journey which proves unforgettable. In The Queue’s Essentially, she pares the journey to its purest, most English of manifestations: the queue. ‘The queue’s essentially / docile surges get us / very slowly somewhere. // Like campfire, life springs up – / that pair ahead of me / (newly landed on Easyjet, he / shunts the wheeled, packed / tartan suitcase / inch by inch // through jumpy fractures of brake-light / on wet pavement).’ The delight is in the Holmesian scraps we collect and in the speculations these prompt.
With a turn of the screw, one of the collection’s prose pieces, Writ in Water, gives the journey a metaphysical dimension, as Severn writes ‘Winter. Rome at last. The terrible voyage from England was done’. However, immured in their lodgings, staring at his stuccoed ceiling and adding imagined colours to the flowers he found there, Keats prepares to embark and, with a final breath, his journey into posterity changes Severn’s life forever too. There’s a wonderful play between Dunmore’s baroque, intoxicating prose, reminiscent of Angela Carter‘s skit on Baudelaire in Black Venus, and the simple diction of the poems.
Water is richly explored across the collection. It is transformative in Come Out Now, where Bristol becomes an ‘innocent city // which has put away all but the whoop of an ambulance / quickly suppressed, all but the chain of lights / slung westward across the Mendips’. The city, seen thus, becomes an abstraction, a string of pearls slung along the coastline and all journeys become one: ‘Look to your left, where the Matthew / rears its cargo of flags // or where masts chink in the dark / and a rat pours down a rope from bollard to boat. // Come out now and stand beside me, / look at the swans asleep, / tell me gossip about Keats’. However, in Lethe, she adds a melodramatic, incarnadine hue and the journey is more akin to Macbeth’s ‘I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er,” as Dunmore’s ‘neighbourhood killer / is somewhere quietly washing up // dipping and dipping his fork / in the dirty water’. The domesticity of the images jar beautifully with the subject and, as ‘the dock water // takes everything’ we realise that water, whether experienced as a journey, or filling a washing up bowl has the power to renew and cleanse, whether we would like it to or not. In the context of the poem, this is a disconcerting thought.
The most poignant journeys in the collection are so sudden, so gentle, that raw grief has been unable to assimilate them. In Picture Messages, the speaker has received a MMS message ‘of my father at The Tin Drum / on his last weekend / smiling, / with coffee in front of him’. The father is fearless and playful to the last, braving the dodgy lift, ‘the judder of that contraption / with its random halts between floors, // I said I would see you soon / after a last embrace, / and you kept your hand raised / until I was swallowed / in the dark of the returning staircase’. The metaphor is affirming: it is the living who are fearful, whether left alone on Rome’s Piazza di Spagna, or settling for the stairs in a block of flats.
- The Malarkey by Helen Dunmore – review (guardian.co.uk)
- Ways With Words 2012: Helen Dunmore reaches out in words (telegraph.co.uk)
- The Malarkey, By Helen Dunmore (independent.co.uk)
- The Saturday poem: Night Workers (guardian.co.uk)