Sean O'Brien admires Helen Dunmore's best collection to date
Helen Dunmore once commented that as her work has developed she has tried to use less scaffolding, in order to go more directly to the event of the poem. This is a process that could be seen at work as long ago as the early 1990s, and while fiction has occupied much of Dunmore's attention in the intervening years, the process of refinement has continued, lending an uncluttered authority to the elegiac poems that open The Malarkey. Take "Boatman", for example: "The water is wide where we stand / and we are weary with waiting / but the boatman will not come. // I gave you coins to hold ready / but it must have been then / that I looked away from the water // and the boat came and went / as you held on valiantly / with your small change for Charon." This traffic between the everyday and mortality requires a perfect control of tone, neither sententious nor sentimental in this familiar setting.
In the adjacent "Come Out Now" Dunmore manages – as though it were done quite simply – to startle the reader with a sense of scale and abiding darkness while retaining a properly human pitch of address: "drink your drink and smoke your cigarette, / let me ask you all those questions / or perhaps ask nothing. // The gulls say dawn is coming / but I believe they are wrong / and the dark goes on for ever, // so come out now and stand here / in shirtsleeves although it's midwinter / quietly regarding water and stars." These elegies, for her father it seems, succeed in part because of Dunmore's accurate assessment of the powers and boundaries of the art she practises: thus far the dead may return and no farther, but the cold and foggy riverbank that she evokes enables a kind of companionable solitude.
"Longman English Series" involves finding a familiar school anthology, which summons up the classroom world out of which grew her commitment to the writing life. Her husband's notes on DH Lawrence's "Bavarian Gentians", a poem in love with easeful death and the autumnal descent of Persephone into Hades, recall Dunmore's teacher asking a group studying Sons and Lovers: "Does anyone know what he's on about? / Helen? But in Longman's Elysian / field the poems only answer / and the poets only ask."
How deftly the poem shifts from anecdote to the world of knowledge and consequences. The book as a whole expands to draw in the larger population of the benighted present, especially those such as "The Night Workers" who may suspect that in some important ways we are in fact not all in it together: "you working all night at Tesco, // you cleaners and night-club toilet attendants, / all you wearily waiting for buses / driven by more of you, men who paint lines / in the quiet of the night, women with babies / roused out of their sleep so often / they've given up and stand by their windows // watching the fog of pure neon / weaken at the rainy dawn's coming."
In its uninsistent but authoritative way, The Malarkey is a condition-of-England book, driven by a concern for those who have little purchase on their own lives. The chilling "Newgate" combines a present-day sink estate with the grimly famous London jail and finds their common ground in architecture: "Far away a bin lid drops down / and the arches of Newgate tighten / as dead men walk through them / on the way to their dying." Here we enter the territory staked out in the late Ken Smith's prophetic London poems of the 1980s. He saw what Thatcherism and the unfettered City would come to mean, with the poor "pressing to the windows like fog", and Dunmore bears out that vision while reaching into the awful privacy where the worst is preparing to happen. In a way that may come to characterise our time, the classical world merges with our own with renewed force: "Is it Lethe or dock water? / Either has the power. // The neighbourhood killer / is somewhere quietly washing up // dipping and dipping his fork / in the dirty water. // The police vans sit crooning / on the crux of the Downs."
The current of elegy strengthens again in the latter stages of the book, when Dunmore deals with impossible but undeniable facts, such as seeing someone for the last time, or the way the brain goes on winding down after death. "The Deciphering" shows that, while loss and mourning are practical matters, they are also tasks for which no one has any equipment or training. This notion resurfaces, enigmatically mirrored, in "The Gift", where poetry insists on being written: "I'm here, it told me / to make you know things / but not their names." As William Empson wrote, art is an ambiguous gift, "as what gods give must be". In its quietly artful frankness The Malarkey is Helen Dunmore's best collection, the work of a grown-up for grown-ups who will remember what in the nature of things they've had to lose and what nevertheless they seek to celebrate.
• Sean O'Brien's November is published by Picador.