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Inside the Wave by Helen Dunmore review – a voyage around the imagination

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The writer’s latest collection takes in everything from mortality and ageing to the music of the sea

The wave in this humane and visionary collection symbolises the flow of time and tide around and over individual lives. Dunmore’s cancer diagnosis is in the background, combined with the turbulence of mortality everyone experiences as they grow older. But these waves carry many stories and journeys. Five sharp little translations from the Roman poet Catullus include a wonderfully succinct version of Ave Atque Vale. In the title poem, the subject is the homecoming of the “dirty old mariner” Odysseus. After a reunion with a balding, ageing, self-absorbed wife (the offstage carnage evoked by the image of a fountain pulsing out blood), he returns to lengthy sea-gazing. “At the lip of the wave, foam/ Stuttered and broke,” he observes, as if witnessing his own dissolution. “It was on the inside/ Of the wave he chose/ To meditate endlessly/ Without words or song,/ And so he lay down/ To watch it at eye-level,/ About to topple/ About to be whole.”

Lying down and watching the world at eye level constitutes much of what poets and novelists do and Dunmore’s work in both genres is always alive with sensuous detail. Here, we’re shown in vivid close-up the beaches, boating lakes, swimming pools of everyday navigation, as well as the mythic oceans. In At the Spit, we learn the sounds the contemporary wanderer, resting against his or her backpack, will hear on the beach: “… the click/ And tumble of pebbles, slumbrous/ Geography shifting: this is the land mass/ And this the plastic, the wrack, the mess/ To pick over in search of a home.” Assonance and alliteration fill the soundtrack and remind us that Dunmore has a fine ear as well as eye and knows how to persuade the stanza, rhymed or unrhymed, to make appropriate music.

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