MARCH 31, 2018
IN THE OPENING PAGES of A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit references the terra incognita, the “unknown land,” a phrase found in the blank, unchartered spaces left on maps before the corresponding coastlines had been sufficiently explored. It’s a significant phrase for Solnit, who argues that there’s something about lost-ness that’s important to our sense of self. “Never to get lost is not to live,” she writes, “not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.” Tennyson’s Ulysses appears to be motivated by the same principle, warning us against a life spent staying found: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!” His ultimate invitation is to join him on an endless voyage, “To follow knowledge like a sinking star, / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought,” to set sail for the blankness on the map although we can’t be certain what we’ll find. For Ulysses, the incentive is heroic: going on dangerous voyages is what great epic heroes do; it’s what they’re good at, and they should exercise their purpose. But the poem also seems to advocate a kind of self-improvement. As Solnit puts it:
The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration — how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?
The title poem of Helen Dunmore’s 10th and final collection, Inside the Wave (Dufour Editions/Bloodaxe, 2017), takes up the ballast of this question. Ulysses (in Dunmore’s poem, Odysseus) is home, his scattered crew now “unremarkable.” He finds himself old, estranged, and strangely inarticulate. Descending to the shore, his ship dragged from the sea, he stands to watch the waves, turning indifferently, “Neither toward nor away from him.” Arriving somewhere between completeness and exhaustion, the poem washes to a close:
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.
“To be alive is to be inside the wave,” suggests a note on the reverse cover of Dunmore’s book, “always travelling until it breaks and is gone.” Odysseus is casting his mind back across the voyage of his life, “About to topple,” conscious that the waves will keep on breaking long after he dies. But there’s a final transformation to be made by him, as well. Rereading Tennyson’s poem alongside Dunmore’s — “To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!” — I’m reminded of Another Place (1997), Antony Gormley’s installation of 100 life-sized iron men at Crosby Beach, near Liverpool. It’s almost like Odysseus is one of them, as though he’s stayed to watch the waves so long that he’s now rusted to the spot, forever looking out to sea but never setting out again. The poems in Dunmore’s book explore this metamorphosis, this final instance of becoming someone else, balancing sadness, pain, and optimism in a collection that frequently achieves the quality of late Heaney in Human Chain (2010).
“Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,” considers Claudio in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Written during the late stages of a terminal cancer diagnosis, Dunmore’s poems peer into the terra incognita of an ending life. The realities of her illness are offered to us in snatches: the uncanny anesthetist of the opening poem is followed by a glimpse of nurses, morphine, and the “Plane tree outside Ward 78,” one of several poems that appears to have been written from the poet’s hospital bed. “Ambulance bells,” rushing past with Doppler-effect-like clarity in “A Bit of Love,” conjure Philip Larkin, whose own “Ambulances” contemplates “the sudden shut of loss / Round something nearly at an end, / And what cohered in it across / The years.” Dunmore’s poems gaze backward and forward at the same time, at the life she’s lived — “years back and full of echoes” — so soon to be left, and at the “untouched terrain” of the territory beyond, “Its sand / […] ready for footprints.” In “Ten Books,” she recalls her father’s death and the experience of choosing volumes from his library to keep. And yet this looking back can’t help but offer up an image of her own departure, suggesting questions about legacy — about what we leave behind, its value, and its meaning. There is, of course, a literary lilt to this anxiety, recalling Keats’s meditation in “When I have fears that I may cease to be,” perhaps most apparent in “The Place of Ordinary Souls,” where Dunmore imagines the afterlife of the “unremarkable” dead — perhaps Odysseus’ same “unremarkable” crewmembers — who watch the heroes, those “[w]ho have left their mark on the earth / And want nothing to do with us,” making their way to Elysium. But there’s an everyday simplicity to many of Dunmore’s poems, also, as in “Rim,” which considers the life of a now-chipped china bowl, cleared from a kitchen cabinet, with a surety of observation that evokes Sharon Olds in Stag’s Leap.
Dunmore’s poems are unified by this attentiveness: “Who would have thought that pain // And weakness had such gifts / Hidden in their rough hearts?” There is a sparseness to her use of language — “The one thought clinging to the one word,” as one poem puts it — that is pensive, bare, and often difficult to read, as in the closing stanzas of “September Rain”:
I lie and listen
And the life in me stirs like a tide
That knows when it must be gone.
I am on the deep deep water
Lightly held by one ankle
Out of my depth, waiting.
For all the water in Dunmore’s collection, however, her poems return most often to an image of the classical Underworld, “below / The bare bright surface” of things, and to the voyage separating this life from the next. “If I must die,” says Claudio, “I will encounter darkness as a bride, / And hug it in mine arms.” For Dunmore, in the collection’s final poem, dated just 10 days before she died in June 2017, aged 64, Death is not a partner, but a parent, lifting her from her illness, guiding her to the end of a long journey. The collection stands with one foot on either side of this threshold, leaning slightly into the unknown, the way a person leans their weight into oncoming wind. “I say to you: I have more acquaintance / Among the dead than the living,” writes Dunmore plainly in “The Underworld,” “And I am not pretending.”
The poems in Amanda Merritt’s debut collection, The Divining Pool (Wundor Editions, 2017), concern themselves with thresholds, too. Merritt, who recently completed an MFA at the University of St. Andrews, working under the mentorship of Don Paterson, tends to focus on the moment of transition, the wave “balanced on its break,” as she puts it in “North Sea,” the same “About to topple / About to be whole” moment of Dunmore’s poem. A cliff-jumper, “Stepping off,” experiences the shift from ground to free fall, anticipating their submersion, “Like the myoclonic jolt / which wakes you, seconds / before hitting water.” Elsewhere, Merritt considers Bernini’s statue of Apollo and Daphne (1622–’25), the latter caught forever in the moment of her transformation to a laurel tree, “her leap / […] stayed by the wind: foot lashed / to the brink of land by roots.” Merritt’s mythological references are fairly regular, betraying the influence, I expect, of fellow Canadian poet Anne Carson. This is no bad thing, I suppose, but Merritt seems more at home in the natural world, where her painterly observations tend to crystallize into her strongest lines, as at the close of “The Canadian Pacific Railway,” or two poems written after the Chinese poet, Li Po.
The same precision is extended to a handful of poems that concern the human form, in which Merritt assumes the role of surgeon, dissecting the body line by line, “From spleen / to sternum,” from “bronchi to trachea to tongue,” although I’m not convinced these poems have the impact Merritt wants them to. Next to some of her more accomplished poems, their bloody, passionate physicality doesn’t translate into emotional force. The same goes for some of the collection’s narrative-minded poems, as well as the ambitiously titled “An Address to the God of Salvation” and “A Philosophical Meditation on the Impossibility of Contact,” whose metaphysical loftiness either isn’t matched within the content of the poems, or which don’t contain enough to make me sure that they’re ironic. I do keep coming back, however, to the closing stanzas of “Winter Garden,” one of a few poems that directly reflects on the loss of Merritt’s brother:
real violence is not in devastation,
it’s the sudden, terrifying seizure —
sometimes a blur at your peripheries,
like headlights through the kitchen window,
like a tune coming from nowhere in particular.
Where Merritt’s poetry is best, it enacts this blur at the peripheries, this flash of light from a nearly unknown source, most fully realized, I think, in “Departure,” a fragmentary poem describing the Canadian landscape, shifting hypnotically back and forth like the “Cumulus waves” that “weep at the shoreline of the gulf,” shimmering with sundown
across the expanse of a sheet
over the shape of the land
With its soft, almost impalpable rendering of the natural world, the poem brings to mind several paintings by the Algonquin School, the Canadian Group of Seven, whose landscapes seem forever on the verge of changing shape, as if a slight adjustment to the light or wind might come to alter everything before your eyes.
“Lost really has two disparate meanings,” writes Solnit: “Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing.” Though the first ends a career and the other begins one, both of these collections are aware of this duality. They share an understanding that loss can be both painful and enlivening, inviting us to stand and watch the inside of the forming wave.