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This review is taken from PN Review 237, Volume 44 Number 1, September - October 2017.

Cover of Inside the Wave
Sue LeighAs broad as the sun Helen Dunmore, Inside the Wave (Bloodaxe), £9.95

Helen Dunmore is an acclaimed novelist but began her writing life as a poet. Her work celebrates individual lives – often in dark times – and reveals a deep love of the sensory world. The poems in this, her first collection in five years, exist in the place where the human world meets what she calls ‘the underworld’. Dunmore now inhabits this territory because of serious illness. She describes it as ‘a harsh terrain but lit up by its own intensity and luminosity’.

The sea is an important presence throughout. In the title poem, Odysseus returns to Ithaca to find he belongs to neither sea nor land, underworld or living world. He goes down to the shore, turning his back to the land: ‘on the inside / Of the wave he chose / To meditate endlessly…To watch it at eye-level, / About to topple / About to be whole’. To be alive the poem suggests is to travel within this place until the wave collapses and is gone. Odysseus in another poem addresses the ghost of the young Elpenor (who fell from Circe’s roof as they were about to depart from her island): ‘We had left you behind / But you are ahead of us / Waiting’. (Throughout the book, the living and the dead often walk together.) Dunmore inhabits the classical world with ease and familiarity. ‘The Place of Ordinary Souls’ recalls the legend that unheroic souls pass their afterlife in the fields of asphodel. Dunmore counts herself among them: ‘we dawdle / Towards the ...

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