Poem Of The Week: ‘Hold Out Your Arms’ By Helen Dunmore
Written only two weeks before she died in 2017, ‘Hold out your arms’ is so much more than Helen Dunmore’s swansong.
The acclaimed Beverley-born poet and novelist, who was suffering with cancer, mailed the poem to her daughter almost as an open letter of acceptance, and the astonishing clarity of Dunmore’s imagery could only have been conceived in the intensely focused awareness that imminent death appears to bring to the creative act.
Death, hold out your arms for me
Give me your motherly caress,
Through all this suffering
You have not forgotten me.
You are the bearded iris that bakes its rhizomes
Beside the wall,
Your scent flushes with loveliness,
Sherbet, pure iris
Lovely and intricate.
I am the child who stands by the wall
Not much taller than the iris.
The sun covers me
The day waits for me
In my funny dress.
Death, you heap into my arms
A basket of unripe damsons
Red crisscross straps that button behind me.
I don’t know about school,
My knowledge is for papery bud covers
Tall stems and brown
Bees touching here and there, delicately
Before a swerve to the sun.
Death stoops over me
Her long skirts slide,
She knows I am shy.
Even the puffed sleeves on my white blouse
She will pick me up and hold me
So no one can see me,
I will scrub my hair into hers.
There, the iris increases
Note by note
As the wall gives back heat.
Death, there’s no need to ask:
A mother will always lift a child
As a rhizome
Must lift up a flower
So you settle me
My arms twining,
Thighs gripping your hips
Where the swell of you is.
As you push back my hair
– Which could do with a comb
But never mind –
‘We’re nearly there.’
A knowledge of the context of her final weeks lends the poem great resonance for the reader. The tone is counter-intuitively colourful; very far from maudlin, Dunmore’s sense of acceptance amounts almost to a welcome, as though death, stoically borne, held no more cause for trepidation than a child lifted from the floor on a summer’s afternoon.
The full cycle of human existence returns the poet to a floral idyll of youth, where the senses are charged with the hyper-reality of childhood perception.
The poet is a celebrant of the wonderful natural world, a Dylan Thomas of fecundity and growth; the irrepressible rhizomes are as potent a symbol of burgeoning life as Thomas’ green, flower-driving, fuse.
The rhizomes which raise the flower’s gorgeous head become, by metaphorical conflation, the mother’s raising of the child’s face to the sun. Death here is a benign and loving mother-figure, a protector and returner of the child to the womb of life’s end cycle. Dunmore’s poem makes an oxymoron of the notion of increase, of growth and robust health.
Decline is as inevitable as the rotation of the seasons, but there is comfort in remembrance of that sense of immediacy to which we have all, at some time, been exposed; that urgency of apprehension which is crystallised in the storied moment.
Dunmore’s final stanzas are as powerfully moving as any you are likely to read. The carelessness of unkempt hair – a beautiful, lyrical touch – no longer matters, as she is carried towards the light.
i.m. Helen Dunmore. 1952-2017.