When poet Helen Dunmore was nearing the final stages of cancer, she told her daughter Tess Charnley one day: “Darling, check your email. There’s something for you.”
“And she’d emailed us all this final poem, Hold Out Your Arms, about her impending dying,” Tess explained on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday.
Hold Out Your Arms was written on 25 May 2017. Dunmore died less than two weeks later at the age of 64.
The poem – reproduced in full below – talks of death’s “motherly caress”. It implores: “Death, hold out your arms for me/Embrace me/Give me your motherly caress/Through all this suffering/You have not forgotten me.”
The final lines read: “As you push back my hair/- Which could do with a comb/But never mind -/You murmur/’We’re nearly there’.”
The poem was posthumously added to reprints of Dunmore’s final collection Inside the Wave, which on Tuesday was named winner of the Costa Book of the Year prize.
Tess told the Today programme that receiving the poem was “an enormous comfort”.
She said: “You worry so much when someone you love is dying – that they’re frightened, or you just worry that it’s a horrible thing for them. But she showed us all that it was OK.”
The collection was written after Dunmore was diagnosed with cancer and looks at the liminal space between life and death – the book’s blurb says it examines what it’s like to be travelling inside a wave, before it crashes – exploring it all the while with an artist’s eye.
The opening poem Counting Backwards first came to her when she was lying on an operating table and talks of the anaesthetist and his cannula. Another, which she wrote about living for the moment while hooked up to oxygen, is about the tree outside the ward where she was staying.
Her bravery was what marked her final days, weeks and months, her daughter said.
‘Seeing the beauty in everything’
“I suppose because I’m quite young, maybe naive, I’ve always seen death as something very frightening,” said Tess. “My mum just showed me that it doesn’t have to be.
“I think although her world got smaller, she couldn’t go out so far afield, she continued to just see the beauty in everything – which I find very inspiring.
“She just made the most of every single day until she died.”
Dunmore never saw her writing as a job.
“To mum, it wasn’t working – poetry was so intrinsic to her as a person that it was never work,” said Tess. “It was just a part of her and she would never not do it. It was very natural that she would write until she died.
“We were just enormously proud of the work she was producing and actually, last year before she died, she had Inside the Wave published and Birdcage Walk, her novel, and one of her children’s books as well.
“So it was actually quite an enormous year for her as a writer. I’ve always just loved reading it as she goes along.”
Tess told Today how she held her mother’s hands in her final days.
“She continued comforting everyone around her, even when perhaps she was the one who needed comforting the most,” she said.
“She was intrinsically my mum until the very end. Which was lovely.”
Her favourite of her mother’s works was a poem Dunmore wrote for her daughter, All the Things You Are Not Yet.
“She wrote it about me as a baby and everything she hoped for me as I grew up,” she explained.
“It’s become particularly resonant now she’s died, because it has bits about, for example, when I would have a baby – which I now know she’ll never see me have. It’s precious to me.”
Hold Out Your Arms
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.
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.’
25 May 2017
Inside the Wave was published by Bloodaxe Books in April 2017.