On 30th January 2018, Helen Dunmore was posthumously awarded the Costa Book of the Year Award for her poetry collection, Inside the Wave. In her memory, we are publishing the full transcript of the last interview she gave, which first featured in embedded form in Volume 1, Issue 1 of the ORB.
Q: The collection is haunted by figures from the Odyssey, who seem to appeal to you more than figures like Achilles, for example. What is it about the Odyssey that appeals to you so much?
A: The Odyssey may be all about the quest for homecoming, but it also asks whether such a homecoming will ever be possible, given all that has happened in Troy. The men who left Ithaca are not those who make the homeward voyage: they have been changed utterly. Meanwhile ‘home’ has also been transformed. While I was writing these poems I thought of veterans returning from Iraq or from Afghanistan. Within them is locked an experience which it is impossible for friends and family to comprehend. They are living in a different language. Dreams of reunion reveal themselves as dreams.
The idea of return supposes stability, and there cannot be stability. In my mind the voyage itself, for all its perils, becomes a place of safety. As long as the ships are cutting through the wine-dark sea, there can be no disillusionment. Wily Odysseus perhaps knows this.
I have always loved journeys, and the freedom – irresponsibility, even – which they bring. As long as the train wheels turn, the ship buffets through the waves, the car eats up lonely miles, then nothing can be expected of the voyager beyond the voyage itself.
Q: ‘We are not heroes, any of us, / Only familiars / Of grey shores and the sea-pulse’. Rather than using epic characters to elevate your subjects, you present these characters as more familiar (and ‘barnacled’) than heroic. What is it about Odysseus and Elpenor’s experiences that remains so familiar to us today?
A: When we speak of Homeric figures, an image of a hero who is larger and more magnificent than life comes to mind. But Homer is infinitely more subtle than this. Elpenor dies not in battle but in a drunken accident, when he falls off a roof. He is a casualty of war’s sheer mundane taking-over-of-lives. He pleads for burial and for the recognition and status this will bring to him. The pointlessness of his death must be concealed. I am reminded of the letters sent by commanding officers to the families of soldiers who have died in wasteful accidents, or whose fate is unknown. These letters make a consoling story of heroism and self-sacrifice; or, at least, the story is intended to console. Elpenor is any raw young soldier, caught up in the moment, blundering into death.
Q: I am very interested in the figure of Penelope, who seems in your work as slippery, variable and elusive as she is in the Odyssey: she eludes Odysseus’ kiss in ‘Inside the Wave,’ then appears transformed in ‘My daughter as Penelope’. The identification of your young daughter with Penelope is particularly striking and unnerving – could you tell me a little more about what struck you about that performance, or about Penelope more generally?
A: To have Penelope played by a child was an extraordinary theatrical experience. The performance took place in a professional theatre and the children’s acting was pure, vehement, often spine-tingling. Penelope’s force as a woman came across through the body of a child who unconsciously adopted abrupt, imperious gestures as she faced her suitors.
There was another moment in the performance which I have never forgotten: it was the scene where Odysseus conjures the dead from the Underworld with a bowl of blood. A sheet across the stage divided the living from the dead, and as the dead pressed forward so the sheet bulged forward out of the darkness – very gently and very menacingly – while Odysseus recoiled in terror.
Q: You talk of those ‘heroes and warriors / Who have left their mark on the earth,’ but include yourself among more ‘ordinary souls’. Are you ever motivated by a desire to leave a mark, or is writing and living for you more about journeying onwards?
A: I would say that going onwards has been much more important to me than stopping to define what I have done or to ask whether I have made any mark by my work or by my life.
Q: Finally, do you find ancient stories have a timelessness that is helpful to us, particularly in extreme circumstances such as serious illness?
A: Yes. The more I read the Odyssey, the more I am struck by its depth, force, complexity. To read it is the work of a lifetime and, even then, more and more layers are still revealing themselves. The stories have shaped my own understanding from childhood.
Odysseus and his companions live in an everlasting present, always journeying, always in danger or else plucked to safety at the last moment. If they were stereotypical heroes I would be much less interested in them, but they are compromised creatures, like all of us, going through the trials of life as we all must. They give hope, but they also understand the fragility of life and how little we own our destinies.