Jan 30 2024
Poetry review – WHAT TO DO NEXT: D.A. Prince admires Sue Dymoke’s accessible and well-crafted final collection
There’s a sad ambivalence in the way the title of Sue Dymoke’s fourth collection evokes a future. She brought these poems together a couple of months before her death from breast cancer in June 2023, with most of them written after cancer had returned in August 2020. Yet while that knowledge inevitably casts a shadow over any reading of the book there are very few poems referring directly to illness: most share the preoccupations of her previous collections — the variety of experiences encountered in the natural world, the workings of memory, and the richness of friendships and human connections. Her recognition that life will go on after her own demise shines through the generosity of all her work, not only this volume.
The introduction by her husband, David Belbin, outlines her life and work, from her early love of poetry and writing through to her influential work as an academic specialising in poetry in education. It makes the cross-fertilisation clear. Although this review covers only one collection, What To Do Next, it’s worth looking at it in the context of her poetry as a whole. There’s a tonal consistency that ties together her collections and one major area is childhood and how we remember it: it’s as though her academic work on the teaching of poetry opened up the way back to her own vivid picturescape. This collection keeps faith with the register of her earlier work — her precision in language, her warmth and humour, the specifics of growing up, the minutiae of daily living, and a sense of shared experience. When I call it ‘accessible’ I’m praising its immediacy and openness, which mean that for most of these poems I don’t need to google the unknown: the exceptions, where she collaborates on scientific subjects, were still open to me, drawing me in by way of their ingenuity and energy.
The collection begins with “Tapioca”: just that one word brings back school dinners and the rooms Dymoke evokes so clearly.
Huge aluminium tureens clank splashing in and out of sinks. […] Shutters are shutting down canteen serving hatches wince their way to sturdy closure.
She takes me back to that space of noise, clatter, the whole rattling business before arriving at the inedible bowlful. Does tapioca still feature in school dinners? I hope not. ‘Shiny milk frogspawn/ tepid, growing cold’: part of growing up and not a subject you’d choose to revisit, let alone use to open a new collection. Yet, isn’t this ordinariness, this recalled picture, a part of the more complex workings both of time recalled and how childhood changes? Proust doesn’t have a monopoly on access to memory and food: the social aspects of eating bring the senses into play. Likewise in the ‘pretend excavations’ described in “Finds” she captures that childhood yearning for excitement, whether it be the hope of ‘… spearheads/ knapped to fine points’ or ‘dinosaur teeth’. That ‘pretend’, slipped in so lightly, prepares us for the ending (in a single line, isolated), and the dealer’s verdict on a found coin: ‘It was not Roman’.
Hope and disappointment are an essential part of childhood. In “Mischief along Cuckoo Lane” a third year Primary class have heard about muntjacs (‘we thought they were a joke’) so the nature trip becomes a search for this very shy, elusive deer. What they take for granted — picking primrose and red campion, hearing lesser spotted woodpeckers — read now like another, more innocent, age: Dymoke conveys this shift by writing from the child’s viewpoint before describing an adult encounter with a muntjac. For the adult, the sense of wonder has gone, replaced by the mischief the small deer can cause, although the memory of childhood hoped-for thrill remains.
Her poems can show changes in society in simple an effective ways. “Holiday Village” is a list, each of the sixteen lines being the name of a cottage —
Old Granary Old Tannery Old Bakery
All the old trades: gone. In a similar vein “Lost, Strayed or Stolen?” conjures up a vanished society, this time by way of found poems from three mid-nineteenth century Australian newspapers, and each one a tiny short story.
The Mailbag containing letters and newspapers for distribution along the road between Melbourne and Ballan having been lost by the mail-man between Sealtwater Pound and Mr. Solomon’s station about a mile from the latter place.
Archives provide not only social history but also inspiration for a sequence on Nottingham lace workers in 1914. The workers were young girls, aged ten to sixteen, concentrating for long hours over the fine threads —
one inch breadths destined for curtains, table cloths and antimacassars scalloped collars, fine gloves and hat veils the like of which they’ll never wear. (from “Drawing Lace, 1914”)
Birds, plants, the allotment: all these are celebrated with immediacy, often with a personal connection. “Amelanchier” is in memory of a friend (Margaret Middleton) and addresses the tree directly
Once you tried to grow in the wrong place didn’t like the wind tunnel of an alley that sent a chill to your roots.
A couple of bird poems — “Leaving Party” (about swallows) and “Hawk on the Window Ledge” — have slipped in from her previous collection (Moon at the Park and Ride, Shoestring, 2012) but they sit well here, demonstrating again the continuity of attention and register in her work. The second section of “Spring Learning” is filled with garden birds: blue tits queuing for the birdbath, a blackbird ‘…queries/ what might be seeds …’ and robins fledging. That this is a more recent poem is shown by the opening section, with its shared screens, over-scheduled days, mute buttons: the changes demanded by Covid contrast the unnatural human lives in Zoom meetings with the natural world outside. “Out of time” condenses the varied experiences of lockdown in a shrunken world with a lightly surreal touch — ‘By day nineteen fringes were flowing/ over noses, beards caused accidents’.
The group of collaborative poems around scientific themes — the exceptions I mentioned earlier —are exploratory and innovative. “Ginger Zinger”, written with Stephen Paul Wren plays with the chemistry and properties of ginger, while “DNA Tim”, written with Pietro Roversi, replicates visually the twists and spirals of the DNA of cancer across a double page, using coloured text (in regular and italic styles), inverted sections and coils in different colours, the whole becoming a flowing slipstream. It’s a creative and imaginative engagement with the ‘ancient spelling mistake’ that brought the genetic twist into her family.
The final poem, “Instructions for a Friend”, looks forward and outward: Dymoke is not looking into herself but to the future. She might not be able to share physically in that future but there is a spiritual companionship in the final lines —
Seek rest don’t test yourself every second save your best moments for dreaming.
Sue Dymoke’s personal resilience and relish for what makes the ordinary so special, along with the energy inherent in her language, provides a template for what holds a collection together.