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'Hold out your arms': Poet’s final verse in the face of death

Poet and novelist Helen Dunmore and her poetry collection, Inside the Wave

The final poem by bestselling author Helen Dunmore, written just days before she died of cancer, has been published in a collection of her poetry. ‘Hold Out Your Arms’ is an intimate and powerful portrayal of how the novelist came to terms with her own death.

The heart-wrenching verse describes her thoughts and emotions as she faced her final days. She invites death to “hold out your arms for me”, describing the figure of death coming to take her away. In it, death is not something to be feared, but caring and gentle.

The poem, written less than a fortnight before she died on June 5, aged 64, was included in a new reprint of her poetry collection, Inside the Wave.

Days after her death, readers were given a first glimpse of the poem when it was published in the Guardian, alongside her obituary.

The Yorkshire-born poet, novelist and children’s writer, who published over 40 books in her lifetime, was open about her cancer diagnosis. She frequently shared her thoughts on facing the end of life in newspaper columns. Writing in the Guardian in March, she took the time to reflect on her life.

Helen, who won the inaugural Orange Prize for her novel A Spell of Winter, wrote: “A few months ago I was diagnosed with a cancer that has a very poor prognosis. The ground beneath my feet has never been more uncertain, but what is sure is that the ambulance has already called and there is no vagueness about my mortality.

“Most of us die in silence and leave silence behind us. There is no visible mark, no written record and very often no grave to visit… But I want to probe more deeply, because I believe that there is more to it than that.”

With its touching message about accepting death, ‘Hold Out Your Arms’ could become a favourite for those paying tribute to a loved one with a funeral poem.

Tributes poured in for Helen from fellow writers in the days after her death. His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman tweeted that she was a “fine writer and a warm and generous human being”, while Tracy Chevalier, author of The Girl with a Pearl Earring, said, “She was such a graceful, elegant writer and person.”

Shortly before her death she sent the poem to her editor, Neil Astley at publisher Bloodaxe Books. He said: “I wrote back saying I thought it was a truly wonderful poem…and asked if we could add it to the reprint of Inside the Wave, which was about to go to press. Graciously – Helen was truly gracious in all our dealings – she agreed.”

Described by the Guardian as her “most spare and moving” poetry collection, Inside the Wave, featuring the poignant ‘Hold Out Your Arms’, is available now in bookshops.

Read ‘Hold Out Your Arms’ online, or listen to actor Samantha Bond read the poem on Radio Four’s Front Row. Radio Three also broadcast a Helen Dunmore Special in which Helen reads extracts from Inside the Wave.

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